FOUR years ago, Foxconn founder Terry Gou envisaged an army of 1-million robots would now be working the assembly lines at the world’s biggest contract electronics maker.
Today the Taiwanese assembler of iPhones and iPads has about 50,000 automated employees and still has more than 1-million humans in its chain of Chinese factories.
The deficit underscored the challenges Foxconn faced in fine-tuning its robots — a catch-all term that includes robotic arms and other automated equipment — to handle the intricate tasks required to assemble modern gear and gadgets, said Day Chia-Peng, the general manager of the company’s automation technology development committee.
Foxconn, which calls its industrial robots Foxbots, has been striving to accelerate manufacturing automation amid rising labour costs and workplace disputes, and to free humans of the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs. But high development costs and rapid changes in technology have slowed progress.
While the company had automated more manufacturing processes for components and established some lights-out, or workerless, factories, replacing dexterous human hands that packed tiny flexible parts into the tight structure of consumer electronics remained challenging, Mr Day said in a recent interview.
While Mr Gou foresaw his robot army working inside Foxconn’s factories, it appears the manufacturer’s engineers may now be sizing up opportunities outside.
Foxconn recently installed a noodle-making Foxbot at Dazzling Noodles, an open-kitchen Chinese restaurant in Shanxi province in Northern China. Foxbot makes knife-cut noodles, a specialty of the region, where Mr Gou traces his ancestral roots. Not only does Foxbot slice noodles quicker than a human hand, it also cleans itself.
Foxconn has provided three robots to Dazzling Noodles and is working on a fourth. Automation engineers are working to get the robot to handle more cooking tasks, including picking cooked noodles from boiling water.
Neither company would divulge the robot’s cost. Foxconn also would not say if it planned to make more robots for the food industry or expand into the commercial automation market, dominated by giants such as Japan’s Fanuc and US-based ABB Robotics.
Foxconn was ranked in the top four owners of US patents related to robotics used specifically for manufacturing and assembly-line purposes, behind Applied Materials, IBM and Honda Motor, said Manhattan-based patent advisory company Envision IP.
Meanwhile, Foxbot would remain Foxconn’s "secret weapon" in winning contracts from Apple and Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi, said Mr Day.
The company began developing its own-brand industrial robots in 2007, and now produces about 10,000 Foxbots a year. About 1,600 employees in two factories make Foxbots, which are capable of performing more than 10 types of manufacturing tasks.
Foxconn had made some progress in automation as it had moved most of its production sites inland since 2008, Daiwa analyst Kylie Huang said.
"But it is not cost-effective to have a fully automated production line, given the short product cycle of smartphones," said Ms Huang. "Flexibility of workers is still crucial in a fast-changing market."
Outside Foxconn’s major iPhone plant in Zhengzhou, central China, a worker who identified himself as Mr Zhao said he was not worried about losing his job to robots. "Humans are still a lot smarter," he said.