Foxconn’s Terry Gou: “The Robots Are Coming”
By now most people who know anything about the world of consumer electronics know that most of the gadgets they love — their iPads, iPhones, Android tablets and so on — are made in China in huge factories, many of them owned by a Taiwanese company called Foxconn.
Foxconn has in recent years seen its share of negative press. There was an explosion that killed three people at one of its plants in June. Prior to that there was a disturbing string of suicides that so shocked the sensibilities of Western consumers that it prompted demands for better working conditions and two lengthy cover stories in Wired and Bloomberg Businessweek. The concern was significant, in no small part because of the shadow the matter cast over Foxconn’s most prominent customer, Apple, which has done its best to force Foxconn to make the lives of its workers better.
Manufacturing electronics by the millions isn’t exactly mentally stimulating. The Wired story used the phrase “repetitive, exhausting, and alienating,” and it’s not hard to imagine going stir-crazy after doing it for any length of time. That’s why it’s interesting to see the news out of China today that Foxconn is going to boost the number of robots doing those repetitive tasks on its assembly line.
The story from Xinhua News, China’s state-controlled news agency, is headlined “Foxconn to replace workers with 1 million robots in 3 years,” and relates that the announcement came from Foxconn CEO Terry Gou himself at a company dance party.
Eerily absent is any comment on the reaction of those employees in attendance. Did they cheer at the thought of being freed up by robots from the least-popular jobs on the line? Or did they begin to worry anew, grasping the economic realities that additional factory automation bring with it?
Robots are efficient, they don’t get tired, and aside from routine maintenance, they don’t take breaks. They also don’t complain about soul-killing work conditions. All of this makes them appealing to Foxconn management and its growing list of clients.
But as anyone who knows even the barest details of the history of factory automation in the U.S. auto industry is aware, robots have a funny way of causing job losses. While Foxconn already uses some 10,000 robots now, the story says, the number is going to multiply by a factor of 100, to one million robots within three years. If those numbers turn out to be accurate, there is simply no mathematical way that some portion of the 1.2 million people currently in Foxconn’s employ can avoid losing their jobs. And that can’t help but cause other unexpected ripple effects throughout the Chinese economy.
(The image is a screen grab from the trailer for the 2004 Will Smith film “I, Robot,” which I obviously selected with tongue in cheek. Real robots used in the assembly of electronics look more like the one assembling cellphone speakers in the video below, from a Florida-based company called AccuPlace.)