The news that Foxconn, the world’s biggest contract electronics maker, is developing industrial robots to target 30% automation in its Chinese factories by 2020, has shaken the manufacturing industry. As machines and robotics become more sophisticated and specialised than ever, we can’t help but ask: will manufacturing soon be taken over entirely by robots?
But before we meet the Foxbots…
Now, let’s meet the Foxbots!
The Taiwanese company, best known for constructing Apple devices, makes no secret of the fact that it is using the “Foxbots” to slim its workforce — currently sitting at around one million workers — as well as to build new sales channels. The company already has 50,000 fully operational robots in its Chinese factories and plans to add at least another 10,000 robots each year. And that doesn’t include the hundreds of thousands of other automated machines.
Each of these machines is rumoured to cost between US$20,000 and US$25,000, with the capacity to pump out 30,000 units a year. Multiply that by 10,000 and it’s easy to understand why Foxconn is looking to automate more than a third of its assembly line.
Does this mean we could soon be holding an iPhone solely made by robots?
Foxconn’s robots can perform more than 20 tasks, such as printing, pressing, polishing, packaging and testing. The company plans to use them to take over human jobs deemed “dirty, dangerous and dull”. But that doesn’t mean that 100% automation is imminent. In fact, the human touch is still needed in many aspects of production.
However, it is difficult to predict how much longer that will be the case. Robots are getting more intelligent by the year. And there’s no denying that more and more of the manufacturing process will be taken over by machines.
This is not necessarily bad news.
Advocates argue that robotic labour is proven to reduce costs, increase efficiency, and prevent humans from being exposed to unsafe working conditions. Foxconn says automation has freed up its employees for more value-added roles, such as process control and R&D. And there’s still some way to go before humans need to worry about being replaced altogether: according to ETF Securities, the global average number of robots per employee in the workplace is just 66 for every 10,000 employees, and only 30 in China.
In his new book, Rise of the Robots, entrepreneur Martin Ford may have a point when he argues that artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics will overhaul our economy. History seems to suggest the same: artisanal skills were replaced by factory work when industrial-scale manufacturing came along in the 19th century. In turn, many assembly-line jobs were taken over by machines by the 1980s. But the result hasn’t been the downfall of the economy; instead we have adapted by developing new skill sets and achieving more with our time.
And we’re not just talking about manufacturing.
Automation is not just impacting manufacturing; business process outsourcing (or BPO) services are vulnerable too. Companies such as Mattel, Apple and Facebook are well along the road of exploring AI and working out how to transform today’s inferior chatbots into leading-edge, messenger-based interfaces. Experts are predicting this is the kind of digital disruption with the potential to upturn industries. After all, a chatbot messaging service could replace the most common interfaces we currently use on connected devices, completely revolutionising the way consumers connect with companies online and offline in customer service departments. Will it be long before they replace human workers in contact centres?
Robots are also being developed to answer the pressing challenges of business today, including how to tackle big data. In South Australia for example, Complexica has developed Larry, a robot with an algorithm-based persona, that can help businesses make data-driven decisions in real time. While an executive might take a month to work through sales data, Larry can perform the task in just one minute. By considering about 10 million combinations of different prices, products, frequency, Larry can reportedly predict how much more of each combination the company will sell and convert this into weekly averages per state and per store.
It’s no surprise then, that 20 companies have already signed up to take advantage of the new technology, including PFD Food Services and Liquor Marketing Group.
The rise of Industry 5.0: humans and robots working together.
The bottom line is that as robots become more intelligent, businesses in all industries need to review their models to respond and adapt. Those who fail to do this, or are simply too slow, will be left behind. But it’s not only about investing in technology; this is also an opportunity to invest in reskilling employees.
Research shows 85% of manufacturers predict the “connected workforce” — that is robots and humans working together — as being commonplace by 2020. This phenomenon of collaboration, known as “Industry 5.0”, is about bringing back the human touch. (As a first step, you may like to read more about Industry 4.0, which is no longer a “trend”, but “here” and what it means for Australian manufacturers.)
Just because something can be automated doesn’t mean it will be. Some products are valued precisely because they are not made by machines. While robots are exceptional when it comes to manufacturing standard products using standardised processes in a high volumes, they can’t add the “special something” to products that today’s consumers are looking for. They need guidance that only humans can provide.
The challenge for today’s manufacturers is to pinpoint exactly where automation will add the most value to their manufacturing line. For example, the automation of inspection is proven to be more effective and efficient than humans, while human operators work side-by-side and in conjunction with robots to ensure the best quality product leaves the factory doors.
One thing is for sure: it’s time for all businesses to review the status quo, then work out the best route into the future.
Matthews has written several articles on robots, including how next-generation robots are transforming manufacturing. You’ll find good with some good background information on big manufacturing changes experts predict for 2016, disruptive innovations ready to rock your supply chain, the innovations from 80-year-old family business Walls Machinery regarding robotics, and the innovations discussed at GS1’s 2015 Supply Chain Week.
Innovation, including with robotics, is clearly important to business success; you may find further interesting information in the “Innovation & Best Practice” section on our blog, along with thought-provoking material in the resource library, whitepapers, articles from thought leaders, presentations, and infographics. All material from the resource library is free to download.
Image credit / PrettyVectors