Foxconn's Parent May Be Planning to Make Robots

The parent of Apple supplier Foxconn has broken ground on a new R&D (research and development) facility in Taiwan to produce what could be robots that will be used in the company's manufacturing facilities.

Hon Hai Precision Industry Company held a groundbreaking ceremony this past weekend for its "Intelligent Automation R&D Facility", which will be built in the Taichung Science Park in Taiwan.

In July, Hon Hai's chairman Terry Gou said the company plans to deploy 1 million robots over the next three years at the company's Foxconn factories.

In a statement, Hon Hai would not elaborate on the kind of automation its new R&D facility will produce, but said that it would be used in its factories across the globe. The company said it would also use the facility to tap opportunities to supply equipment in "intelligent automation."

Hon Hai plans to invest NT$6.7 billion (US$224 million) in the project, according to a statement from authorities of the Taichung Science Park.

Hon Hai's Foxconn is one of the world's largest electronics manufacturer, whose clients include Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Sony and Nintendo. A string of suicides last year, involving workers jumping off company buildings, damaged Foxconn's reputation, and prompted Apple to investigate.

In relying more on automation, Foxconn wants to move the company's workers "higher up the value chain, beyond basic manufacturing work," according to an earlier company statement.

Experts have said the automation will not only help Foxconn deal with labor shortages, but also improve working conditions at its factories.

"It's a real answer to solving the problems Foxconn has had hiring, training and maintaining the morale of their workforce," said Frank Tobe, the owner of The Robot Report, a website that tracks the robotics industry.

"Some are skeptical that what they are planning isn't really to build robots, but rather automation machinery," he added. "But two different contacts of mine say the opposite: Foxconn is planning on entering the robot manufacturing business with a variety of flexible, easily trainable and low-cost assembly line robots."

Amy Teng, an analyst at research firm Gartner, said a key advantage of using robots is that they will be able to handle more dangerous work, such as chemical treating used in the manufacturing of electronics. But it is unclear how effective robots will be in building handheld electronics like smartphones.

"Robot arms are usually used on cars, big machinery. Very few are used on smartphones," she said. In the case of Apple's iPhone, due to its small compact size, hands are needed to properly connect all the wiring inside. "I don't think a robot arm can handle that. It's so sophisticated, that it is something I don't think robot arms can help with."

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