Electronics assembly has been heavily automated for decades, but the focus has been on component assembly. Dedicated chip shooters and other surface mounted component machines build circuit boards at very high speed and do work that frankly is to accurate for humans. Likewise hard drives are machine assembled.
In contrast, almost all final assembly, from smartphones to servers, is done by hand. This is one reason China has been able to take over most of the assembly work for electronics in the world. Having literally millions of people placing components in metal or plastic cans forces the vendors to a cheap source of labor.
Now, on the one hand, China is getting expensive, while, on the other, robotic final assembly is beginning to look like an economic proposition. The result will be a profound shift in the demographics of assembly and a shrinking of the length of the supply chain. It’s estimated that the global robotics industry will reach $70 Billion annually within five years, and if so the robot’s reach into industry generally will be huge.
Robots in assembly aren’t a new thing. I remember touring the IBM assembly facility for their 4” floppy drive back in the 1980’s. This dedicated function production line cost a great deal of money, but with the then-current low level of production it was actually cheaper to assemble the units by hand.
In many ways that (cancelled) project highlights the robotic dilemma. A dedicated line required a huge investment to build, huge volume to justify running it, and the lack of a human alternative to undercut the cost.
The solution to roboticising comes from two directions. The assemblies are frequently essentially identical, irrespective of model or vendor. An iPhone looks much like a Samsung Galaxy, for example. The result is that with a little added flexibility, a robot can handle all of the expected product types that a particular assembly shop is likely to see.
That flexibility comes in the form of cheap, multi-axis robots … a swinging arm mounted on a steel base, rather than all of the homomorphic robots beloved of Japanese makers. These are small robots capable of generalized operations with the lightweight parts in electronics and customizing them to specific assembly line operations often involves just adding a custom gripper or soldering iron.
Robots are getting cheaper and easier to program. This is driven by the rising tide of robot usage, which drives prices down the volume curve, and the standardization of the tasks expected. Developing the code to place a gorilla-glass plate or main circuit board in a phone shell is much easier than in the past, with canned routines, tweaking of positioning by example and most importantly software bridges to computer aided design (CAD) systems all contributing to simplification.
The result is that replacing many of those Chinese workers with robots capable of accurate, high quality work 24/7 is likely in the next half-decade. Whether these robots are in China or the U.S. will likely depend on political tensions and simple economics. The assembly of units in the U.S. will reduce the supply chain from some 16 to 20 weeks down to as little as a couple of weeks, removing risk and shipping costs.
One thing though is that the robot is the winner. These new assembly facilities won’t employ many workers, while those they do employ will be mainly white-collar technicians. Look for locations like Austin Texas, Colorado, Boston or California and the West, with a ready-made high-tech labor pool, rather than West Virginia or Chicago.
The US has to offer some incentives to bring those robot workers to the US, though. Asia alone added 160,600 robots in 2015 and is rapidly expanding its growth, while only 24,000 were ordered from U.S. companies in 2016.
It is now clear that inexpensive robotics is the near future of electronic assembly. Rather than an iconoclastic view that robots will cost jobs, the US is faced with matching the challenge from Asia and the risk of losing even more jobs, revenue and profit if it doesn’t move shortly to accommodate the new trend.