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Robotic Revolution

In one of my last articles, I mentioned the robot workforce planned for deployment by {complink 2125|Foxconn Electronics Inc.} over the next three years. In an article on CNET that I read recently, I saw how much these worker robots will cost the company. CNET pulled its information from a report on Singularityhub.com.

Here's an excerpt from the Singularity report:

    A first batch of 10,000 robots – aptly named Foxbots – appear to have made its way into at least one factory, and by the end of 2012, another 20,000 more will be installed… Each robot costs between $20,000 and $25,000, which is over three times the average salary of one worker. However, amid international pressure, Foxconn continues to increase worker salaries with a 25 percent bump, occurring earlier this year.

    It's worth noting that you can see automation is already part of the manufacturing process at Foxconn, but the new Foxbots are aimed to not merely complement factory workers, but replace them.

With the cost stated to be about three times the annual salary of a worker, this translates into a payback or break-even point where the robots pay for themselves after three years. According to a video posted on the Singularity website, Foxconn starts off a worker at $14/day, and after two years that number doubles to $28. I also noted on the video that about 250,000 workers arrived at the factory at 7:00 a.m. for a briefing of the day's expectations as delineated by the line supervisors. I could not help but notice that, while the briefing was underway, the workers were standing in arrays in what the military calls the “parade rest” position. There was a certain amount of robotic regimentation already in place as demonstrated by the uniform behavior of the human workers.

If the cost of the robots drops to near zero after three years, then the perceived value of the human workforce will deteriorate commensurate with their potential robotic replacement cost. So, the workers will continue to lose any kind of leverage when it comes to fair labor practices.

As this relates to supply chain economics, it means that the lower cost of labor should increase the company's profit margin and allow the contract manufacturer to reduce its end-product prices such that the company becomes more competitive in the marketplace. Eventually, the factory with the lowest labor rates for similar products will win or dominate the market segment to which the product is targeted. In my mind, that fact alone will drive further deployments of robots, resulting in an increase of the robot population throughout the world.

Now, the target cost reduction emphasis will be the cost of maintenance and upkeep of the robotic equipment. Here is how I see this going with the state-of-the-art factory of tomorrow: Designers will be focusing on software and mechanical features that allow for diagnostics that will be inclusive of the operating and lifecycle status of all mechanical and electrical interfaces with regard to wear-out and replacement demands.

Digital Hall Effect proximity sensors, pressure and flow detection, accelerometers, and temperature gauges will be built in to monitor mechanical wear-out, critical adjustment settings, physical gap spacing, real-time fluid pressure and viscosity status, and where a robot's moving parts are at any given moment in 3D space. There will also be other digital sensors and transducers integrated into the designs in order to capture the operating condition of any particular robot function.

Now, tie all of this diagnostic digital feedback into a central supercomputer programmed to flag maintenance alerts and launch either pre-scheduled preventive maintenance operations or emergency replacement operations, and the factory can realize close to a 100 percent uptime statistic. The reliability can be further increased by designing in redundant subsystems like power supplies with hitless switch-over connectivity. The MHSB backup system would kick in seamlessly in the event of a critical system-level failure that could potentially shut down either a single robot's operation or an entire production line.

Continuing with the design considerations of making all replaceable parts out of materials that can be printed on the newest and upcoming 3D printers and the spare parts management is greatly simplified by having an on-demand 3D printing operation also under the control of the alerting supercomputer. If a part is close to its wear-out point, the printer is flagged by the central computer to create the replacement part so it will be ready to deploy for replacing the aging part before failure. Every part in the online robot would already have a mechanical computer-aided design (CAD) file from its original design. Those CAD files could be kept in a server that was accessible to the 3D printer for rapid replacement part production.

I could go on converging technologies to build the factories 20 years from now, but the technology exists today to create the scenario I have discussed above. Of course, not all replacement parts or components could be printed now, but in the very near future, design considerations will include 3D printing capabilities. When that happens, human beings will be in place just to make sure the factory has human overseers that will make sure the top-level machines are doing their jobs — if you catch the double meaning.

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34 comments on “Robotic Revolution

  1. Barbara Jorgensen
    December 12, 2012

    I keep hearing this old song in my head…”In the year 2525, if man is still alive, if woman can survive, we may find…everything that you think, say or do, some machine is doing for you…”

    We are already too close to that. As a home office worker, I used to make a point of going out to a bookstore for a novel; the local store closed and now that 5-minute trip is 30 minutes. So I'm getting an e-reader. I also made a point of Christmas shopping at retail stores, and the selection is awful. Amazon.com used to be my default option but is quickly becoming my first choice.

     I don't have to run up or down stairs to answer the phone any more or get up to change channels. (You can't manually change channels if you want to!) So what do we do for exercise? A machine (treadmill, stairmaster…) You can even program a treadmill to move without you on it. Is it just me, or are things getting a little creepy?

  2. Adeniji Kayode
    December 12, 2012

    It seems to look like many foxconn employees will soon be out of job by the end of the year.

  3. Clairvoyant
    December 13, 2012

    I actually didn't hear about the “FoxBots” until I read this article. This is some amazing technology! However, it is very concerning how many people will loose jobs because of this. Does anyone know who the manufacturer of these robots is? Or is Foxconn building them for themselves?

  4. Adeniji Kayode
    December 13, 2012

    This might be a ggod move for Forconn but then it may not have to worry about issues that surround human workers such as strict polies, extremely long hours and unfair pay yet, if this is not properly handled will lead to so many people joblessness.

    But then the robots would still need human to oil them when they malfunction.

  5. ahdand
    December 14, 2012

    Robotic activities are becoming very common these days with the technology moving fast. I think humans will have less work in the future since programatic memory will work fast and adapt faster than the human memory.

  6. FLYINGSCOT
    December 14, 2012

    I am all for increased automation as it means humans will move further up the knowledge chain as we are still needed to design and maintain the robots.  Since overall productivity should still go up it will make for an easier life for all us humans 😉

  7. SP
    December 14, 2012

    With Foxconn always in the news associated with employee suicide cases, I guess its wise for them to deploy few robots who will not complain about living conditions. The robots just have to be charged and programmed. May be the they will also need supervisory robotos. Wonder how much ewaste would be generated by Foxconn alone.

  8. prabhakar_deosthali
    December 14, 2012

    About 25 years back I had a chance to visit a car manufacturing plant near Paris. On the assembly line of that plant there were about 35 robots operating on the whole of the assembly line of that car plant which rolled out a new car every 2 minutes. I could see the human workers only towards the end of the assembly line doing the final electrical fittings and doing the test rides of the finished vehicles.

    So there is no wonder if such scenario now appears on electronic manufacturing lines and if the economics works out well then why not.

    But  I am just wondering  that the basic incentives for moving such assembly lines to countries like China was that their manual labor was very cheap and the workers were very fast at doing the repeated assembly jobs.

    A robotic factory could as well in any other country as the robot will cost the same.

    So may be the western world has a chance here to bring back all that manufacturing on shore again

    But not necessarily the jobs!

     

     

  9. Adeniji Kayode
    December 14, 2012

    The introduction of robots might lead to joblessness but things would normalise with time.

    This might cause people to start taking courses in robot maintenance and programming.

    This also means that some career discipline will no longer be neccessary or available in universities.

  10. Adeniji Kayode
    December 14, 2012

    FLYINGSCOT.

    I agree with you on that but do you foresee us having robocops one day?

  11. Adeniji Kayode
    December 14, 2012

    SP

    well, humans will have to do the supervision which means that humans will still be needed but in small numbers and probably with a more special discipline.

  12. Adeniji Kayode
    December 14, 2012

    You mean to say that Man and machine will have to coexist to solve our daily problem

  13. Mr. Roques
    December 14, 2012

    I would like to see those FoxBots (reminded me of Austin Power's femme bots) working. 

    Is FOXCOM on 24 hr shifts? If robots work 24/7/365, the breakeven point is even closer. 

    Can those FoxBots do any job?

  14. SP
    December 14, 2012

    Mr. Roques, Good point. Robots will do the work as they are programmed. Their would be a microcontroller chip inside each robot preprogrammed to do the functions. Ofcourse they wont get tired and many not need to take a break for natural reasons. And if they get into a situation that is not in their program, depending on what is written in the program they will behave. May be raise an alarm.

  15. Adeniji Kayode
    December 14, 2012

    SP,

    They won't get tired but definately need servicing and maintenance.

  16. dalexander
    December 14, 2012

    @Prabhakar…True…not necessarily jobs. This seems like another way for the rich to get richer while the goods are purchased by the masses that will be able to take advantage of automation based pricing. Seems like a good move to identify the mass robot makers and invest so you can be one of those rich guys.

  17. DWeil
    December 15, 2012

    According to http://www.everything-robotic.com/2012/10/foxbots-being-deployed-in-china.html they are employing 1.2 million workers at Foxconn, and they want to install 1 million robots until 2014.

    If the Foxconn management were out to replace their workforce with robots, going by those numbers they would be very, very inefficient at it.

    They would have to be even more inefficient, if they retrained a big part of those 1.2 million workers to do the service and maintenance for 1 million robots.

    The same goes for building robots that need a significant amount of service and maintenance in the first place.

    Apparently they wanted to have 300,000 robots installed by the end of 2012 and are hard pushed to achieve 10 % of that. So maybe they are indeed inefficient? Or are all those figures only attempts at building political pressure to achieve other ends?

  18. dalexander
    December 15, 2012

    @DWell…if one company does achieve a number like 1 million as they are targeted to do so, then they become either the golden boy of robotic innovation or the laughing stock if they lose efficiencies. As you say, this is a political move as well as a industrial effort. All eyes will be on the resultant numbers. If this works to a significant degree, then the manufacturing world will stand up and take notice. We might see big box stores dedicated to robotic products with fancy smancy show rooms. With working assembly lines producing real products. When I was a kid, we were taken on a field trip to Delta car battery factory where at the end of the tour, we each got a battery cap that we watched a plastic injection machine make right before our very eyes. What a thrill that was! Obviously it left a mark on my impressionable little mind.

  19. Nemos
    December 15, 2012

    Today we can talk about it , it is very clear now that the Robo era is coming, I am convinced that in the next 20 years (maybe sooner) will not exist human worker, and the states must plan an easy transition (training) from the industrial era to the Robo era to be as smoothly as it can be otherwise will have huge lines with unemployment people. That applies to all countries as our world is interconnected.   

     

  20. Taimoor Zubar
    December 15, 2012

    “Each robot costs between $20,000 and $25,000, which is over three times the average salary of one worker.”

    @Doughlas: Interesting post. I think the cost for the robot is a one time investment and the annual maintenance cost should not be so high. So the amount spent on a robot may be initially large but in the long run they'll become cheaper than human beings. Also, since the productivity of robots is high, the cost per unit of output may be lesser.

  21. Taimoor Zubar
    December 15, 2012

    ” I am convinced that in the next 20 years (maybe sooner) will not exist human worker”

    @Nemos: I'm not sure if I'd agree with this. There are several industrial jobs where the robots can be substituted but the cost of using robots is really high so it's not worth replacing humans with them. Human workers will continue to perform these.

  22. dalexander
    December 15, 2012

    @all…I highly recommend the video “Plug and Pray.” It shows the latest research with robots, vision systems, and AI. When you hear the powers behind the demand, you can get an idea where they want this technology to go. It can be pretty freaky at the extremes. Watch the video and draw your own conclusions.

  23. Nemos
    December 16, 2012

    but the cost of using robots is really high so it's not worth replacing humans with them. Human workers will continue to perform these”

    Yes you are correct, but you are speaking about the future with today's terms, today the cost is high, Just remember my note …..

     

  24. SP
    December 16, 2012

    but Robots will not complain if they are made to work long hours. They are preprogrammed and can do the same work with same quality and precision for any number of times. I guess in manufacturing robots are best fits.

  25. Nemos
    December 16, 2012

    Exactly, that why robo  workers will make their presence increasingly often in the factories , that's why the governments must have a clear plan about the employment matter we will face in the future. 

     

  26. SP
    December 16, 2012

    In countries with huge population, the robots will never find their place so easily as the cost of getting and replacing humans would be much easier. But in Western countries where population is less and minimum wages are high, its difficult to get human labor, robots will have a upper hand in employment and governments do have to have a clear employment plan.

  27. FLYINGSCOT
    December 16, 2012

    Remember robots can only do a small portion of the tasks that humans can do and are very expensive to purchase and maintain.  Therefore I believe humans will be employed for some time to come.

  28. Ariella
    December 17, 2012

    @flyingscot Yes, for many businesses, it is not worth the investment in robot technology, but you may be surprised at the inroads robots have made. One of the ways in which they are used is quality assurance of human comfor. Ford, for example, uses a robotic arm called RUTH to help engineers get precise feedback about car interior design.  

  29. Adeniji Kayode
    December 18, 2012

    Robots will cut through most of the production lines but not all the professions

  30. Taimoor Zubar
    December 18, 2012

    @Doughlas: I saw the trailer for this movie and it seems like a good movie to watch.

    You have hinted on an important topic – robot movies. Some of the most famous movies of all times have been based on robots but normally the movies have been far from reality and have focused on the cool aspect of robots. Movies like Real Steel and Wall-E are fun to watch but they present a view of robots to people far away from being true.

  31. Taimoor Zubar
    December 18, 2012

    @Nemos: That's correct. But the cost has to go down significantly before robots become viable and affordable to replace human beings.

  32. Nemos
    December 18, 2012

    before robots become viable and affordable to replace human beings.”

    Foxconn is doing it at the moment we are speaking , 10.000 robots will replace 10.000 workers ….. 

     

  33. Mr. Roques
    January 10, 2013

    I guess everything can be programmed into a microcrontroller, somethings are simply harder to do.

    Are there still some jobs that computers can't do? (when thinking of a supply chain)

  34. ahdand
    January 26, 2013

    Yes Adeniji it will create some paths too but not all cab be experts on those fields whre most of the jobs will be covered by robots. So dont you think its a bit risky the job market will be in the future ?

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