Companies have finally developed robots dexterous enough to assemble consumer electronics products, such as smartphones, according to The Wall Street Journal. Although robots have been used for years in industrial manufacturing, until recently they weren't flexible enough for intricate products or easy enough to reprogram. In the quick product life cycles of small consumer electronics devices, both qualities are key.
But that's starting to change, and electronics manufacturers are beginning to embrace a new generation of robots. Last fall, Hitachi started using robots to make hard disk drives, according to the WSJ article. The robot replaces a human who used to screw a cover over the drive's fan, saving a minute per disk in production time.
Another article in The New York Times last week describes how robots in a Philips factory in the Netherlands are assembling high-end electric shavers that are even more complex than smartphones.
“With these machines, we can make any consumer device in the world,” a Philips assembly line manager told The Times.
These news accounts imply that the current model of assembling electronics products, using many low-cost workers to assemble them by hand, is on the way out. Foxconn has said it plans to install more than a million robots within the next few years. I'd be surprised if other major contract manufacturers don't have similar plans. The Times article notes that Flextronics is increasingly automating assembly work and quotes Mike Dennison, president of Flextronics' high velocity solutions group: “At what point does the chain saw replace Paul Bunyan? There's always a price point, and we're very close to that point.”
These new robots could also have a significant impact on distribution. Although electronics distributors have automated much of the warehouse work, last time I looked they still had people driving pallets of goods around. Amazon is leading the way to reducing the number of such people, having bought robot-maker Kiva Systems last spring for $775 million. Large grocery chains are deploying robots in distribution.
The Times article describes the warehouse of one wholesale grocery distributor that's making the transition. The old system covers 500,000 square feet. Shelves are loaded and unloaded by hundreds of pallet jacks and forklifts driven by people receiving directions through headsets. The new system covers only 30,000 square feet. A four-story cage holds 168 go-cart-like robots on different levels. The robots, wirelessly controlled, can move at 25 miles an hour.
Electronics distributors are surely investigating, perhaps already using, these robots. It's worth noting that Stephen Kaufman, former chairman of Arrow Electronics Inc., has served on Kiva's board of directors. And some recent news reports have said that Amazon's acquisition of Kiva could mean that Amazon is getting into the warehouse logistics business. Other cutting-edge robotics companies worth watching: Adept Technology, Symbotic, Industrial Perception Inc., Kawada Industries Inc., Fanuc Corp., ABB Ltd., Heartland Robotics, and Redwood Robotics.
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