Automation may well be coming to an assembly line near you.
I have to admit my experiences with robots have led me to be wary of using them. The first one lost a limit switch and tossed a 600-pound casting 100 feet. I remember a visit to an IBM facility where the assembly line for its four-inch floppy drive had cost $480 million, and a single human was building the few it needed. Then there was the multi-axis robot that tested circuit boards, until the group vice president pointed out that the manual station next to it was testing twice as many boards.
In other words, for most of my career, robots looked expensive, difficult to program, marginally cost effective in operations, and unsafe for humans to be near. That's why the world isn't full of robots that work while we enjoy the fruits of their labor.
So I was more than a little surprised when Foxconn announced plans to replace its million or so workers with robots. With Chinese labor being so cheap, it didn't make too much sense, so I dug deeper and found that the face of robotics is changing rapidly.
First, the capital cost of a robot is dropping from Rolls-Royce levels into the realm of an inexpensive family sedan. Just $22,000 will get you a Baxter, a robust, flexible robot with a somewhat anthropomorphic look. Its maker, Rethink Robotics, calls Baxter the first robot “with zero integration required.”
Traditionally, a major cost of installing a robot was the programming of its operations. Baxter has changed the paradigm to a combination of GUI interface and learning by example. In fact, it's possible to move the robot's arms to show it what to do. The safety aspect has been addressed. This type of robot senses humans nearby and slows operations to allow reaction time. It has vision systems to locate and grasp things, so it doesn't require the precise item traying we've seen in the past.
More customized robots are solving repetitive or quality-sensitive tasks. Paint spraying is a common use of robots in the auto industry, and now Boeing is using the idea for planes. It is using robots to drill mounting holes, reducing defects by a huge factor.
These are valuable returns on investment, but robots haven't been incorporated in the line with humans, because of safety issues. Now that is changing. BMW has taken the plunge and is incorporating gear from Universal Robots in the assembly line together with humans.
It's interesting that BMW feels that this is more a workplace and job quality issue than a cost savings issue. The work these robots do is heavy labor, and they make light work of it. BMW is testing robots more like Baxter that can act as assistants to the workers by passing tools and parts. This says the automaker's confidence in cracking the safety issue is very high.
Universal has also addressed the programming issue. It has a state-of-the-moment tablet interface that works with the same sort of learning by example as Baxter.
The Foxconn effort should put a million robots to work on making all those phones and tablets. Foxconn sees this as a way to reduce costs as China's workforce becomes more expensive. There's a lesson here: Robots tend to have the same capital cost worldwide. The logistics chain, mix balancing, and quality issues tend to push for assembly nearer the customer (as in the auto industry), so it's conceivable that robots will trigger an onshoring process for electronics assembly, both in the US and Europe.
The price and safety improvements are giving a major new impetus to robot use. It will impact a lot more than electronica and autos.