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When Apple Comes Home, Thank a Robot
When Apple comes home
Dexterous robots that can assemble high-tech electronics finally begin to come of age
By Tom Green

When Apple comes home—and it will happen sooner than anyone, even Apple, would ever imagine—we’ll need to thank the triumvirate of rising wages overseas, automation and robots, especially robots.

Rising wages and automation alone might make Apple move to India or Africa, but not re-shore itself stateside. The robot, however, holds the automation key.

It takes five days and 325 steps to assemble an IPad

The 325 steps and five assembly days needed to bring an iPad to life are in the hands of 300,000 Chinese workers at Foxconn’s Longhua factory. It’s those 300,000 pairs of assembly hands that robots will replace.

Jamie Wang, a Taipei-based analyst for the research firm Gartner, sees lots of human hands going over to robots. A robot can be operated non-stop 160 hours a week, which would easily replace two to four workers. Such highly structured and predictable tasks are well suited to automation, he says.

However, Wang stresses that such automation requires lots of infrastructure work just to get ready to install the robots. For Foxconn, it’ll be awhile, even if Terry Guo, chairman of Taiwan’s Hon Hai, still believes that his firm’s Foxconn division will soon have a million robots ready to take over. In fact, Gou may be waiting for a very long time for reasons that have nothing to do with technology.

Maintaining a harmonious society

David Wolf, a Beijing-based strategic communications and IT analyst, thinks he knows what may hold up robot adoption in many Chinese factories: worker harmony. “With the Chinese economy slowing down, he says, “it is politically inadvisable to talk too much about replacing people with robots.”

Creating jobs is many times more important for China than a great leap forward in efficiency. Wang Mengshu, deputy chief engineer at China Railway Tunnel Group, says that labor-saving equipment isn’t always used even when it’s available. “If all the new tunnels were built with the advanced equipment, that would trim the need for the employment of about six million migrant workers,” he says. “In certain fields we don’t want to have fast development in China, in order to solve the national employment problem.”

Harmony is the key. Mao Zedong promised his people freedom from foreign subjugation, the end of famine, universal education and jobs. He delivered on all of them, which the reigning Politburo won’t destabilize. No one wants Mengshu’s six million migrant workers howling about their pink slips.

The coming age of dexterous robots

ABB Frida robot

With the U.S. as efficient as China, but doing it with 10% of China’s workforce, a window of opportunity is open for the U.S. to automate with robots, re-shore manufacturing and still make heady profits.

When Apple comes home it’ll be greeted by dexterous robots capable of assembling electronics. ABB’s Frida (see photo) and others of her ilk are great recent advances but are still bumblers when it comes to assembling small- and micro-scale electronic devices. However, the way forward—one that’s very nearby—shimmers in Frida’s reflection.

Vivek Wadhwa, writing in a recent article in Forbes, sees it all near at hand and ready to spring. “Even if the Chinese automate their factories with AI-powered robots and manufacture 3D printers, it will no longer make sense to ship raw materials all the way to China to have them assembled into finished products and shipped back to the U.S. Manufacturing will once again become a local industry with products being manufactured near raw materials or markets.” All thanks to legions of dexterous robots.

A treasure trove for the parts industry

There’s a gold mine there for millions of U.S jobs as well. During the five days and 325 steps that go into assembling an iPad, hundreds of parts are pushed into each iPad skeleton. For example, Samsung will sell Apple $12B in iPad parts in 2012. In addition, the workers wearing surgical masks at Foxconn also install parts from NAND, Toshiba, Elpida, Avago Technologies, Triquint Semiconductor, Fairchild, Qualcomm, Broadcom, ARM Holding, and LG Electronics. Some or all of these suppliers might also pack up their robots and move a bit closer to Apple’s U.S. manufacturing facilities.

Robots seem to be doing what the combined brainpower and political clout of the entire U.S Congress and two Presidents couldn’t do for America, namely, create jobs and initiate the greatest repatriation of manufacturing back to the U.S. in the country’s history.

Of course, many will not take such a re-shoring to America without their own plan to profit from such an exodus. The Financial Times sent their Sarah Mishkin to speak with engineers in Taipei who are trying to develop a new breed of robot that can handle the intricate operations of manufacturing high tech-products. Her video report:

See related article: Robots, Re-shoring and America’s Manufacturing Renaissance. Robots help raise curtain on new U.S. industrial landscape


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