Foxconn, the Chinese manufacturing company that most people only heard about after several of their workers started committing suicide due to revolting working conditions, told the Xinhua News Agency that over the next 3 years they plan to increase the amount of robots in use in their factories from 10,000 to 1 million. This is important because Foxconn makes most of the Apple products people buy, from the iPhone, to the iPad, and even the iPod touch. They also make products for Nintendo, Nokia, and numerous other firms. Foxconn can produce goods at such an impressive scale because they’ve got over 1.2 million people working for them. To put that into perspective, that’s more people than the current population of Rhode Island. The robots will be used “to do simple and routine work such as spraying, welding, and assembling,” and that has us a bit concerned, for multiple reasons.
First, can robots reliably replace humans for tasks which require user judgment? How can a machine tell if a weld is solid, or if there are no noticeable creaks in a finished product? Second, what about the people who are leaving rural China en masse to find work at factories? Less of them will be needed so will this cause the growth of the Chinese middle class to stall or even reverse? Third, robots aren’t exactly cheap. Will these new automated tools cause an increase in pricing for the consumer electronics that people, not just in America, but all over the world, purchase on a regular basis?
With time we’ll find the answers to all of these questions, and even see things we couldn’t predict, but one thing is certain: Apple currently has problems feeding demand. They need Foxconn to do this if they want to become larger than they currently are. Once that iPhone product family grows, and a new model for the prepaid market is released, how are they supposed to keep up?