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Taiwanese assembler has robotics dream

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Foxconn's industrial robots are displayed in the Big Data Expo in Guiyang, Guizhou province on May 26.   © Reuters

TAIPEI -- Taiwanese tech manufacturer Foxconn Technology Group earned its fame as the company that assembles Apple iPhones. What is less known is that it is also considered the best robotics company in Taiwan, with ambitions to take on global leaders such as Kuka and ABB.

     Foxconn's robotics efforts began turning heads when its Japanese partner SoftBank unveiled Pepper, a humanoid service robot manufactured by the Taiwanese company, in 2014.

     But Foxconn has been honing its robotics technologies since the early 2000s. The company's "Foxbots" are mechanical arms rather than humanoids. They are part of the company's effort to enhance product quality and cut labor costs on its production lines. There are now several models of Foxbots.

Labor savers

"Automation enables employees to focus on higher-value work and frees them from more mundane tasks, improves product quality and consistency, reduces manufacturing cycle time, and reduces in-process inventory," Foxconn said in a written statement to the Nikkei Asian Review.

     The statement reflects the company's drive to improve working conditions for its 1 million assembly line workers. The company came under severe criticism for subjecting workers to long hours of repetitive, tedious work following a string of suicide at its massive factories in southeastern China in 2010. Foxconn has since taken pains to improve conditions for its employees, raising wages, limiting overtime, and deploying more Foxbots on assembly lines.

     Currently Foxbots handle a wide range of tasks including stamping, polishing, and assembly, although experts say the final stage of iPhone assembly is still too intricate for a robotic arm; that job is still performed by human workers.

     "It is still more effective to rely on human workers for the final assembly of iPhones," said Kylie Huang, an analyst with Daiwa Capital Markets. "Robots are still not capable of certain things human can do, including carrying out quality control and judging whether the appearance of the assembled gadget is aesthetically satisfactory."

Not obsolete yet

Johnny Huang, a robotics analyst at Taiwan's Industrial Technology Research Institute, echoed Kylie Huang's observations and added that robots' cognitive abilities still lag far behind those of human eyes, and hence robots are unlikely to be engaged in complex tasks such as final assembly of iPhones.

   Foxconn also hinted at the limit of robotic capabilities.

     "While there are currently some fully automated production lines, the majority ... employ a mix of automated stations and manual operations for the various steps, and we expect this to continue to be the case in the foreseeable future," the company said. "In the future, system-integrated robots will perform an increasing number of tasks, but these will remain specific to a limited set of tasks." 

     While manufacturers may be eager to take advantage of the savings automation can bring, it may be impractical to blanket factories with fully automated production lines, even if technology allows it, due to employment concerns. "Governments will have concerns. In India's case, Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants international companies to come, not bringing their robots, but rather to create job opportunities for real people," Daiwa's Kylie Huang said.

     One technology that is attracting white-hot interest is artificial intelligence, but Foxconn and experts dismiss the idea of creating robots with functioning AI in the near term. Foxconn said the next stage is for industrial robots to evolve into system-integrated robots.

   "In terms of the manufacturing process, the more significant challenge lies in automating the processes, not the design of robots," Foxconn said. "Once a solution is developed to automate the process, such as precision assembly systems, motion-related robotic devices can then be added to the process and ... integrated into the system. This is not done in reverse order, or by simply placing robots into the process."

   Ilian Bonev, head of the Control and Robotics Laboratory at the Ecole de Technologie Superieure in Montreal, said there are significant challenges for Foxconn to build sophisticated robots, including ferocious competition for engineering talent and its inability to produce core components.

   Bonev added that even expensive robots made by industrial leaders such as Fanuc still have limited functions, and often can operate only in under very specific conditions. "We are really far from intelligent robots that can easily replace Foxconn workers," Bonev said.  

Taking on the leaders

In 2007, Foxconn set up a dedicated unit to develop automation technology and Foxbots in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, which is also home to one of the Taiwanese manufacturer's key campuses in China.

     The company said it is developing robots on its own, including the hardware and software designs, though it buys some key components such as motors and drives from others. Foxconn did not provide a specific number for the robots it makes annually, citing the difficulty of pinning down an exact figure, as its automation systems can be assembled into a variety of robots.

     At the same time, Foxconn is turning out Pepper robots in the northeastern city of Yantai. SoftBank taking orders for 1,000 of the devices every month. A Foxconn official told The Nikkei earlier this year the company is hoping to raise its Pepper production volume by 50% to 15 robots per hour by the end of the year.

     In 2011, Foxconn Chairman Terry Gou boasted he would create an army of 1 million robot workers. During the company's annual shareholders meeting in June this year, Gou said he wants to replace 30% of his line workers with robots.

     Right now the majority of Foxconn's automation equipment is made for internal use, although a small number of Foxbots have been seen doing work for others. Earlier this year, Chinese media reported a Foxbot was spotted cutting noodles at a restaurant in the northern province of Shanxi. Hong Kong-based LZ Technology has also been identified as a Foxbot dealer.

     "Eventually Foxconn will try to turn its own automation equipment into a business to generate new sources of income and compete with market leaders," said ITRI's Johnny Huang.

   Huang, however, noted Foxconn's automation products lag behind those of industry leaders such as Japan's Fanuc and ABB of Switzerland. He said it will be challenging for Foxconn or any other Taiwanese company catch up due to their lack of core technologies and components like speed reducers, a vital part whose manufacture is dominated by Japan's Harmonic Drive Systems.

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