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Hon Hai's success with Pepper humanoid a matter of molding

Rows of Pepper robots are ready for shipment after a quality inspection.

YANTAI, China -- Hon Hai Precision Industry, the world's largest contract electronics manufacturer  makes Pepper, SoftBank Group's humanoid robot, at its Yantai plant in China's Shandong Province. With Pepper, Hon Hai, also known as Foxconn, has become the first company in the world to mass-produce a humanoid robot.

    Three factors have made Pepper manufacturing a reality: Hon Hai's molding technology, its workers' desire to improve and the close cooperation the Taiwanese company has received from the local government.

Some assembly required

"What gave us the greatest trouble mass-producing Pepper was its white body," said Lin Feng-han, vice manager of Hon Hai's Consumer & Computer Products Business Group. "This is the distillation of the technology Hon Hai has accumulated since it was founded."

     The body of the robot is a composite of three materials: ABS resin, which is used in home appliances and is prized for its flexibility; polycarbonate resin, which is used in the shell of smartphones and is hard; and fiberglass. Hon Hai developed the composite to create a material that offers both hardness and flexibility, and does not shatter. But molding the composite into components is no easy task.

     "Micron-level precision is required in our work," said a worker on the factory floor. Around 200 of Pepper's 1,100 or so components are made of plastic. This was the first time for Hon Hai to produce such large, curved plastic parts, according to the employee. The robot was a big departure from the company's forte: making smartphones, TVs and home appliances.

A robot's range of motion is checked out in time to music.

     "We really tried many times without success," recalled a SoftBank executive. Hon Hai makes all the plastic parts for the robot in house. They are produced in a group of buildings called E zone at the Yantai plant. Not only the components themselves, but the molds used to make the parts, the machine tools used to produce the molds, and more than 100 injection molding machines in which the molds are mounted are also made by Hon Hai. The company's engineers have refined the molds and injection molding machines, ensuring the components are of uniform quality.

Shaping success

Hon Hai's success in mass-producing pepper is due in large part to its expertise in mold making and plastic injection molding, which are its traditional business. Hon Hai got its start in 1974 as a manufacturer of injection-molded parts for electronic equipment. Terry Gou, the company's founder and chairman, says molds are the basis of manufacturing. At the company's China headquarters in Shenzhen, the visitor can see machine tools that were used to make molds when the company was set up.

     It was Hon Hai's molding technology that vaulted it to success. Steve Jobs, the late co-founder of Apple, rolled out the candy-colored iMac computer in 1998 as a symbol of the U.S. gadget maker's resurgence. Hon Hai made the iMac's translucent case. This was the foundation of its close relationship with Apple.

     Hon Hai's moved on to the iPhone smartphone and the iPad tablet. The company also makes various Sony products, and flat-panel TVs and other devices for Chinese manufacturer Hisense at more than 30 plants in China. Most of these factories have mold and injection mold-making machine facilities. The company employs more than 30,000 engineers in the field.

     The company also operates two schools whose students live in dormitories. Young people selected from across the country receive intensive training for six months to become mold engineers, after which they work at the company's plants nationwide.

Better and better

In the Pepper assembly area of the Yantai plant, about 700 workers in white uniforms work in production lines of about 20 meters each that are devoted to various parts of the automation -- arms, legs, chest.

     The line workers are assisted by engineers on the floor. The engineers in light blue, yellow and pink are responsible for production control, quality assurance and repairs, respectively.  If a problem occurs, it is solved on the spot.  Problems encountered during the workday are collated by closing time and plans for improvement drawn up after the start of work the next day.

     The steady improvements in efficiency are a reflection of Hon Hai's philosophy of self-reliance. All production lines are built in-house. Until recently, the sensors in the lower part of the robot were attached manually. Now the work is performed by a laser the company developed itself. The company also came up with a system to automatically assemble the tires used on the robot's feet.

     When commercial production of Pepper began in February, the factory turned out five robots per hour. That figure has since been doubled. Eventually output will be raised to 15 robots per hour by increasing the number of assembly workers to 1,000 and introducing more automated systems.

     The Yantai plant is Hon Hai's third-largest in China, following those in Zhengzhou, Henan Province, and Chengdu, Sichuan Province. The Yantai facility, which is the closest to Japan of the three, has made various products for Sony and Nintendo game consoles. It was selected for Pepper production because of its proximity to Japan and ability to meet the exacting specifications of Japanese manufacturers.

     "We don't say no to customers who ask us to make products," said Gou, whose management philosophy has been heavily influenced by Japanese ideas.

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