Foxconn employees operate on the assembly line at the Foxconn factory in Longhua, Shenzhen, China, on May 26, 2010.
Despite numerous tantalizing hints and purported leaks, no one really knows what Apple's iPhone 6 will look like, but some now believe they know who — or what — will build the eagerly anticipated phone: a legion of manufacturing robots.
Robots assisting in consumer electronics manufacturing is nothing new, but while Apple and its Chinese partner Foxconn International, a subsidiary of Hon Hai Precision, have used robots to make various iPhone and iPad components, the job of assembling the final devices has always fallen to human hands.
Four years ago, Foxconn International was beset by a wave of employee suicides. That led the company to build nets around most of its facilities. In 2012, ABC News documented those nets and the working conditions in the plant that built Apple's iPads. There were no horror stories, but ABC anchor Bill Weir did find that "what is acceptable on a Chinese assembly line is soul-crushing by American standards," said Weir.
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Around the same time, Foxconn committed to building and using 1 million custom-made robots, dubbed "Foxbots" to help offset rising human labor costs. In a 2013 financial report, Hon Hai Precision noted:
"To remain cost competitive, we have been continuously controlling manufacturing overhead to attain better operating leverage and improving efficiency and yield
rate through automation using robot arms and industrial engineering methods like production cell management."
By 2011, the company had reportedly rolled out roughly 10,000 robots, though, by most accounts, they were capable of only the most menial tasks and could not build an entire product by hand (er, robot hands, that is). As of last year the company still hadn't found a place for all the robots it built.
Automaton factory workers
However, according to a report in ITHome (which was written in Chinese and we had to translate via Google Chrome), Hon Hai Group CEO Terry Gou said during a shareholder's meeting the company's "robot factory" was entering its final test phase and, more importantly, Apple would be its first customer. The report is preciously short on details and it's a translation that does not link to the original shareholder meeting minutes. Other reports published shortly after the June shareholder's meeting fail to mention industrial robots or Foxbots.
The most well documented recent expression of Foxconn's interest in robots came in early June, when Hon Hai Precision CEO Terry Gou stood alongside Aldebaran CEO Bruno Maisonnier and Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son as they unveiled Softbank's Pepper "emotional" robot, which the three companies have agreed to build.
Like so much of the rumor mongering surrounding the iPhone 6, this latest bit of news may be so much smoke and mirrors.
That said, if Foxconn's robot factory is real and functioning online industry analyst andCreative Strategies President Tim Bajarin does believe it could build the iPhone 6. So, assuming that the line exists and tests are complete, manufacturing could start, notes Bajarin, as late as August. That would be in time for a fall launch.
"We assume it will be launched in early Sept. as in the past and shipped later that month," said Bajarin. "If the line is running these could be used for the iPhone 6."
Even without the robot factory building iPhone 6 smartphones, Foxconn's Gou has made his intention to automate clear and Bajarin thinks robots assembling Apple products is a critical part of Hon Hai Group and Foxconn International's long-term strategy. "While they have access to cheap labor, if they can automate most of these tasks to robotics, their overall yield could become better which impacts their bottom line. As it is, they have minimal profit on making these phones as it is done now, and a robotics line would give them eventually a financial edge."
Apple could not be reached for comment.
Tags: Apple, FOXCONN, GADGETS, IPHONE, IPHONE 6, MOBILE, Tech