WWDC 2012: Apple's iPhone and the iRobot supply chain

By Jonny Evans

"It's hard for me to get emotional as you can see my emotion sensors haven't been programmed yet," said Siri at the beginning of Apple's [AAPL] WWDC event this week. But Siri isn't the only robot inside Cupertino: in future, Apple and its manufacturers will be where the robots live. We're way beyond The Jetsons, here.

[ABOVE: This video looks at Apple's iPhone display glass manufacturer, Corning, it also shows a host of processes handled by robots inside this firm. It's a sign of what's to come across the Apple production line.]

Working rights 2.0

Watching the keynote, you'll have seen precious few mentions of life inside Apple partner Foxconn's iPhone factories, and while things do seem to be improving both Apple and Foxconn are beginning to invest in workers who don't demand money, food, dental, shelter or vacations. Workers who don't demand human rights because they aren't human. We're looking at a colossal implementation of robots across Apple product manufacturing lines.

An inspired Seeking Alpha report this morning tells us: "Apple is about to become one of the world's biggest buyers of industrial robots." It moves on to speculate that the company is spending billions on robots to install across its supply chain.

"Apple is also buying a large number of computerized machine tools. While Apple will own these tools and the robots will be installed in the plants of its leading contractors, Hon Hai and Foxconn," that report also informs.

The video above details Apple's relationship with the US-based manufacturer of Gorilla Glass shows plenty of examples of how robots are already in use within Apple manufacturing. (The Gorilla Glass used inside the iPhone 5 will be stronger, slimmer and more touch-sensitive, by the way).

[ABOVE: iPhone 5 soothsayers are excited about how strong Gorilla Glass 2 will be.]

Apple's marching robot army

Foxconn/Hon Hai has said it wants to use one million robotic workers across its manufacturing plants.

Don't underestimate the significance of this. The world's on track to reach 1.3 million operating industrial robots by 2014. Foxconn's plan almost doubles this. It also makes an estimated half a million jobs obsolete, a Time report claims.

Foxconn chairman, Terry Gou, told staff last year the company would begin using robots for repetitive tasks in its assembly lines. At that time the company was already using 10,000 robotic arms to lift, coat and weld metals. By the end of the year, Foxconn intends deployment of 300,000 robots. A million is the long-range target.

Foxconn currently has 1.2 million workers.

"There are many simple and repetitive tasks on the production line that a robot can do," a Foxconn source said last year. "It was manual work before, but the robot is more efficient and more controlled."

More efficient. More controlled.

The move to automated production comes as Chinese wages rise amid a growing labor shortage. This has driven worker dissatisfaction and wage increases, but these increases happen against a backdrop of economic collapse across many first world nations, prompting those outsourcing production to China to demand low manufacturing costs.

Naturally, this also connects Apple and other consumer electronics firms in their quest to improve the working conditions of those travailing in their partner plants.

-- Well, I say Apple and other consumer electronics firms, yet, despite Apple's public commitment to improving the lot of its workers I've seen little evidence other consumer electronics brands are focusing on this, and, somewhat disappointingly, I've seen no evidence the Apple-critical media has investigated how other consumer electronics firms treat workers. That's shameful, in my opinion.

Of course, robots aren't yet capable of doing all the work you need to do to make an iPhone. "You could not make a mobile phone with a robot," a Foxconn manager told China Business News last year.

[ABOVE: Robots get detail, sometimes. This robot makes portraits.]

141 steps to iPhone

Warehousing, component inventory control, packaging and package creation are easily roboticized using current technology. At the recent Modex 2012 event Kiva Systems' booth: "Featured a fully-functioning warehouse operation where attendees walked up and placed their orders on an iPad and then picked their order right from the Kiva system just seconds later."

It takes 141 steps to make an iPhone.

Focus Taiwan recently reported Foxconn is building a quarter billion dollar ($223m) robot R&D center. No doubt that center will explore ways to make robots capable of more complex manufacturing tasks.

They might take a look at upcoming solutions from Boston-based startup Heartland Robotics. That company's website promises its robots: "They will have intelligence and awareness. They will be teachable, safe, and affordable. They will make us productive in ways we never imagined..."

"One of the more interesting aspects of Heartland's project is providing an Apple-like app store where users can share routines and functions," reports Everything Robotic.

This is only the beginning. Cisco Chief Futurist Dave Evans, believes that by 2035, the manufacturing workforce would be replaced by robots.

That's pretty bad for low-paid, low-skilled workers and will, I think, pose a major sociological problem, exacerbating poverty for many of the poorest in any nation.

This poses a question: with jobs in agriculture, manufacturing, warehousing and distribution ceded out to robotic workforces, where will existing employees find future jobs? And is it humanity's fault to be out of employment when technological progress has made it surplus to requirement?

Will iPhone be the real Android?

Of course, there will be some beneficiaries from the move to roboticize production. Consumers -- those who still find employment -- will very likely get cheaper goods. Robot manufacturers such as Fanuc, ABB, Siemens and others, including Heartland Robotics, are also likely to benefit.

It's important to note that many of the robots deployed by Foxconn, and, conceivably, other Apple partners, will be designated wholly and only for use in making iProducts.

That's a competitive advantage because Apple/Foxconn's huge investment is likely to tie up a huge slice of potential robot production.

Somewhat ironically, this also means the only thing robotic about Android devices will be the name, because Android device manufacturers will be unable to get the robotic staff, with Foxconn/Apple gobbling up robot supply.

In a sense this suggests that in the smartphone sector, it's possible a shortage of robot supply suggests that, at least for a year or two, the only truly robotic/android-produced smartphone might be an iPhone.

Does that amuse anyone else?

Also read:

WWDC 2012: Apple iPhone 5 details, Retina Display Macs

WWDC 2012: Four insights into Apple's future platform plans

WWDC 2012: Facebook integration, Apple Maps for Fall's iOS 6

WWDC 2012: With Facebook integration OS X Mountain Lion -- $19.99, ships July

WWDC 2012: Retina Display reaches MacBook Pro

iPhone 5 release: Apple's September launch, what to expect

Apple TV: exec says it's coming 'soon'

Computerworld's WWDC 2012 topic page

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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