Designed by Apple, built by robots

Apple's employees are retraining for roles managing robots on production lines, report reveals

Apple, Foxconn, robots, Industry 4, iOS, iPhone
Jehyun Sung (CC0)

Apple’s 13thAnnual Supplier Responsibility Report reveals a huge amount of interesting insights into how the company works, but perhaps some of the most revealing hints are those suggesting the fast-growing importance of robotics across its supply chain.

Designed by Apple, built by robots

I took a birds-eye view through Apple's report and noticed the following:

  • 744 supplier employees earned a certification in assembly line robotics in 2018.
  • 203 Supplier Employee Education and Development (SEED) program participants now hold advanced robotics positions at supplier facilities.

These two nuggets of data are revealed in part of the report in which Apple explains how it is trying to help supplier employees improve their lives by providing various forms of training and educational opportunity.

The company’s SEED program helped 1,500 workers go to college in 2018 and has enabled 13,500 workers to enrol in degree programs so far.

What I found really interesting, though, is that Apple now has hundreds of people employed in various forms of industrial robotics applications.

That’s no great surprise, of course. Apple has told us before about its recycling robots, which can take phones to pieces in moments, so it’s no great surprise the company’s manufacturing chain also includes manufacturing machines.

The fourth law

In a sense, a move to automation across the manufacturing chain is bang on trend.

Everyone is doing it.

Run a DuckDuckGo search for the term Industry 4.0, and you’ll get some sense of how smart connected manufacturing is becoming increasingly agile and more and more capable of handling (and learning) really complex tasks.

Manufacturers can deploy self-learning robots on supply lines for as little as $60,000 a pop, and these machines are far more sophisticated than the automation that once dominated the factory floor.

They can self-learn how to do new and complex tasks, and if you work on the factory floor, you’ll eventually be asked to train one of these things, or work alongside them, applying your soft skills.

Research & Markets claims the industrial control and factory automation market will grow from $160 billion in 2018 to $269.5 billion by 2024, at a CAGR of 9.08 percent. KPMG predicts enterprises will be spending $232 billion on automation by 2024.

The rise of the robots

Apple’s biggest manufacturing partner, Foxconn, has been making huge investments in automation across its factories.

Robots replaced 60,000 employees at just one Foxconn factory in 2016. The company last year confirmed it plans to invest $4 billion in robotics and automation with a view to replacing many workers across its supply chains.

I seem to recall learning Apple is looking to create its own automated manufacturing facilities for Macs in the U.S., though don’t be at all surprised to find that the number of actual jobs created will be much lower than thought. Soft skills, data analytics, coding, and robotics are the jobs to train for and our education systems need to prepare people for this, as well as empower them for lifelong learning, but I digress.

The main point to understand is the scale of automation deployment:

A single Chinese city (Dongguan) allocated $56.8 million to boost automation in factories last year alone, and over 100 million Chinese manufacturing jobs may be replaced.

Tomorrow’s world

It should be becoming clear that it is a myth that the manufacturing industry is where to look for employment growth. It’s not – it is likely you’ll find the same robots handling most production line process at Apple factories in China, India, or anywhere else.

Lifelong education, coding, counselling, and creative industries will become more important ahead as industry returns to where technology meets the liberal arts – this time seeking the soft skills (creative thinking, situational understanding, relationship building and mental agility) with which to augment the brutal machine intelligence of robots, cobots, and other machines.

In this context the notion that hundreds of Apple supplier employees are taking an interest in robotics and working to become skilled enough to work alongside and manage these new cobot colleagues isn’t at all surprising.

That this has become significant enough to get a mention in the company’s report tells us that if you want your future to be in manufacturing, you probably need to get similar training yourself.

Designed in California, Made by Robots. Get used to it.

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Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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