Robots are the natural next step in the evolution of the electronics manufacturing supply chain. This shouldn’t surprise anyone but it seems some economists and researchers were shocked at the recent news that Foxconn had automated some of its plants, replacing workers with robots. This resulted in the elimination of as many as 60,000 factory jobs, according to news reports.
Electronics manufacturers compete not only with products but also the processes by which they get goods to market. In fact, some industry experts believe the battle for market dominance is won and lost by supply chains (or supply networks) rather than the actual goods companies develop. A great product may not win market share if the supply chain upon which it is anchored is flawed or chokes at any point. Not all companies get this. Rather, many manufacturers ignore the fundamentals of supply chain planning until problems crop up in the system.
Robots are old news even if they are only beginning to make a mass entry into the production side of the electronics supply chain. Best-in-class companies have been automating their systems for more than a decade. Some would like to use even more advanced automation systems – fancily called artificial intelligence – in their product innovation and lifecycle management operations. They aren’t doing this to simply cut out humans. That’s a secondary reason for manufacturers like Foxconn that may be concerned about the negative press received in the past over alleged violations of labor laws. No. Robots offer many other advantages and we will see many other contract manufacturers adding them to the “workforce” in future.
While some economists are wringing their hands about how the introduction of robots into the electronics supply chain could lead to widespread job losses, let me point out here that Foxconn is not a leader in this “innovation.” It might even be late in adopting automation. Interestingly, the leaders of automated supply chain processes in the electronics industry aren’t the enterprises many would expect to be in the forefront of this kind of innovation. Electronics component distributors, for example, have been using robots and automated systems in the sorting, picking and delivery of parts for years.
Amongst the leaders in this area are companies like Future Electronics, Digi-Key, Arrow Electronics and Avnet. I have been privileged to visit two Future Electronics’ plants and Digi-Key’s warehouse in Thief River Falls, Minn., in the last several years and found them to be amazing examples of how the industry can leverage technology to make the supply chain more efficient. The two Future Electronics plants, one in Mississippi, United States, and the second in Leipzig, Germany, have all the expected trappings of a highly-advanced inventory management system but they also have huge robots operating in total darkness inside vast warehouses. The robots do everything that humans could do – and more – without the fallibility and possible injections of errors into the components sorting and delivery system.
Future’s CEO and founder Robert Miller told me a few years ago in an interview that he spent millions of dollars automating as much of the company’s components delivery system not to reduce costs but to better serve customers. The automation helps to cut delivery times, ensure the safety of workers (by avoiding ladders, etc.) and assure the integrity of the order management system. Whatever a company ordered was what it would get as long as the data was not corrupted in the entry system by humans.
Also, because the robots work in total darkness sections of the warehouse became virtual cleanrooms, eliminating the potentials for contamination through human interactions and the associated constant entry and exit into the facility. The company was also able to reduce its carbon footprint by eliminating the need for bright lights inside the warehouse. Robots, you see, don’t need lights to see in the dark. Sensors do the job for them.
Foxconn may have aimed to reduce the number of workers by introducing robots into its manufacturing operation but the benefits to the company and the entire industry will be greater. Certain actions in electronics manufacturing are inherently dangerous to humans either because of the repetitive nature or because of the potentials for exposure to highly-toxic chemicals.
Yes, there are potential negatives also for employees; fewer workers may be needed and shorter working hours may be a by-product. However, these are bound to happen in any case. The technology market has in the last two decades made many professions obsolete. Many more will follow. However, the industry has also opened up new opportunities and created many more jobs.
The introduction of robots and other automation devices into the electronics supply chain won’t put an end to the involvement of workers in the process. Not today, anyway. We’ll adapt, do things that cannot be automated today and try to keep ahead of this unstoppable march of innovation. Human are the ones taking the critical decisions of how products are designed and the supply chain that will support the devices. Artificial intelligence is gaining support, though, and they will eventually learn enough to start contributing ideas for product design.
If you are worrying today about robots in the supply chain, just imagine what full-blown artificial intelligence will do to the design chain.
Bolaji Ojo is editor-in-chief and publisher of Electronics Purchasing Strategies. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author alone who promises to base his sometimes biased, possibly ignorant, occasionally irrelevant but absolutely stimulating thoughts on the subjective interpretation of verifiable facts alone. Any comments should be sent to the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.