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by   -   February 25, 2014

online_internet_shopping_credit_card

When you’re shopping for the best online deals you’re probably not thinking much about the massive distribution network required to bring that pair of shoes to your doorstep. Is your quest for the best possible deal helping to usher in the next wave of automation?

Internet giants like Amazon and Google have an obligation to stay competitive and are going head-to-head over the online shopping space.


by   -   February 13, 2014

 

 

In a Wall Street Journal story by Lorraine Luk, Foxconn Chairman Terry Gou met with Google Robotics Division Andy Rubin in Taipei recently and they discussed new robotic technologies. Gou was excited by new automation technologies demonstrated by Rubin. Rubin asked Gou to help integrate the robotic companies that Google acquired to target the areas of manufacturing and electronics assembly that Google plans for their future.


by   -   March 8, 2013

FoxbotsIlian Bonev, a robotics prof at the ÉTS in Quebec, blogged “The truth about Foxconns Foxbot industrial robots,” and included a 2008 Foxbot brochure which shows the specs for their entire robotics product line. Also included is a video showing a row of Foxbots handling, grinding and sanding what appears to be iPad back covers.



by   -   June 7, 2012

A version of this post originally appeared on Singularity Hub, June 6, 2012.

By Frank Tobe, Editor and Publisher

The Robot Report
Robot manufacturers are beginning to shift their
attention from industrial to service robots.

The robotics industry is on the cusp of a major transformation. Today’s factory robots are solitary precision instruments, mimicking the repertoire of capabilities of skilled craftsmen while repeating a handful of tasks thousands of times over. But future factory robots will likely have to be capable of thousands of tasks, performing each only several times, and they will work in collaboration with humans.

Furthermore, interest in nonindustrial robots is emerging at an even quicker pace, and new and larger marketplaces are opening up as never before. But that means some pretty significant shifts in design from caged robots to adjacent workers, from stationary position to portable motion, from programming intensive to easily trainable, and from connected to autonomous robots. Even as they work to improve upon their current industrial offerings, robotics companies are closely watching demand for co-robots, which are the safe, flexible, vision-enabled and easily trainable robotic assistants that science fiction movies made culturally popular.

Thus the reinvention of robotics is fundamentally a transition from industrial robotics to service robotics, and one that is demanding flexibility and versatility beyond what is presently available.

Facing the Major Technological Challenges:

The big industrial robot manufacturers are reinventing themselves in an effort to accommodate these changing realities. Companies such as Yaskawa Electric (Motoman), KUKA, Adept Technologies, and Bosch are fighting against technological challenges and against the clock to be relevant players in the robotics industry 2.0. However, companies face three major technological challenges that are impeding this shift and will require significant breakthroughs to propel the industry forward into the era of service robotics:
  1. Grasping and manipulation in human-centered and open-ended environments
  2. Learning through observation of human actions
  3. Interaction and natural communication, including gestures and sounds

Examining the strategies and unique approaches of companies making this transition can lend insight into how manufacturers will overcome the technological challenges, position themselves among competitors, and bring new robots quickly to market.

Four Strategies for Transitioning from Industrial to Service and Co-Robotics:

KUKA announced a transition roadmap last year predicated on their participation in the SME Robot Project. They plan to provide lightweight arms, add mobility, and improve their grippers, as well as moving into heretofore untapped industries.

They’ve released a new lightweight and sensitive arm that can be affixed to a tabletop or workbench that is sensitive enough to safely work alongside humans. They also have plans to take their manufacturing and automation experience and enter new marketplaces, particularly entertainment (they have a ride robot), assembly and co-robotics (delta-type robots and lightweight arms working alongside humans), and healthcare and medical (cleanroom robots, lab robots).

Kuka has also developed an entirely different type of robot: the youBot.  It’s organized for the education and research marketplace and includes a mobile and also fixed 2-fingered 5 DOF plug and play robot arm selling for $31,000 and $21,000 respectively. youBots run the open source robotic operating system ROS prevalent in most major robotic learning centers and could be Kuka’s inroad to the co-robotic market.

At present, however, their proprietary operating and control system for their whole industrial robot line of products, and their robot training and simulation capabilities, are far too complex, convoluted and restrictive for the SME market.
Graphic from Yaskawa.co.jp website.

Yaskawa is developing a line of robotic products to fill the “Robotics Human Assist Business.” The SME marketplace is included in their plan as are new market areas where robotic devices augment and assist humans. Their plan covers workers, seniors, disabled people, and early adopters of other human-assist products.

On a recent visit to Tokyo, I met with Dr. Koji Tomita, Manager, Smart Robotics Center,
Kazuo Miyazawa, General Manager, Smart Robotics Center and Shingo Ando,
Manager, RT Control Technology Team (from left to right) and they showed me SmartPal V,
a prototype for their next generation human assist robot.

Yaskawa is already marketing their two-armed Motoman multi-tasking robots and expects to begin introducing additional products and capabilities in 2015. They recently restructured their R&D by creating a new Smart Robotics Center (SRC) with the mission of accelerating R&D to enable human assist products and their 2015 target date.

Yaskawa has also embraced the use of the open source Robotic Operating System (ROS) to enable Yaskawa users — and others — to be able to better simulate and add new technologies and devices to existing robotic installations. Additionally they are strategically partnering with other companies that have specific expertise in 3D vision and adaptive grasping to augment in-house capabilities and meet the 2015 launch date.

Adept’s strategy is meshing proven business processes with new tech to form commercially ready solutions and involves (1) acquisitions to supplement and acquire capabilities it feels it needs for the future, and (2) aggressively marketing into new markets in food processing and materials handling.


One acquisition enabled Adept to add mobility to its line of products; another supplemented Adept’s food processing technology arsenal and offered a European base as well. Through it’s 2010 acquisition of MobileRobots, Adept now provides a mobile platform for a variety of purposes. One purpose is as a gofor in a hospital. They’ve teamed with Swisslog to ferry medicine from the dispensary to nurses stations and back again thereby enabling nurses to focus on patient care instead of getting things.

    Adept’s mobility goals include doing simple service tasks presently done by low-cost but hard-to-hire labor, e.g. restaurant staff, who could use mobile tables to follow, deliver and pickup.
    Adept is also building their new mobile robots as modules and selling any or all of those modules. In Swisslog’s case, they are selling a mobile platform and navigation system but they are also selling the nav system and sensors separately to other clients.

    By acquiring InMoTx, a Danish provider of food-processing technology in 2011, Adept was able to add a portfolio of flexible gripping IP (intellectual property) for inspecting, sorting, grading and hygienically packaging unwrapped food products. Hygienically gripping irregularly shaped food products has emerged as one of the biggest constraints in automating food packaging. This acquisition expands Adept’s capabilities and supplements their goal of further capturing a share of the global food processing and handling market.

    Bosch makes consumer products, appliances and auto parts. They are also an integrator for factory packaging systems and build and provide packaging robots. Many of their auto and consumer products are turning into “smart” devices and will someday become robotic. Imagine how desirable it would be to purchase a Bosch washer and dryer that also had a robotic device to feed, transfer and fold, thereby providing hamper-to-hamper service.

    Many of the parts involved in Bosch’s manufacturing process are too small for present-day factory robots. So they have a two-pronged approach: learn, buy and partner from everyone and, if necessary, build their own robots. Their new home-built APAS robot is already being field tested in their factories for intricate handling and assembly work.

    *****

    These four companies are each demonstrating the kinds of efforts required to make the transition successfully, but other companies are making moves that are noteworthy for this discussion:

    Up until late 2011 when Pres. Obama made manufacturing and robotics an issue, the US lacked public-private activity like the EU’s SME Robotics project. But there was independent venture-funded activity. Rodney Brooks, one of the founders of iRobot and a professor at MIT, started a company to develop a low-cost co-robot. Still in the development phase, but venture funded to the tune of $32 million, Heartland Robotics has more than 60 people working full-time to produce a low-cost, flexible, easily trainable, lightweight robotic assistant (co-robot). One of the more interesting aspects of Heartland’s project is providing an Apple-like app store where users can share routines and functions.
    Although the Boston Globe intimated that the Heartland robot would sell for only $5,000, be on a rolling base, be trainable without programming, and have sensors which enable it to work safely with humans, the currently rumored price for a Heartland single-armed co-robot is $15,000.

    Although Heartland hasn’t officially announced a launch date, they have reserved a large booth at next January’s Automate 2013 in Chicago. A media launch date will be earlier, but the Automate show will be a place for a lot of would-be-users and buyers to see the new bots in action.

    Meka Robotics, Willow Garage, and SRI just announced a new startup competitor: Redwood Robotics. Their website says they will be offering a new generation of robot arms that are simple to program, inexpensive (“in the $10,000 range,” says CEO Aaron Edsinger), and safe to operate alongside people. These three partners bring a lot of robotic talent to the table and are a formidable competitor for Heartland.

    The clock is ticking for this type of co-robot. The first one to market will benefit. Will it be Heartland, Redwood or somebody else?
    Foxconn assembly workers. Photo: Bobby Yip/Reuters/File
    Cynics thought Foxconn’s 2011 announcement that they intended to deploy 1 million robots in their factories in China within 3 years was a ploy, a trick, impossible, unreal. But in late 2011 they launched and built an R&D facility and a factory in Taiwan to build their own robots. And they’ve begun to hire 2,000 engineers to man this project.
    Nobody knows yet whether any other robot manufacturer will supply Foxconn. However, rumors say that ABB may be in negotiations to provide them with some of their headless two-armed FRIDA robots.
    If Foxconn succeeds they will almost double the world’s industrial robot population, throw the “steady growth” industrial robot figures to the wind, and help themselves better manage the ever increasing popularity of their contract manufacturing and assembly services.

    Bottom Line:

    Global demand for robotic solutions is increasing, thus the world of robotics must change rapidly and cultivate scientific solutions to enhance the technologies to meet those needs. Those robotic companies – like the ones presented in this article – who will succeed in this new industry, are those that can best develop applications and robots that meet those changing needs.

    Robots like C3PO of Star Wars fame are getting closer every day!


    by   -   January 30, 2012

    China’s economic miracle has lifted countless millions of supremely poor people out of poverty. But this progress has come at a price. The Apple Corporation’s experience in manufacturing its popular iPhones, iPods and iPads in China – recently described in the N.Y. Times – has subjected many of those making Apple products to unsafe and unfair working conditions.


    by   -   January 30, 2012

    China’s economic miracle has lifted countless millions of supremely poor people out of poverty. But this progress has come at a price. The Apple Corporation’s experience in manufacturing its popular iPhones, iPods and iPads in China – recently described in the N.Y. Times – has subjected many of those making Apple products to unsafe and unfair working conditions.

    Apple has been good for China. It has provided hundreds of thousands of jobs for the 300 to 400 million Chinese anxious to leave their rural, impoverished existence and move to a city where they can get a paying job. When these migrant workers get that job they send home 30-50% of their earnings, and then they and their families back home buy, amongst other things, electronic consumer products like cellphones, smartphones and iPods.

    Many of these jobs have been created by the Apple phenomenon whereby Apple keeps making trend-setting products through new and novel uses of technological achievement.

    People want to buy their iPhones and iPads. Apple just had it’s biggest ever quarter: 37M iPhones, 15M iPads, $46 billion revenue. Plus, as the economy has started to improve, people have more disposable income and are willing to spend even more for Apple products – 60% of which are manufactured and assembled in China, much of that by one large contract manufacturer: Foxconn.

    Foxconn – whose parent company is Hon Hai Precision Electronics, a publicly traded Taiwanese company (TPE:2317) - is the hub in the center of this wheel of motion. It is in their factories in China where some of the components are built and much of the final assembly takes place. As recently reported by the New York Times, CBS, NPR, various watchdog groups and even an off-Broadway play, these factories are havens for worker mistreatment, suicides, unsafe conditions, low pay, and even child labor.

    Suicides reached a peak in 2010 and Foxconn implemented solutions, including protective barriers, hotlines and counseling to help prevent further incidents. No suicides were reported in 2011.

    Unsafe factory conditions, particularly working with toxins (polishing resins and cleaners) and dusts from metal shavings and other materials were cited as another example. Two serious explosions involving improperly ventilated aluminum shavings occurred in 2011 killing 20 and injuring 50. Subsequently, better ventilation systems and the replacement of workers with robotic polishing, sanding and spraying machines is beginning to take place.

    Pay has raced to keep up with discontent and has risen from $0.25 per hour to $0.50 and then $1.00 and now, in many cases, $2.00 per hour. But in this excerpt from a report by a labor rights group, China Labor Watch, one can see the underlying problems:

    The minimum wage in many factories does not meet the living costs of its workers. Workers cannot earn a living wage from normal working hours alone, and must work excessive overtime hours in order to earn enough money to survive. At one factory [not Foxconn] for example, workers’ minimum monthly wage was $138 in October 2010. There was a $6 deduction for dormitory accommodations, a $40.50 deduction for food and utilities fees, and a $15.30 deduction for social insurance, which left $76.20. If workers have other expenses or financial responsibilities, such as vocational classes or financial support of their parents (one of the main reasons migrant workers seek work in cities), it would be impossible to meet their living costs with only $76.20. In this situation, workers find themselves with no other option but to work excessive overtime. 

    Furthermore, many factories require workers to complete a fixed term of employment before they become eligible for a salary increase. Some factories required workers to complete at least a three month probation period and an additional three month evaluation before becoming eligible for a salary increase. Other factories require a year or longer before workers are eligible for an annual bonus. The difficulty, lengthy terms, and sometimes unpredictability involved in gaining a salary increase and bonus further reinforces workers’ dependence on overtime in order to earn a living wage.

    Interviews by the press and various workers rights groups indicate that the main form of discontent is pressure and punishment from long hours at monotonous but intricate work in less than ergonomically friendly postures. 60-72 hour  6-day work weeks are the norm. The pressure comes from the demands to produce more, work more and complain less with punishment for infringements meted out in the form of financial fines, push-ups, public humiliation and attitudinal retraining classes.

    Crowded dormitories, cafeterias, long and regimented lines, low pay and condescending contracts, have all contributed to a high turnover — 20-30% at last report. This perpetuates the cycle of employing unskilled migrants, training them in factory work, housing them, and getting them onto the factory floor and assembly line as quickly as possible.

    Apple CEO Tim Cook was outraged at the N.Y. Times. Two recent stories in the N.Y. Times were followed by pieces on NPR and CBS: (1) In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad and (2) How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work. He considered the articles to be an offensive pseudo exposé. In an internal e-mail message to select Apple employes, Cook wrote:

    We care about every worker in our worldwide supply chain. Any accident is deeply troubling and any issue with working conditions is cause for concern. Any suggestion that we don’t care is patently false and offensive to us. As you know better than anyone, accusations like these are contrary to our values. It’s not who we are. 

    For the many hundreds of you who are based at our suppliers’ manufacturing sites around the world, or spend long stretches working there away from your families, I know you are as outraged by this as I am.

    Foxconn, like many of the other suppliers, has denied many of the accusations and responded to periodic audits by saying that they’ve made or are implementing the legal changes suggested.

    To be fair, one must keep in mind that China’s internal labor laws are newly emerging and are different from ours – their minimum age and wage are different too. Their management style is significantly different as well.

    The N.Y Times articles failed to note what may be Foxconn’s most important long-term remedy to problems with its workforce: its plans to deploy one million robots. Foxconn appears to actually be ahead of the news cycle in this instance. Early in 2010 they realized that there would be increased demand for their products and services – particularly Apple products – and that they just couldn’t handle more workers. Instead, they decided to deploy 1 million robots as part of their solution. Mid-2011 they launched an R&D facility and robot manufacturing factory in Taiwan to design, develop and produce those 1 million factory robots. Recently they confirmed their intentions to replace but not necessarily lay off 500,000 workers with those 1 million robots thereby moving those workers up the skill-level ladder to more experienced and higher paying jobs.

    By any reasonable definition of product liability law, Apple products are Apple’s products regardless of whether Apple subcontracts some or much of the effort. Apple is liable for any product failures that injure buyers. Consequently Apple is responsible for the actions of their suppliers to the extent that they are working on Apple’s products. Thus it comes down to this: what can and should Apple and other companies do when their sub-contractors are not holding to acceptable Western standards?

    Here are my two suggestions:

    1. Apple could insist that dull, dirty and dangerous tasks be automated with robotics and other processes that eliminate these jobs and, more importantly, reduce the areas where injury and discontent are likely to occur.
    2. The N.Y. Times articles implied that Apple monitors its contractors’ costs and squeezes their profit margins to the lowest level possible and, when that happens, it becomes a major factor in these contractors subjecting their employees to unsafe and unfair working conditions in order to meet Apple’s price. If, on the other hand, Apple provided additional profits to their suppliers but stipulated that those profits be passed down to their workers in the form of additional funds for safety, better work-hours, automation and higher pay, everyone would benefit and the Apple culture would be preserved. Some might argue that this solution doesn’t address the competitive pressures of the marketplace. Apple’s recent quarterly 28% net profit results – and their $92 billion cash hoard – suggest that, regardless of market pressures, Apple does have some ability to share their profits where they will do the most good for long-term growth, the welfare of their sub-contract workers, shareholder value, AND global public relations.
    And a solution from the folks at Change.org – a petition to Apple to protect workers making iPhones in Chinese factories. As of this posting there are already 157,000 signatures!

    by   -   December 6, 2011

    Imagine being present at the birth of a new industry. It is an industry based on groundbreaking new technologies, wherein a handful of well-established corporations sell highly specialized devices for business use, and a fast-growing number of start-up companies produce innovative toys, gadgets for hobbyists and other interesting niche products. But it is also a highly fragmented industry with few common standards or platforms. Projects are complex, progress is slow, and practical applications are relatively rare. In fact, for all the excitement and promise, no one can say with any certainty when — or even if — this industry will achieve critical mass. If it does, though, it may well change the world.

    Bill Gates, Scientific American Reports
    2008 Special Edition on Robotics

    by   -   November 18, 2011

    Foxconn, a big contractor for Apple and others, breaks ground for robot facilities. It plans to replace 500,000 workers with 1 million robots.

    Workers are seen inside a Foxconn factory in the township of Longhua in China’s southern Guangdong Province in this 2010 photo. After a spate of employee deaths and complaints about working conditions, electronics manufacturer Foxconn has broken ground on new robot facilities. Within five years, it says it plans to replace 500,000 workers with 1 million robots. Photo: (Bobby Yip/Reuters/File) 

    by   -   November 11, 2011

    Pure science is an integral part of robotics and often leads to solutions for strategic needs for an audience of willing buyers. Here are a few examples of that process from companies with products scheduled to hit the marketplace in the next four years.
    Harvest Automation

    • Servicing ornamental horticulture market ($35 billion industry)
    • Focused on nurseries and greenhouses and their continual need to move potted plants
    • Each robot to produce 10,000 hours of production and do the work of one laborer
    • Will be in field beta testing in 2012; full rollout of commercial product in 2013
    • This year’s field testing quite successful
    • More than 10 prospective nursery clients signed on to be test sites and contributed to the development process
    • Fully venture funded until 2015 projected profitability




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