Technology Review – Industrial robots, typically equipped with a movable arm, use lasers or pressure sensors to know when to start and finish a job. A robot can be operated 160 hours a week. Even assuming competition from nimble-fingered humans putting in 12-hour shifts, a single robot might replace two workers, and possibly as many as four.
It takes five days and 325 steps to assemble an iPad. It is a highly structured and predictable task which is well suited to automation.
Foxconn can’t replace human workers right away because automating assembly lines would require rejiggering its entire manufacturing process. Larger changes in China also won’t occur overnight. Smaller Chinese factories can’t afford to invest in robotics, and factory wages are still relatively low—about $315 to $400 per month in the Pearl River Delta, according to Liu Kaiming, director of a Shenzhen-based labor organization called the Institute of Contemporary Observation.
Foxconn isn’t the only Chinese manufacturer betting on robots. The International Federation of Robotics, based in Frankfurt, tracked a 50 percent jump in purchases of advanced industrial robots by Chinese manufacturers in 2011, to 22,600 units, and now predicts that China will surpass Japan as the world’s largest market in two years.