Ged Carroll

Lights out production lines

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Lights out production lines reminded me of my childhood. If you are of a certain age, ‘hand made by robots’ brings to mind the Fiat Strada / Ritmo a thirtysomething year old hatchback design that was built in a factory with a high degree of automation for the time.

Fiat subsidiary Comau created Robogate, a highly automated system that speeds up body assembly. Robogate was eventually replaced in 2000. The reality is that ‘hand made by robots’ had a liberal amount of creative licence. Also it didn’t enable Fiat to shake off its rust bucket image. Beneath the skin, the car was essentially a Fiat 127. Car factories still aren’t fully automated.

Foxconn is looking to automate its own production lines and create products that truly are ‘hand-built by robots’. Like Fiat it has its own robots firm which is manufacturing 10,000 robots per year.

Foxconn has so far focused on production lines for larger product final assembly (like televisions) and workflow on automated machine lines: many consumer products use CNC (computer numeric control) machines. That’s how Apple iPhone and Macs chassis’ are made. These totally automated lines are called ‘lights out production lines’ by Foxconn.

Foxconn is looking to automate production because China is undergoing a labour shortfall as the population getting older. Foxconn uses a lot of manual workers for final assembly of devices Apple’s iPhone because the components are tightly packed together.

Forty years ago, Japanese manufacturers conquered high end and low end consumer electronics with pick-and-place machines to automate electronics production, Nokia went on to build its phone business on similar automated lines. Globalisation ironically facilitated hand assembly of exceptionally dense electronics devices.

It will be a while before Foxconn manages to automate this as robotic motor control isn’t fine enough to achieve this yet. In order for that to happen you need a major leap forward in harmonic gearing. This isn’t a problem that software or machine learning can solve easily. More related pieces of jargon can be found here.

More information
Foxconn boosting automated production in China | DigiTimes – (paywall)