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© Dreamstime/Ptoone Electronics Production | August 08, 2011

Foxconn robots: Western bliss or humanitarian crisis?

Foxconn, the biggest player among the world's EMS companies, has - once again - made headlines. One million robots, that is the goal for the years to come. But who will benefit from it?
Voices have been raised saying that - finally - volume production 'in the West' has a fighting chance. Why? A robot in the US is no more costly than a robot in China, the saying goes. Of course, this excludes certain labour costs for operators and maintenance, still, it will fill out parts of the gulf between East and West.

This is - however - also slightly problematic.

One of the reasons why we miss the volume production is the fact that many workers were made redundant all those years back. While a fully automated factory is possible in Europe or the US, it still does not allow for an awful lot of workers.

This problem is not exclusively European or American either: What will happen to Chinese workers when Foxconn decides to automatise? The company is, according to Forbes, the fifth largest employer in the world. It is second largest employer in China (only the Peoples Liberation Army would top that). What would be the effects on the country and its population?

How many the decision would affect is not yet known. Foxconn did not directly talk of layoffs, rather 'moving people up the value chain'. Many analysts do not expect Foxconn to end up with one million researchers. Some have even suggested that half a million workers could be laid off. This is of course mere speculation, but the consequences could be daunting for the electronics industry as such, but for China in particular.

Some would argue that Foxconn just has had enough. That unhappy workers (several committing suicide) received a salary increase might well have tipped the scale in favour of automation. If raising labour costs indeed mark the end of outsourcing to China and a shift towards bringing production back to The West is - however - slightly earlier to say.

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