Foxbots are way too costly and cannot polish the iPhone’s metal casing

Back in August of last year, Foxconn, Apple’s and the world’s largest product assembler, said it intended to replace an unspecified amount of its assembly line workers with one million robots over the next three years. Chinese-language web site TechWeb followed up last month with a claim that at least 10,000 Foxbots had arrived at an unspecified Foxconn plant.

Another batch of 20,000 robots is reportedly scheduled for deployment by year’s end. Today, The Wall Street Journal reports that the assembly company is facing challenges because these things cost a lot of money and are quickly obsoleted due to “rapid changes in technology”

Paul Mozur and Lorraine Luk, writing for the Journal:

Some executives at Hon Hai said that the robotic arms installed in some facilities can only perform simple and repetitive tasks like moving a piece of a component. Many of the complicated processes, such as polishing the iPhone’s metal casing, still require human attention.

Sanford Bernstein analyst Alberto Moel estimates that building a fully automated assembly plant would require a capital expenditure of between $2.1 billion and more than $10 billion. Contrast that to a typical non-automated plant which costs about $3 billion to build.

The publication also obtained an interesting quote from an unnamed Foxconn executive:

The chairman’s 1 million robotic arms target is just like a carrot in front of the donkey. We are always chasing after the technology.

It isn’t known how many robots Foxconn currently uses. Make no mistake, automating the production process would benefit Foxconn’s partners, per spokesman Louis Woo:

By the time you are familiar or stabilize the process it’s already the end of the product [manufacturing cycle]. Then there is another product coming up.

These things don’t come cheap: each bot reportedly costs an estimated $20,000-$25,000 to produce. This means Foxconn would need to shell out between $600 and $750 million in hardware costs alone to install just 30,000 bots.

Foxconn originally planned to roll out a whopping 300,000 robotic arms by the end of this year and a million by 2014. The company updated those plans and now hopes to introduce the first fully automated plants in five to ten years and eliminate “monotonous, repetitive tasks” through automation within a “few years”.