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A US Apple Factory May Be Robot City 602

Posted by Soulskill
from the rise-of-the-iMachines dept.
dcblogs writes "Apple's planned investment of $100 million next year in a U.S. manufacturing facility is relatively small, but still important. A 2009 Apple video of its unibody manufacturing process has glimpses of highly automated robotic systems shaping the metal. In it, Jonathan Ive, Apple's senior vice president of design, described it. 'Machining enables a level of precision that is just completely unheard of in this industry,' he said. Apple has had three years to improve its manufacturing technology, and will likely rely heavily on automation to hold down labor costs, say analysts and manufacturers. Larry Sweet, the CTO of Symbotic, which makes autonomous mobile robots for use in warehouse distribution, described a possible scenario for Apple's U.S. factory. First, a robot loads the aluminum block into the robo-machine that has a range of tools for cutting and drilling shapes to produce the complex chassis as a single precision part. A robot then unloads the chassis and sends it down a production line where a series of small, high-precision, high-speed robots insert parts, secured either with snap fit, adhesive bonds, solder, and a few fasteners, such as screws. At the end, layers, such as the display and glass, are added on top and sealed in another automated operation. Finally, the product is packaged and packed into cases for shipping, again with robots. "One of the potentially significant things about the Apple announcement is it could send a message to American companies — you can do this — you can make this work here," said Robert Atkinson, president of The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation."
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A US Apple Factory May Be Robot City

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  • by Iamthecheese (1264298) on Sunday December 09, 2012 @03:17AM (#42231551)
    If the reason it can be done in the US is automation there's very little difference in terms of employment -- The capital holders get to keep more of their capital, some Asians get fired, and very few Americans get hired.Sure the GDP will rise but that won't make the slightest difference for the unemployed.

    Robots are replacing workers everywhere and we need a new economy to deal with the situation.
  • by Casandro (751346) on Sunday December 09, 2012 @03:17AM (#42231553)

    I mean sure, on paper wages in the US look high, but then again there's next to no social security. There's no mandatory health insurance, there's little public infrastructure. In some places you even need to have a car.... at least that's what the typical prejudices say.

  • NeXT 2.0 (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 09, 2012 @03:22AM (#42231583)

    Apple is really NeXT 2.0. NeXT also had a fully automated computer assembly plant which was closed down when NeXT got out of the hardware business.

  • by Rockoon (1252108) on Sunday December 09, 2012 @03:24AM (#42231591)

    Robots are replacing workers everywhere and we need a new economy to deal with the situation.

    ...or we need to grow the economy. Value creation isnt zero sum.

    Perhaps a little of both?

  • by Iamthecheese (1264298) on Sunday December 09, 2012 @03:28AM (#42231603)
    The present economy is growing in leaps and bounds leaving workers in the dust. "economic growth" is a meaningless metric when productivity allows this.
  • by artor3 (1344997) on Sunday December 09, 2012 @03:32AM (#42231635)

    Having the robot factories here is good. We can tax the owners, tax the engineers, and use the proceeds to support all the unemployed people. Automation guarantees that we will, eventually, have 50+% permanent unemployment. We'll need to transition to a socialist economy to survive, and it will help if the factories are in our backyard.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 09, 2012 @03:32AM (#42231639)

    Yeah good one... If all the robot factories are owned by few people, how will growing the economy help? We are probably less than 2 decades away from mass riots (And I only say that because I'm not an alarmist).

  • by c0lo (1497653) on Sunday December 09, 2012 @03:39AM (#42231669)

    Robots are replacing workers everywhere and we need a new economy to deal with the situation.

    ...or we need to grow the economy. Value creation isnt zero sum.

    Perhaps a little of both?

    Question is: for how long?

    I mean, if the "workers" can't afford to buy the widgets, where's the growth in the economy produced by the" value creation"?
    Let me rephrase: in extreme, if there aren't any buyers, what meaning the "economy" term still retains?

  • by FsG (648587) on Sunday December 09, 2012 @03:42AM (#42231683)

    It's a myth that automation is bad because it leads to unemployment, but no-doubt that myth will be perpetuated here. Someone might even say "yeah it frees people up, frees them up to STARVE." Let's try to address that before it happens.

    As processes become more automated, the things we want become cheaper because the cost of labor is the dominant cost in almost every business. This means people have more spare money available, and it will be spent on things that before would have been considered too wasteful. This creates new industries and new jobs.

    At one time, people would have spent virtually all their wealth on food. Because of improvements in automation, most people in the U.S. now spend a small fraction of their wealth on food, and this leaves extra money for, say, entertainment. At one time, having many people devote their whole lives to entertaining others would have seemed hugely wasteful -- those people should be out gathering food, after all -- but the wealth created by automation means that it's now a reality.

    Some folks also make the claim that the new wealth will be concentrated in too few hands, and most people won't get wealthier. That, too, is false: automation makes things so cheap that just about everyone ends up owning things like microwaves, air conditioners, and computers -- things that before were reserved for the rich. Here's a good explanation of this: http://youtu.be/OkebmhTQN-4 [youtu.be]

  • by Iamthecheese (1264298) on Sunday December 09, 2012 @03:55AM (#42231757)
    How many cheap iphones can a jobless person purchase?
    You're being deliberately obtuse. What has happened in the past is no evidence of what will happen in the future. Automation drops prices. Comprehensive automation leaves everyone without a job. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, I think our goal should be 0% employment. But that goal leaves us with no one buying things in this style of economy. So we need a new way. These [thefiscaltimes.com] charts show what productivity increases have done over the last four years. A trillion dollars more GDP, five million fewer workers. And this trend will continue. We need a change and we need it now.
  • by MichaelSmith (789609) on Sunday December 09, 2012 @04:13AM (#42231829) Homepage Journal

    But there is a hypothetical case where everything we need can be made by robots, even the robots. In that case we would need a new economic system to distribute wealth.

  • by Vapula (14703) on Sunday December 09, 2012 @04:44AM (#42231919)

    The potential price would be little over the cost of raw material in a perfect world. Automation has always been pushed forward as a way to lower manufacturing costs AND product cost.

    Except that we are talking about Apple which is known to charge much more than needed and it's unlikely that the price will lower... In fact, the price may even increase as "it's made in US" with fallacies as "greater quality", "higher production costs", ...

  • by Yoda222 (943886) on Sunday December 09, 2012 @05:18AM (#42232043)
    Wait for the robot replacing the service economy. A robot in the future could cut your hair or goes in your heart to fix your valve. The service economy is not immune to automatization. And I'm looking forward to it.
  • by thetoadwarrior (1268702) on Sunday December 09, 2012 @06:39AM (#42232345) Homepage

    If there were no workers involved in the production of our most complex products, the potential price of these same productions would be little over the cost of the raw materials.

    So how's life in imginary land?

  • by _Ludwig (86077) on Sunday December 09, 2012 @06:47AM (#42232375) Journal

    Believing that infinite growth is possible in an infinite world is perfectly logical. The problem is that we live in a finite world, and our growth-oriented model of capitalism strongly resembles cancer.

  • by sjames (1099) on Sunday December 09, 2012 @07:07AM (#42232423) Homepage

    The same reason we didn't solve unemployment this time around by going to a 36 hour work week. That is, it might mean that the 1% have to wait till next year for that all important 5th yacht.

  • by Areyoukiddingme (1289470) on Sunday December 09, 2012 @07:12AM (#42232441)

    You're missing an important statistic, as is everyone else in this discussion (and nearly all the others on Slashdot lately). That statistic is called the participation rate, and according to the Department of Labor, it's the lowest it has been since World War II. The number I saw last was a participation rate of 65%. That is, only 65% of the working age population is actually working. We are, in fact, trending towards 50% unemployment right now, and we're far far closer than the unemployment numbers would have you believe. I haven't seen anybody plot out the trend line, but I suspect it will not be too many years before we're at 50%. In other words, we'll have basically returned to the time when women did not work outside the home.

    There are plenty of people willing to argue this would be a good thing, and possibly it could have been. But it's not, and the reasons are too numerous to list, but I can hit the high points. First, wages have remained stagnate for two generations while the cost of living has soared, so it's no longer possible to support a family on a single income. Second, the divorce rate is way over 50%, so the nuclear family is effectively nonexistent. Third, people who have had the idea that they absolutely must work ground into their heads their entire lives who aren't able to find work become self-destructively depressed. Fourth, as has been pointed out elsewhere in the thread, there is no upper limit on automation, so we have no reason to believe the trend will stop at 50%. I could go on, but you get the idea.

    The obvious retort is we never had a 100% participation rate, and of course that's true. But it was once much higher than it is now. Those jobs have, in fact, been lost. Permanently and completely. That's why those people are no longer counted as unemployed. They're counted as non-participating. Because they will not ever be employed again.

  • by mathew42 (2475458) on Sunday December 09, 2012 @07:23AM (#42232493)

    In the past (and possibly now) the majority of jobs were repetitive low skilled (e.g. digging holes with a shovel, porter, assembly line worker, etc.) that just about anyone could do with a bit of on the job training. To leave school at 15 was not uncommon 20 years ago. The service / knowledge economy jobs require a much more highly skilled workforce. If you look at the previous transition from farm labourer to assembly line worker both jobs were relatively similar in terms of the type of personal attributes required.

    My concern for society is that with education standards dropping coupled with an entitlement / victim mentality that many people are being disenfranchised and have little chance of contributing to society. We cannot stop change, but we should plan for it.

  • by rasmusbr (2186518) on Sunday December 09, 2012 @08:25AM (#42232705)

    The cost of raw materials would be close zero since that is also basically labor.

    The thing is that if we look back say 300 years we see that we already have close to free energy and close to free labor by 1712's standards. The average person today uses more energy than the richest king back then and the average farmer today produces as much food as a village of hundreds of people produced back then. We can produce so much food that we have to throw away or burn a significant fraction of it to prevent our food storage from overflowing...

    And yet we still have problems like homelessness and people dying from curable diseases.

  • by CastrTroy (595695) on Sunday December 09, 2012 @08:32AM (#42232719) Homepage
    Except that if Apple really did charge more than needed, than someone else would step in and sell a similar product for cheaper. But we just don't see that happening. Other companies make similar products, but almost none of them contain the same amount of "polish" as the Apple products. Just the physical design, getting so much into a small case, and making just about every component custom in order to do so has to account for a sustantial cost. Although they use commodity CPUs in their machines, that's about the only thing in their computers that's commodity. Most of the rest is custom build, and redesigned every year. Sure they probably could have got away with making the iPhone thinner again this year, but that's not the way they do things.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 09, 2012 @08:33AM (#42232723)

    It is very possible to support a family on a single income, part of the problem is the definition of "support" keeps chaning.

    Food, a modest house, 1 used car, basic and I mean BASIC health care, 1 TV, clothes, a few major appliances, and a basic education....easy.

    Now everyone wants a 5000ft2 house, 3 new cars, a tv in every room, multiple PCs, multiple cell phones, multiple tablets, home and wireless internet, cable, all the major appliances, full health care, eat out for every other meal and premade meals for the rest, college education, vacation every year, recreational vehicles, etc, etc

    That is why people have dual income families and a mountain of debt.

  • by GameboyRMH (1153867) <gameboyrmh@@@gmail...com> on Sunday December 09, 2012 @08:34AM (#42232731) Journal

    So your solution to the greed of the "job creators" which is leading towards unsustainable wage disparities and high unemployment due to large-scale automation is to make it easier for them to get their fix by lowering employee benefits?

    GP was right, we do need a new economy to deal with the fact that people can't compete with robots anymore, we've been putting hackish fixes on this tarted-up barter system for too long and it won't stay running much longer. Trying to make people cheaper than robots doesn't seem like a good short-term solution. Maybe instead we stop giving into the money addiction of the few?

  • by Cwix (1671282) on Sunday December 09, 2012 @09:32AM (#42232949)

    We need to get rid of all of those damn socialist policies!!

    Hwys and roads.
    Public schools
    FDA
    EPA
    National Parks
    Medicare
    Fire Departments
    Police Departments
    Anything with the word community in it (Like gardens)
    Public libraries
    Public colleges/universities

    Stupid asshole. Some things are better when they are socialist, because we all reap benefits from them. Everyone in this country has reaped benefits from this list in one way or another. That does not mean we need to scrap capitalism. It does mean that we shouldn't dismiss "socialist" ideas out of hand.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 09, 2012 @10:19AM (#42233203)

    If that were the case, you'd have more employed. The economy isn't just about the rich assholes at the top....if you use the metrics they used in the period of the Great Depression for measuring unemployment, we're setting at about 1 in 4 out of work, some five percent above what was there in the GD at it's worst and some 15% above what you're being lied to with.

    Growing in leaps and bounds is yet another damned lie that tools like you propagate- and the mods that upmodded your post need to lay down their damn crack pipes and quit modding.

  • by Coisiche (2000870) on Sunday December 09, 2012 @10:22AM (#42233229)

    I don 't know where all these poor people living like kings are but I'm pretty damn sure they only exist in the minds of conservatives.

    The meme is more widespread than that because certain media outlets supporting a conservative agenda will perpetuate the idea at every opportunity so that many taxpayers will believe that the single, most significant reason for a country's economic woes is down to people living it large on welfare.

    So long as the ruling elite can keep the in-fighting going among the people who massively outnumber them then they don't have to worry about attention being focused on them.

  • by Phrogman (80473) on Sunday December 09, 2012 @10:23AM (#42233239) Homepage

    Well there is the little fact that the Apple products are easier to use, generally more reliable, very user friendly, have a great UI design, and are of course extremely stylish. If you are willing to settle for things which okay to use, mostly reliable, somewhat user friendly, have an ok UI design with very little thought put into it by comparison, and can be considered stylish as long as you haven't seen the comparable apple product, then yeah there seems to be only the 1 leading company.
    I have an iMac desktop, it dualboots into OS/X and Win7. There is no comparison between the two operating systems in my opinion. OS/X wins pretty much hands down on every category except "Runs the games I play" which Win7 wins hands down, and is thus installed on my box. If OS/X ever becomes the popular OS to develop for that MS Windows is at the moment, I will never look at Windows again.
    I have owned an iPod Touch, again very nice kit. Not at all comparable to anything else.
    I have a Blackberry Playbook, my wife has an iPad. She has apps available to do all sorts of fascinating things, many of them free. There's probably half a million of the suckers available. The Playbook has apps, none of which do anything remotely interesting to me, and they number at least a hundred or so. As a piece of kit, the Playbook is great, but the support and the apps available are just plain sad.
    I have a Samsung Galaxy S smart phone. Its not bad unless you have played with an iPhone of course. The Samsung works but the UI is poorly thought out IMHO. I am constantly frustrated by strange choices in the way it works. I seldom feel that way about Apple products.

    I am not a fanboy, but I am not blind either. Apple's products work very well, and when compared to their competition, the price really isn't all that out to lunch despite the naysayers. My iMac desktop is 5+ years old, and the only thing I have needed to fix on it so far is the hard drive which I had replaced. I can't think of a single one of the many PCs I owned in the past that lasted 5 years without having had to have multiple things replaced and/or repaired.

  • by Rich0 (548339) on Sunday December 09, 2012 @10:33AM (#42233313) Homepage

    Sure, but who would hire you for a few hours a month when their money would be better-spent on robots.

    I see two choices - either we all starve to death while robots harvest a bounty unlike anything the world has ever seen, or we give up on the idea that the only way to pay for things is to work for them.

  • by Phrogman (80473) on Sunday December 09, 2012 @10:34AM (#42233323) Homepage

    We had to switch to self-service everything because those shitty jobs you describe started getting paid a reasonable amount of money, and many good jobs were unionized and the unions spoke up for their workers to get them decent working conditions, a pension to retire on etc. Because paying for the labour of things cost more (as it should have) the slave-labour jobs disappeared and we did more ourselves to ensure that the cost of the things we paid for were kept down. If you want to be treated like Royalty you still can almost anywhere - it just costs a lot.
    The problem is that all a long the rich kept getting richer and have gradually been paying less and less taxes. Now they have engineered the destruction of many of the unions, so they can pay shit wages again and continue to get rich on the backs (and bodies) of the workers who make it possible for them.
    Corporations now rule the world in effect. Oh sure, they allow us the illusion of government and democratic elections but they control the strings behind the puppets we elect, and the government works to their benefit before ours mostly. Its not all cut and dried, not all back and white of course, its many subtle shades of grey too, but the welfare of the average person is not the prime motivation for the elected governments of the age. If it ever was it certainly isnt now.
    Increased reliance on automation is going to put even more people out of work. If they can automate the industrial side, whats to say they can't automate the service side too? Then where do the ex-members of the middle class go to find work?

  • by _Ludwig (86077) on Sunday December 09, 2012 @10:44AM (#42233371) Journal

    An iPhone 3G that you couldn't give away for nothing on Craigslist counts as a "smartphone." What do you expect people to do, plunk quarters into increasingly nonexistent payphones to talk to their families or social services or arrange job interviews? Restrict themselves to some old-ass StarTac that isn't any cheaper, does much less, and can't talk to modern cell networks? For the same price you'd pay for a landline (which you can only use while you're at home) you can get a free smartphone with essentially unlimited talk & text, which you can use anywhere and also listen to music or play Angry Birds. I assure you that spending thirty-five bucks a month on mobile communications is far from extravagant living large.

  • by drinkypoo (153816) <martin.espinoza@gmail.com> on Sunday December 09, 2012 @11:40AM (#42233699) Homepage Journal

    Well there is the little fact that the Apple products are easier to use, generally more reliable, very user friendly, have a great UI design, and are of course extremely stylish

    It is a fact that Apple products are not easier to use or more reliable or more user-friendly or have better UI design, all of this has been proven through usability and other studies. Stylish is a matter of opinion, though it does seem to hold out. It is a fact that you are an iFanboy.

  • by MightyYar (622222) on Sunday December 09, 2012 @11:42AM (#42233711)

    Robots are replacing workers everywhere and we need a new economy to deal with the situation.

    I don't mean to belittle your concerns, but it's not as bleak as you paint. If the factory is in the US, it is still a net win for employment. Robots need to be manufactured, maintained, and repaired (I work in that industry). This is the kind of high-margin business that US companies can still compete in. The factory needs support services. The factory needs raw materials. The raw materials and finished goods need to be transported. Many of these jobs are much better than the line worker jobs that the robots are replacing.

    Sure you have fewer "lose your hand in an industrial accident" kinds of jobs, and that is a problem for people who used to rely on those jobs instead of education. But it's better for the US employment situation than simply hiring a bunch of people in China. And productivity improvements are better for the population as a whole, even if it negatively affects those who end up being replaced by robots. I'm not sure what people with no skills will do when factories become more automated, but holding back productivity is probably not the answer.

  • by Rockoon (1252108) on Sunday December 09, 2012 @01:39PM (#42234449)

    The present economy is growing in leaps and bounds leaving workers in the dust.

    How is this insightful? Its wrong.

    Our GDP growth is currently a dismal 1.7% annual.

    Government spending is growing by leaps and bounds though.. but thats clearly not what he meant.

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