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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 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 poity (465672)

          GGP fears these automated plants displacing mostly imaginary workers. Few people in the US are doing manufacturing assembly work, much less the trivial work required of these robots. If anything they will expand the demand for engineers, maintenance workers, and more importantly the secondary fields of trade and distribution. It will also lower the price of assembly line robots (assuming they're US-made). Add to that the additional tax revenue from an expanding economy. Addressing wage inequality is a large

          • by HiThere (15173)

            The workers that are being replaced aren't imaginary, they work for FoxConn in China...or something analogous. Most of your other points seem valid, if parochial. But it's not at all clear how this contributes to what you correctly identify as a "largely political matter". There isn't an obvious natural limit to "how rich" and individual can be, as there is to "how poor" he can be. And the extremely rich in the US are already so extremely much richer than ther poor, that there's no clear reason for not

          • The workers aren't imaginary, they're in China. Well, maybe that makes them imaginary to some people in the U.S.

            There's much less labour in designing, building and operating the automated plants than in building regular ones and then running them with people. And even though the people creating the automated plants will be better paid, the end cost of production will still be lower.

            But now those people in China are going to need new jobs. And there are probably still jobs in the U.S. that could be outs

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Rockoon (1252108)

          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.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        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 grumbel (592662)

        ...or we need to grow the economy.

        The problem is that once you have flexible enough robots, all the new jobs created by a growing economy will be done by robots.

    • by Black Parrot (19622) on Sunday December 09, 2012 @03:31AM (#42231627)

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

      I suggest zombies. They're more cost-effective than robots, cheaper to replace, and on their off hours can do even more to reduce the number of unemployed.

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

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

      Don't worry. As soon as the US robots unionize the jobs will move overseas again.

    • 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 phantomfive (622387) on Sunday December 09, 2012 @04:01AM (#42231783) Journal
        This kind of sentiment is informed by 1920s misinformation. We've already solved the problem of not having any manufacturing jobs by transitioning to a service economy.

        If you still think manufacturing robots are going to cause 50% unemployment, consider the numbers: currently, 9% of the workforce is employed in manufacturing. Even if every single one of them got replaced by a robot and couldn't find a job anywhere else (unlikely), it would still only bring the unemployment rate up to ~17%. That 50% permanent unemployment rate isn't going to be a catalyst that will bring about a socialist economy, sorry. We'll all have jobs as shoe-shiners instead (actually in financial services, hospitality, retail, health, human services, information technology and education, but shoe-shiners is more hilarious).
        • As a shoe shining socialist from the 1920s I disagree with everything you said.
        • 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 am 2k (217885)

            The creative industries are probably the last ones to be replaced by automation, but that's also just a matter of time.

      • by rgbrenner (317308)

        Automation guarantees that we will, eventually, have 50+% permanent unemployment

        No it does not guarantee anything of the sort. It *could* happen.. but so could lots of other things.

        In your scenario, you would either have a massive welfare program or a large number of destitute people. That would be extremely volatile politically... which would encourage people (in gov and business) to find a suitable solution.

        The other problem with your scenario is that you imagine today, but with lots of automated equipment. As if everything else stood still. You have no idea what technology will exis

      • by jools33 (252092)

        yeah but you can't tax the robot workers.

      • by jcr (53032) <[jcr] [at] [mac.com]> on Sunday December 09, 2012 @05:04AM (#42232001) Journal

        Automation guarantees that we will, eventually, have 50+% permanent unemployment. We'll need to transition to a socialist economy to survive

        Yeah, because a majority of all the people are unemployed now that we only need 4% of the population to work on farms to feed us, right? Back around 1900, when 80% of the people in the USA worked on farms, who could have foreseen the horrific effects of mechanization of agriculture? The horror!

        You are very sadly misinformed about the effects of automation on productivity.

        -jcr

        • 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 larkost (79011) on Sunday December 09, 2012 @03:53PM (#42235629)

            Your sited fact that we are at tle lowest participation rate since WWII is incorrect, as proof go to this page and then adjust the graphs to show the max timeline:

            http://data.bls.gov/pdq/SurveyOutputServlet

            We are on our way down, but still have not hit the 1978 numbers again (62.5%). Of course these numbers don't take in to account the large social change that has happened over time with women in the workforce: the move from mothers expected to be at home to the "norm" of two-income households.

            That all being said: we are definately on a long-term course to the unworkability of a capitalist society (much along the lines that Marx predicted, but not on the timeline he expected). But I don't think we are anywhere close to knowing what that course is going to look like.

    • by Mr. Tom Guycot (1298343) on Sunday December 09, 2012 @03:33AM (#42231647)
      We need to either drastically lower the hours for 'full time' work, while increasing wages to compensate, or stop being afraid of welfare and accept that everyone doesn't have to be employed, but still guaranteed housing, healthcare, and living expenses. The only other option is the one we're currently going down, which is that of some kind of sci fi dystopian corporate future with massive slums/even greater prison population (maybe they'll just start merging them). The other options will never fly because people are petty and will complain about someone not having to work as much as them.

      Full employment, with a living wage is just not possible anymore.
    • by dadioflex (854298)
      Actually it's worse than that. If US jobs that moved to China become US jobs performed by robots you have still lost the jobs and you've also lost the potential market. Those Chinese workers? They used to buy US goods. Not any more.
    • by mysidia (191772)

      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,

      Who do you think is designing, monitor, and maintain/repair the automation systems, and build the factories? More robots?

      Robots doing most of the high precision raw labor, doesn't mean there won't be significant need for additional skilled human workers.

    • 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 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.

    • by sqrt(2) (786011) on Sunday December 09, 2012 @06:39AM (#42232347) Journal

      All of that is true, more or less. Somehow it works for us, except when it doesn't.

      I do envy the progress of Europe, but they face a different set of challenges. Imagine if all the nations of Europe were just states in a Federal Republic. Now imagine that Federal Government extracted billions of dollars each year to fund a military to kick around the world having adventures and spreading a specific political ideology. Imagine trying to sustain a European welfare system with that anchor tied around your neck. And after so many generations spent serving the Federal Government and its military people start really believing that's a better use of money than schools or trains or hospitals.

      That's America.

      • by stenvar (2789879) on Sunday December 09, 2012 @10:23AM (#42233241)

        I do envy the progress of Europe

        What exactly do you envy? The lower wages? The smaller houses? The lower retirement benefits? The lower levels of education? The lower standard of living? The higher taxes? The religious and ethnic conflicts? Do tell.

        Imagine trying to sustain a European welfare system with that anchor tied around your neck.

        True: US military spending is a drag on the US. However, we've been getting something in return, namely peace in Europe and Asia. After centuries of vicious wars and disruptions to the global economy originating there, that's been money well spent. Of course, it's debatable whether we need to continue spending it, but until a few years ago, it was absolutely necessary.

  • by whydavid (2593831) on Sunday December 09, 2012 @03:21AM (#42231575)
    ...if you don't actually pay anyone except the huge firm that sells you the robots (which were probably made by other robots). So, while I admit this is an overly simplistic view, we get all of the industrial waste and hardly any jobs. I sure hope more companies do this! There's a park down the street that would sure look great if it were paved over and filled with widget-making robots so a couple hundred people could make 11 bucks an hour to sweep the floor.
  • NeXT 2.0 (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    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.

  • This massive factory will provide 10 badly needed jobs. Somebody fortunately needs to oil the robots.
    • More than that as well.
      Even for putting components on a PCB a machine is often insufficient. Our current SMT pick and place machines are fast, and they're very precise considering the speed they work at. But if you go to the small component sizes you either sacrifice yield or production time (increase in cost). You'll need to test every single one of the devices if you sacrifice the yield (Apple already did this). In the latter case the cost will increase by a significant factor. In either case you'll need
      • by Osgeld (1900440)

        " A probing station and a computer might be able to tell you where the error is, but desoldering the components is work for a human no matter what you try."

        heck, I am putting together a probing station, it parts alone cost just over 10 grand, and required at least a dozen companies products + 2 weeks of my time to wire it all up + 2 weeks worth of software design.

        this is the 3rd one this quarter, and we are a tiny company doing simple products!

  • 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]

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Iamthecheese (1264298)
      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 trill
    • This is so wrong its not even funny. How is automation going to make the Macbook Pro cheaper for the masses? ITS NOT. Apple, like many other companies, decided that manufacturing was too costly in the US, so they moved it overseas where labor costs were next to nothing. If Apple is moving some manufacturing back to the US, and using automation to do it, it must at least be on par with their costs to do business in China. Do you expect Apple to knock $50 off the price of your next computer because of it? The
      • by Moses48 (1849872)

        His point was not that a specific instance of automation will lower the cost of that item. He is talking on the macro scale, responding to a misinformed argument. You can still argue what you are arguing without saying what he is saying is wrong. If moving manufacturing to automation lowers the cost of manufacturing, it might maximize profit to lower the price of their products, but it might maximize profit to keep it the same. We don't have the data. But in general, as efficiencies in an industry (not

        • He provided a counterexample. The argument by FsG was "automation will reduce costs". The counterpoint by Mr Superman is "no, companies are greedy and will keep prices as is, apple is a counterexample to your argument". A single counterexample is all it takes to say "hey, this argument isn't on the ball."
    • by Tablizer (95088)

      That's the way it has worked in the past, but there's no guarantee it will always be that way in the future. An observation of a historical pattern is not necessarily a law of nature.

      Someday we may reach a point where not enough new jobs are created to offset those lost to automation or offshoring, especially as high-end machines become as smart/reliable as low-end people. In the past, inventions aided humans, not replaced them. A semi-welfare state may be the only way to keep enough demand to push the eco

      • In the past, inventions aided humans, not replaced them.

        That's not true. Inventions have been replacing humans for a very very long time. The steam engine and railroads replaced the couriers (ala pony express). The assembly line replaced manufacturing workers (not all of them, just a large portion). Email has been replacing postmen. Computers have been replacing people since their invention (whole accounting offices reduced by 90%), business analysts reduced by 50%, etc.

        In almost every case, people have screamed that the end was coming because of it. Peopl

        • You didn't go back far enough. The horse collar is one of the biggest inventions in human history, enabling the production of surplus food and putting an end to feudalism in Europe and was one of the leading factors in putting an end to the Middle Ages.

          FACT: Free time is a GOOD thing. Automation will lead to more free time is changing our lives for the better. Yes change is often uncomfortable, but stagnation is far worse.

    • 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 houghi (78078)

      What you do not factor in is the fact that people who will loose their job because of automation will not get their job replaced. Say there are 10 people working 40 hour shifts. Because of automation 7 will looses their job.
      This means that the 30% need to support the other 70%. Or you need to spread the 30% workload among the 100%.

      In an ideal world, the latter would be the case. However this does not happen. Instead people start working more then 40 hours, turning the last 30% into 20%.

      Sure, for now there a

    • by houghi (78078)

      I only realize it now, but what you are telling is that we have now plenty of food and what is happening is that because of all of the companies doing automatisation we can have more entertainment as well.

      panem et circenses [merriam-webster.com] or panem et circenses [houghi.org]. Darn, that was well hidden.

    • by Cheech Wizard (698728) on Sunday December 09, 2012 @08:45AM (#42232763)

      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.

      Totally wrong. You *assume* that because it becomes cheaper to manufacture something a company is going to lower its selling price. That is basic business school rhetoric that doesn't reflect reality. I used to manufacture a low volume product as a side business. I found that I could automate and reduce expenses 70% (this was in the late 1990's). I didn't reduce my price to consumers. I increased prices 15% within a year because my product was better made (in part no human errors in build), was more reliable (lower returns and warranty costs), and in part I found many people buy on price (higher price means better). Unit sales went down less than 10%. It did help me retire in 2003 at the age of 53. I do not deny that in *some* fields prices may come down, but almost all price reductions are due to competition, to some degree volume, and to some degree obsolescence.

    • You probably doubt everybody that tells you that "this time it's different", and most of the time you are right, things are not different. Yet, there are times that are different, and this one is one of them.

      Robots and AI won't just replace a part of of the economy, they are going to completely replace it. Your rationale simply can't handle that kind of situations, your assumptions are wrong. There won't be other jobs waiting for the fired people, robots will be already on them. (And that includes entretain

  • by Tablizer (95088)

    "Machines making machines? How perverse!"

  • There's no problem building an automated production line. The description in the article would apply to the Sony Walkman production line from 20 years ago. Anything where you can do vertical assembly, just placing the parts in order onto a base, can be automated very effectively with simple robots.

    It's amazing that Foxconn uses over 100,000 people just to make iPhones, which are not very complex mechanically.

  • Automation (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Osgeld (1900440) on Sunday December 09, 2012 @04:06AM (#42231807)

    its the only reason the company I work for can be competitive on cost in electronic assembly, that being said it takes a small army to keep the machines running and fed 24/7

  • Robots can't commit suicide from overwork.
    Not that that has a direct bottom-line impact, as asian workers are valued at less than a single iPad they make... but it has started to have a mildly negative impact on consumer opinion.

  • The impact of holding down labor costs is that income of the market is going down. It means fewer people can afford to buy your product. That means your market is getting smaller. You'll have to reduce the scale of your business. And that means you'll have to cut costs even more. And you know what that leads to.

    • by AHuxley (892839)
      Yes US is stuck and has been for many years. When was the last good public investment that moved the USA up?
      The early 1940's? Post ww2? The 1960's? Beyond that you see massive capital flight to Asia to build factories and sell back to the USA.
      The stock market melted with savings, banking and loans into some huge casino with bailouts for any traditional risk.
      You have a few unique production lines for tanks, aircraft, subs, arms, space, heavy equipment - but thats all closed and life long with security
  • i always had trouble with the machining video. It seems like a waste of time and materials to carve EACH MacBook out of a single slab of material. I would have thought that the case was injection moulded and then 'finished' with a machine.

  • by gelfling (6534) on Sunday December 09, 2012 @06:51AM (#42232385) Homepage Journal

    It's about brand management. Apple can now say they are making stuff in the US.

  • 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.

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