The news that ginormous contract manufacturer Foxconn and Google are teaming up to advance Google’s robotics initiatives, reported here by the Wall Street Journal, should hardly come as a surprise.
The latest analysis, according to the WSJ Digits blog, goes like this: Google, which is investing heavily in robotics, wants to build an operating system that will run the things as they do factory work. Foxconn, which makes everything under the sun, including iPhones and iPads, wants machines that can build high-tech gadgets while reducing its reliance on human workers, who can be so inconvenient.
And that makes sense as far as it goes. But the story, really, goes beyond Foxconn and Google.
“Foxconn needs Google’s help to step up automation at its factories as the company has the lowest sales per employee among the contract makers, given its large workforce,” Digits quotes Wanli Wang, an analyst at CIMB Securities, saying. “Using robots to replace human workers would be the next big thing in the technology industry. Not just Google, other major technology companies such as Microsoft and Amazon also have been developing robotics technology to capture the future growth opportunities.”
Automation is the thing in manufacturing. And it’s one reason it makes sense for companies to start making things in the United States again. I wrote about what the trend means for manufacturing in Silicon Valley in a column that was part of a bigger series about a dramatic shift in building things.
There is no question that the interest in building complicated things closer to world headquarters is growing. Remember the hubbub surrounding Tim Cook’s announcement that a relative few Macs would be manufactured in the United States?
I wondered at the time whether it was Apple’s way of prototyping a new system of highly automated manufacturing that, if successful, it might expand to other products. And I argued that if that were the case, it would make a lot of sense for Apple to do its manufacturing in Silicon Valley, near its Cupertino headquarters.
But alas, the Mac work went to Texas. (Cue country song: All my OS-Xes live in Texas.)
But Texas (whether it likes it or not) is in the United States. And don’t be surprised if you see more highly-automated, high-value manufacturing returning to our shores.
(Photo: Silicon Valley’s long history of robotics is reflected in some of the work being done at SRI, one of the valley’s seminal research labs. By Mercury News photographer LiPo Cing)