With its ‘lights-off factory’, iPhone manufacturer Foxconn leads in Industry 4.0

The Fourth Industrial Revolution seems unstoppable. Scholars are still divided about what automated production means for employment.

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With its ‘lights-off factory’, iPhone manufacturer Foxconn leads in Industry 4.0

Shanghai-listed Foxconn Industrial Internet Co Ltd (FII), a unit of Apple’s largest manufacturing contractor Foxconn, said its  “lights-off ” factory has received recognition at the World Economic Forum this month. The company’s Shenzen plant made it onto a shortlist of “state-of-the-art manufacturing facilities that serve as world leaders” in how to successfully adopt and integrate cutting-edge technologies, according to WEF.

Lights-off factories are highly automated and make use of robots in the production line, hence requiring less light – and perhaps more importantly, less human workers. Foxconn is expected to slash tens of thousands of jobs as it moves forward with its automated production plans across several units.

FII’s successful mid-2018 listing indicates that investors are confident about this direction. Now it’s receiving accolades on the global stage at the WEF.

WEF representatives and consulting firm McKinsey visited more than 1,000 factories worldwide to select a handful of facilities to be included on their shortlist of “manufacturing lighthouses”. In 2018, a total of 9 factories were selected, while for the 2019 batch, there are seven, including FII’s Shenzhen factory.

“FII utilizes a fully automated manufacturing process in the factory specializing in the production of electrical equipment components such as smartphones, equipped with an automated optimization system for Machine Learning and AI devices, an intelligent self-maintenance system, and an intelligent real-time monitoring system,” WEF explained its decision, adding that the factory’s production efficiency has been increased by 30%  and the inventory cycle reduced by 15%.

According to FII’s vice-chairmanLi Jie, the firm’s Shenzhen factory uses computer-controlled autonomous manufacturing in the dark, basically without assembly line workers.

Since the first light-off factory was put into use in Chengdu in 2012, FII has already set up several such factories in cities including Shenzhen and Zhengzhou, covering precise parts processing, intelligent tool processing, assembly, testing, and packaging.

Jie has explained that a lights-off factory is not an un-manned factory, as human workers are still necessary in the front end, to make decisions. Generally, automated manufacturing proponents have argued that these factories are safer and relieve humans of having to perform repetitive, low-value tasks.

Chen Guanqi, FII’s vice president, said in May that in a lights-off factory, there would be no need to worry whether a worker’s hand could be caught by the machine, cut or hit by something.

Overall, scholars are still divided about what automation will mean for the future of jobs, and whether this shift, also referred to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, will end up creating more, higher value jobs, or basically result in mass unemployment for low-skilled laborers.

Editing: Nadine Freischlad