Ever since a factory explosion in Kunshan, China killed 146 people in 2014, it seems that the area’s manufacturing industry has been on decline. While these plants still provide Taiwanese manufacturers with the components and materials needed to build products like the iPhone and other electronics, what you’ll find less of these days is people.
For example, Apple supplier Foxconn has done away with 60,000 jobs at a Kunshan plant formerly of 110,000 workers. The company has stated to the BBC that automation has taken over “many of the manufacturing tasks associated with our operations”.
According to the South China Morning Post, Foxconn and thirty-four other Formosa firms have altogether invested $610 million into artificial intelligence research in the past year. Half of the manufacturers operating in Kunshan are also planning on replacing personnel.
The trend extends across China — in the Guangdong province municipality of Dongguan, another $640 million has been put to use in robotics.
Replacing humans with smart machines can not only reduce labor costs, but reduces the total risk of accidents and it becomes easier to maintain safety standards. But it has adverse impacts on contingent local firms such as welders and assemblers as those processes can be internalized thanks to AI as well.
Still, Foxconn goes on to say that long-term jobs remain relatively safe. That may end up being true as most jobs in the sector are temporary with job applicants, usually those with few skills, arriving at these factories from rural parts of China.
As manufacturers are supposedly preparing to get three different iPhone models onto shelves quickly, perhaps it’s a sign that the robots will just need more help from flesh and blood adapting to hastily made changes.