How Foxconn’s Million-Machine ‘Robot Kingdom’ Will Change the Face of Manufacturing

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Qilai Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Foxconn, pressured by the stresses of rising labor costs and negative media attention over employee suicides, could be reshaping the landscape of manufacturing forever. How?

According to Focus Taiwan, the company recently announced it was building a $223 million “robot kingdom” in the Central Taiwan Science Park in the Taiwanese city of Taichung. The research and development center and manufacturing hub is part of chairman Terry Gou’s ambitious plan to build one million industrial robots.

Let’s put that in perspective; according to a September report by the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), the world is on track to reach 1.3 million operating industrial robots by 2014. That means that if Foxconn’s parent company, Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., reaches its goals, it would effectively double the number of industrial robots worldwide.

(PHOTOS: Portraits of Chinese Workers)

Foxconn, one of Apple’s biggest suppliers, has a number of good reasons to go the robot route. First, there are the suicides; at least 17 people have killed themselves at Foxconn factories over the last half-decade, according to a special report from Wired. Foxconn’s initial responses seemed a bit crass; first it looked to stop people from jumping off buildings by putting up nets, then it reportedly made workers sign pledges stating that they wouldn’t commit suicide.

Nearly half of Foxconn’s one-million workers are located in the company’s massive campus in Shenzhen. While it’s not the Ritz, it isn’t exactly a Dickensian nightmare either; workers have access to clean dormitories and amenities like coffee shops.

Still, life at the Shenzhen plant can be tough. An undercover report from Southern Weekend reporter Liu Zhiyi described a world of monotonous work under bright lights, 10-hour work days before overtime (which, thanks to voluntary overtime affidavits, can exceed 36 hours per month) and strict, unceasing supervision. It can also be lonely; earlier, TIME reported on the high employee turnover that makes social connections for migrant workers, already separated from their families, extremely difficult, even in cramped quarters.

Unsurprisingly, many of China’s newly-educated young people don’t want jobs like these, which brings us to Foxconn’s second problem: China’s industrial sector faces the vexing problems of both rising labor costs and a labor shortage.

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