Silicon Valley has sometimes had a hard time creating manufacturing innovation (or at least scaling it). But some of the most cutting edge tech companies that have successfully emerged from the Valley in the past few decades are now focused on using sophisticated robotics and AI to help reinvent manufacturing and assembly lines.
The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Google has quietly been working with Apple supplier Foxconn on robotics technologies that could help Foxconn speed up robot deployment at its factories. Google has been acquiring and amassing robotic technology and talent over the past year and the WSJ article reports that former Android creator Andy Rubin has been talking to Foxconn about integrating one of Google’s robotic acquisitions within its manufacturing lines and assembly lines.
Foxconn — the gadget assembly behemoth with more than a million workers — is the perfect testing ground for Google’s electronic assembly line robotics tech. And as Foxconn shifts over to increasing automation, it will be the canary in the coal mine for how the automation of assembly lines will affect economies and populations.
Electric car maker Tesla is another company that has been using cutting-edge robotics. Just take a peek into Tesla’s robotic factory in Fremont, California and you’ll see how different it looks from other auto makers assembly lines. One robot is flexible enough to do multiple assembly tasks on the Model S car, from putting in seats, to attaching window to sealing the body of the car. It’s not the one-step process of the Ford era.
Tesla hired execs from across various industries to bring innovation into its assembly and manufacturing processes, and some of the company’s key intellectual property lies in this area. Cutting the costs of manufacturing and assembly using robotics will also be a crucial step to lowering the costs of its cars for its third-generation more mainstream electric vehicle in the years to come.
Finally, while Amazon doesn’t necessarily focus on manufacturing and assembly lines per se, its efforts — announced late last year — to bring robotics and drones to shipping is also part of this smart efficiency and automation trend for products. In contrast, the less-automated and less-flexible UPS struggled with its shipping processes over the holiday season.
A massive transformation from human labor to automated systems and robot factories has long been underway and is also looming on the horizon for those previously untouched sectors. It’s yet another way that software and computing are taking over the world. But it’s interesting that some of the most innovative tech companies from Google to Tesla to Amazon are putting a lot of effort into helping deliver this robotic transformation and using computing to change the physical world.