Of course. We have already seen this happen in the US, Japan, and Europe. But the world will sooner or later run out of new low cost countries to move to. Inevitably, there will be incentive to develop much better robots and particularly much better robotic sensors. Fine motor control is not limited to humans. It is just, for now, cheaper to implement with humans.
George, thanks for mentioning "reshorng."
I agree re the importance of automation and of focusing on products that have natural advantage based on proximity. I would like to add to the discussion Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) analysis as essential to deciding what products can and should be made here. The non-profit Reshoring Initiative, www.reshorenow.org, provides for free a Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) software that helps corporations calculate the real offshoring P&L impact.
I was one of the business experts in Pres. Obama’s Jan 11, 2012 Insourcing Forum. I emphasized, and the assembled executives supported, the need for companies to more consistently utilize TCO analysis instead of price variance in making their sourcing decisions. Two hundred and fifty companies and analysts are already using our TCO Estimator and are finding that using TCO often leads to a domestic sourcing decision. User data suggests that about 25% of what has been offshored would come back if companies decided based on TCO instead of on price.
You can also report cases of reshoring on our site: Resources/Case Studies.
You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org for help using our tools for sourcing decisions and when selling.
"If the Chinese turned to robotics for consumer electronic assembly they would miss the market window."
Depends on the robotics. It will take some time and cost a lot to build the robotics-equipped factory, and you'll certainly not be able to hit market windows from it while doing so.
But if you're going to do that, you don't stop doing what you currently do manually while you build the new plant. You continue to do what you are already doing, and shift production to the new plant when it's fully on line.
The key factor will be the configurability of the robotics. What sort of devices can they assemble? How quickly can they be reconfigured to accommodate design changes in an existing product or to start making a completely new one? Your primary requirement will be that flexibility, to provide the fast time to market needed to compete.
And because of the enormous capital costs, another requirement will be volume. That sort of an investment gets amortized by having the production line running 24/7, filling orders. So you'll be looking for design wins where high volume is a requirement. Low to medium volumes may not justify robotics, and be better suited assembling manually.
Good point, Mushroom in the dark. In my tour of SMT shop floor, I noticed boxes of components that appeared to have been shipped from Taiwan. The high-volume component manufacturing is gone and is unlikely to ever come back. SMT focuses on low and medium volumes, and Escatec handles higher volumes in Malaysia. All of this serves to illustrate how the global electronics supply chain is evolving.
Interesting question for this article...what percentage of the raw materials, consumables and components used by the company is not made in China? Can it sustain it's manufacturing w/o China made supplies?
Robotics and automation will only be a drop in the bucket. The reason for Apple and Foxconn or any China company for that matter, to use labor because it is cheap is not totally true. Flexibility and product complexity is the reason. If you want to understand what I mean, try dis-assembling an iphone, ipad or any smartphone for that matter. The flex connectors and wiring configurations in these devices will take days or even weeks for a robot, fitted with the right clamp or holder, to get it right and operate properly. Whence, Apple's iphone, when they decided to make a last minute change to a scratch resistant glass, only had "one shift; 8 hours" to learn and then they were off to high volume production.
In the end, it will become expensive to make devices in China and another low cost country will take up the slack.
The temporary wall is at the far end of the photo on page 1 of our story (it is hard to see). I think our picture was taken during the lunch hour, so a lot of workers were in the break room, which looks out over a wooded area.
These public sector problems are there even in Asia. What Asian countries also have is a large workforce, which can work at much lower salary because the lifestyle can be very different between a manager and worker.