Exploring The Factories Where All Our Gadgets Are Made

from the take-a-listen dept

This week is the big Consumer Electronics Show -- and, like many in the tech field, I'm here in Las Vegas exploring the various gadgets that are coming out. Many (some might say most, though I'm not sure that's true) of the gadgets here are made in China. So it's interesting timing that the always excellent radio program This American Life chose this particular week to run its episode on what happens in the electronics factories in Shenzen, China. Most of the episode involves a rather gripping story from storyteller Mike Daisey (who first came to fame almost exactly a decade ago talking about his life working at Amazon.com). Daisey's latest one-man show is all about Apple and Steve Jobs -- and this segment was adapted from a part of that show. The second act of the show involves This American Life host Ira Glass, looking to fact check many of the claims that Daisey makes -- many of which do, in fact, seem to check out. Of course, the two biggest companies at the center of the story -- Apple and the infamous Foxconn -- refuse to take part. The whole thing is worth listening to, in part because Daisey really is a fantastic storyteller (something I didn't think was true a decade ago, but as I think he's gotten progressively better over the years).

While I won't go into all of the details of the story, there were two separate points that I found especially interesting. The first was what maybe seemed like a minor aside in Daisey's monologue: that almost all the work done in these factories is done by hand. He noted that, in his imagination, if he ever really thought about these plants, he imagined them being like the robotic Japanese auto plants he'd seen videos about years ago -- only the robots would be smaller, since the gadgets are smaller than cars. But, the truth is that everything is done by hand -- and that's, in part, because labor is so ridiculously cheap in China. And then he notes that we always hear people who decry the fact that everything is mass produced by these machines, and clamor for handmade products. And he notes that, perhaps, we don't really want handmade products -- because all these gadgets really are handmade, and it's not a pleasant experience.

The second point, however, goes in a different direction. It comes during the "fact check" portion of the show, in which multiple observers -- including Paul Krugman and Nicholas Kristof -- note that, for as bad as the factories may seem relative to what we have today in the US, the conditions and opportunities are significantly better than where those workers came from. Furthermore, another commentator notes, over the last few years, conditions at these plants has been improving -- and it isn't necessarily because of pressure from companies or the government instituting any kind of labor reforms. It is, instead, because competition for workers has increased -- and turnover is massive: in some cases upwards of 20% per month. That's an insane level of turnover -- and a costly one. Even in a "sweatshop" type setting, the costs of replacing a worker can be high, and the end result is that these companies do have incentives to improve, and to offer a better deal and better conditions in factories. None of this is to excuse the dangerous working conditions (in some cases easily avoidable), the physical neglect of employees, or the occasional employment of under-age workers. But it does make you wonder what the "solution" to all of this would be. Daisey says the answer is labor standards -- and that may very well be a workable solution. But it might also mean that some of the workers, who start from the same place as those who were able to build themselves up from incredibly poor to a form of middle class, might never get that chance.

It's a situation where there certainly aren't easy answers. Personally, I think that if there were more transparency (and perhaps shows like this one can help), that could drive social pressure to improve the worst of the worst working conditions, as companies should be reasonably ashamed for abusing their employees'. And that level of transparency itself can come from social pressure. Indeed, while Apple and Foxconn refused to take part in the show, Apple (at least) has been continuously pressured to be more transparent about these things, and (as the episode notes) in some ways it does do a lot more than other companies -- though many would argue not nearly enough. In the end, hopefully pressure both from competitive forces for workers along with public pressure to stop horrible treatment can lead to a situation where the conditions in these factories really do significantly improve. And maybe, in the end, that actually does lead to more automation, and the miniaturized robotic automobile factories Daisey imagined. And then people can really complain about a lack of handmade goods. But, it might just be better for the employees themselves in the long run.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
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    cc (profile), Jan 12th, 2012 @ 5:28am

    Here's the thing, though. Do the Chinese companies really want their working conditions to improve? Will the improved conditions cost more than the employee turnover, and could that cause outsourcing companies to choose another destination for the sweatshops?

    Relevant link: http://www.techweekeurope.co.uk/news/foxconn-workers-threaten-mass-suicide-53817

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2.  
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    TasMot (profile), Jan 12th, 2012 @ 5:59am

    The Miniature "Auto" assembly line

    One thing that many people miss is how complicated it is to design and construct a robotic assembly line for products that have such a short lifespan. "Most" robotic assembly lines can produce one or two products, they are very specialized. For cars, the assembly line design starts almost as soon as the car design is done on paper. Since the life of a new cell phone is at the very most a year (try to go out and buy last year's hot phone, its gone off the shelves). The cost of a fancy robotic assembly line is even more than the cost of the 20%/month turnover. Then it would need to be thrown away to start on the next one after six months.

     

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  3.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 12th, 2012 @ 6:05am

    Natural pressures will drive conditions to improve, it happened everywhere, and it will too in China.

    Just don't let the government interfere with commerce and everything will find its natural way.

    One thing to note is that China is so massive in numbers that they can create their own self economy, when one part goes up the other goes down and each keep feeding itself.

     

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  4.  
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    xenomancer (profile), Jan 12th, 2012 @ 6:29am

    Re: The Miniature "Auto" assembly line

    This may be true of most contemporary robotic assembly designs, but modularization of the overall process allows for both reconfiguration and adaptation to new products. For example, an automated soldering bath (watch this for an idea of what one looks like) for a circuit board will work on any and all boards with the same width in one direction and a similar thermal tolerance. If an auto-loader and a properly setup receptacle for transfer to the next process unit are associated with the soldering bath, it can simply be placed on a semi-mobile platform and placed wherever it is needed in the process.

     

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  5.  
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    abc gum, Jan 12th, 2012 @ 6:29am

    Re:

    Never mind the suicides, there are more where those came from.

     

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  6.  
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    Chuck Norris' Enemy (deceased) (profile), Jan 12th, 2012 @ 6:34am

    Re: The Miniature "Auto" assembly line

    I have been in the SEL protection relay plant here in the US where they manufacture their relays through pretty much robotic assembly lines. This system can create several types of boards based on programming of the system. Sure there are a couple components that the robotic assembly line can't do and is assembled by hand. And they manufacture a a wide range of relays that do lots of different things. So I would think that you wouldn't have to build a specialized robot for one specific assembly gesture when you can build one with generalized purposes that can be tweaked for changing component design. Especially when that design changes only slightly from year-to-year. Then have human assembly for things the robots can't do.

     

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  7.  
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    anonymous, Jan 12th, 2012 @ 6:37am

    the thing i find a bit strange is that the US is very quick to condemn what happens in China concerning conditions of just about everything (whilst at the same time trying to be just like China by introducing Bills like SOPA/PIPA) but are even quicker to have US companies jump on the band wagon and have as many things needed in the US manufactured and/or assembled in China, because of those conditions (cheap labor etc), thereby not helping the jobs market or the economy of the US anywhere near as much as they could!

    like everything, when it suits, so it seems, it suits!

     

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  8.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 12th, 2012 @ 6:37am

    Re: The Miniature "Auto" assembly line

    cnc is changing that

     

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  9.  
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    bwp (profile), Jan 12th, 2012 @ 6:57am

    Re: Re:

    That's very true. Suicides, across the world, will continue to happen.

     

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  10.  
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    bwp (profile), Jan 12th, 2012 @ 7:00am

    Re:

    Producing everything here in the US wouldn't help the economy or job market as much as you think that it would.

     

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  11.  
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    ChrisB (profile), Jan 12th, 2012 @ 7:21am

    Re: Re:

    I've read a few reports talking about Chinese worker suicides. If you compare the suicide rate to the national rate, it is actually lower. So working at these business actually _lowers_ the rate.

     

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  12.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 12th, 2012 @ 7:34am

    IF labor standards improve in China, production will be moved to a developing nation. The thing that makes China attractive for manufacturing is the cheap labor market, if you impose standards which increase the costs, the production will simply move to country with more lax labor standards.

     

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  13.  
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    Hephaestus (profile), Jan 12th, 2012 @ 7:47am

    Re: Re: The Miniature "Auto" assembly line

    I agree with you about automation.

    KISS KIM KIM

    Keep It Simple Stupid
    Keep It Modular
    Keep It Manufacturable

     

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  14.  
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    Hephaestus (profile), Jan 12th, 2012 @ 7:53am

    Re: Re: The Miniature "Auto" assembly line

    Then have human assembly for things the robots can't do.

    The problem is if you need a human to put things together then you didn't plan for the manufacturing piece, and that is poor engineering.

     

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  15.  
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    Hephaestus (profile), Jan 12th, 2012 @ 7:53am

    Re: Re: Re: The Miniature "Auto" assembly line

    Damn, that was so German of me ...

     

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  16.  
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    Hephaestus (profile), Jan 12th, 2012 @ 7:56am

    Re: Re: Re:

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17.  
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    Hephaestus (profile), Jan 12th, 2012 @ 8:02am

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 12th, 2012 @ 8:53am

    Well, he's a good storyteller if you don't mind listening to a non-funny and not overtly gay Buddy Cole.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZFhbaMAjAA0&feature=related

    I kept hearing his story as if Scott Thompson was saying it.

     

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  19.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 12th, 2012 @ 8:54am

    Well, he's a good storyteller if you don't mind listening to a non-funny and not overtly gay Buddy Cole.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZFhbaMAjAA0&feature=related

    I kept hearing his story as if Scott Thompson was saying it.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20.  
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    Chuck Norris' Enemy (deceased) (profile), Jan 12th, 2012 @ 9:26am

    Re: Re: Re: The Miniature "Auto" assembly line

    Of course, pretty much all robotic/computing processes still take a human element at some level. That should last until they become sentient.

     

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  21.  
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    gorehound (profile), Jan 12th, 2012 @ 9:47am

    The Greedy Rich Capitalists caused this all to happen and I am old enough to remember Protesting the buying of "Sweatshop" Products in the early 1970's.
    We Protested but no one cared except to beat on us for our long hair.Well you dickheads who picked on people like me are now screwed and so much of your life is now "Made In China".
    I would just sit here and laugh but it is to sad to even contemplate any longer.
    My Dad's Generation screwed all of us US Citizens for a Profit.

     

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  22.  
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    Michael Long (profile), Jan 12th, 2012 @ 11:32am

    Re: The Miniature "Auto" assembly line

    "'One thing that many people miss is how complicated it is to design and construct a robotic assembly line..."

    That didn't stop the president of Foxconn from announcing that they were going to install 1,000,000 robots in their factories by the end of 2003.

     

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  23.  
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    Michael Long (profile), Jan 12th, 2012 @ 11:47am

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    Sounds to me like it was more of a protest than an actual threat. Note that no one actually jumped and that they let themselves be "talked" down.

    But by playing off the original suicides, they get a lot of press, didn't they?

     

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  24.  
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    Michael Long (profile), Jan 12th, 2012 @ 12:01pm

    Re: Re:

    Everything? I mean, it's not going to happen but.. what are you smoking? How would not having having millions of additional jobs in manufacturing and mills, producing electronics, automobiles, appliances, textiles, clothing, and everything else NOT help the economy?

    That's millions of additional workers buying homes and cars and food and clothing and appliances. Not to mention paying taxes.

    Henry Ford got one thing right when he insisted that his workers be paid a living wage. Why? Because he wanted them to be able to afford to buy his cars.

    US corporations shifting millions of jobs overseas was a brilliant short-term success... right up to the point where it left those people out of work and as such, unable to buy their products.

     

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  25.  
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    Michael Long (profile), Jan 12th, 2012 @ 12:09pm

    Re:

    "... production will simply move ..."

    Simply? No. You don't just built a plant somewhere. You need a workforce that can build the plant itself. You need a workforce you can train. You need materials. You need power. You need roads and ports and infrastructure.

    Nor do you "simply" abandon a three-year-old billion-dollar electronics fab or assembly plant.

    Besides, the standard of living is rising in China, Thailand, India, the Philippines... where are you going to go?

     

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  26.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 12th, 2012 @ 2:41pm

    Re: Re: Re: The Miniature "Auto" assembly line

    I say if it is not engineered to handled by both humans and machines then it is not good engineering, most pieces comes from small factories that supply bigger ones and they don't have the resources the bigger ones have, it needs to be able to cope with that, if not you are not going to find cheap labor to do it outside of your own shop.

     

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  27.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 12th, 2012 @ 3:21pm

    I believe assembly lines are an anachronism, they had their time and where important but in modern society the value is in distributed production, the Japanese call it cell production and others are starting to warm up to it.

    If any part of an automated assembly line stops it also stops the rest of the line, there are no backups in a line, there is no way to make 2 lines, people saw this in the 80's and 90's and found out that the solution to that was to break down the production into smaller pieces and so the parts the broke the most could have backup stations, the line now could be dispersed around not only the factory floor but across the globe and the price to have a backup goes down as you don't need to mirror the entire line but only a piece of it, it also proves advantageous in finding smaller subcontractors that wouldn't be able to handle the entire process but can handle bits and pieces of it.

    The Chinese are in the 80's in to Japan organizational production, long line of workers, giant companies being born, America saw that happen in the 50's and 60's before it fall in the 70's, every single country passed for that evolutionary phase.

    Now I believe it is time for the "cooperative industry" to be born and revitalize the production capabilities of countries, with a global brain, but local capabilities of production.

    Every single person in the world would work to make one thing better and use that for his local advantage, without needing to care what happens on other places, without feeling threatened by others overseas, it would mean he would become a partner in global development so it can benefit him in his local endeavors.

     

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  28.  
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    abc gum, Jan 12th, 2012 @ 6:06pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

    Those bastards!
    How dare they take advantage of all the good will and empathy of their most gracious employers.

     

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  29.  
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    RobShaver (profile), Jan 13th, 2012 @ 8:49am

    Define "Hand Made"

    Something put together by people on an assembly line does not, in my book, count as hand made. The cars that rolled off of Henry Ford's assembly line were factory made ... not hand made.

    Hand made is when a craftsman takes raw materials and creates a finished product. Parts are often not interchangeable and each finished product is a little different from the others.

     

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  30.  
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    Gene Cavanaugh (profile), Jan 13th, 2012 @ 3:59pm

    CES

    You said " Daisey says the answer is labor standards -- and that may very well be a workable solution. But it might also mean that some of the workers, who start from the same place as those who were able to build themselves up from incredibly poor to a form of middle class, might never get that chance."

    Does not compute. You appear to be saying no one in the US, where we have labor standards, can do that.

    I did - from welfare as a child to multimillionaire.

     

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  31.  
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    chris, Jan 14th, 2012 @ 11:55am

    Re:

    The US companies put tremendous pressure the Chinese shops to keep their prices low. If any Chinese shop spent money to improve conditions, the US company would take their business elsewhere, just like they did when they left the US in the first place. It's exploitation, simple as that. If they wanted, the US government could set minimum working conditions for products that are sold in the US but I doubt they will. It's just that if they bother to do that here with minimum wage, etc., why ignore the same problems overseas? That should at least level the playing field and make sure more jobs stay in the US. I think it requires government action because consumers as a whole don't care about these issues, only about price. I don't believe in having an "underclass" of countries that do all the world's manual labor.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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