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More work for robots in China

ABB Group

FRIDA, a robot from ABB Group, is the type of industrial robot that could soon find work assembling consumer gadgets. Foxconn Technology Group plans to put 1 million such robots to work at its factories in China.

Assembling and welding together gadgets like Apple's iPhones and iPads is tedious, dull, low-paying work that even a robot can do. That's why 1 million more robots will soon be on the job at Foxconn Technology Group's factories in China.

"This is the kind of stuff that drives people crazy when they have to do it themselves, which leads to suicide, which is what the Foxconn people had a problem with," Frank Tobe, owner and publisher of The Robot Report, which focuses on news and analysis of the robotics industry, told me today.

A highly-publicized string of suicides last year at the manufacturer of electronics for Apple, Dell, Sony and other technology companies was partly blamed on the long hours and tedious work employees endured.

The move to robots will free employees from the mind-numbing assembly-line tasks, which could help trim the suicide rate. The workers, in turn, could be trained for higher-skilled jobs, such as operating robots, Tobe said.

"The whole concept is to move people up, to give them a better job," he said. "[But] it is true it is going to reduce some [of the workforce]."

According to Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency that reported the plan earlier this month, the transition is part of a bid to trim rising labor costs and improve efficiency. Taiwan-based Foxconn employs 1.2 million people. About 1 million work on mainland China. It currently has 10,000 robots.

The announcement implies that industrial robots now function well enough and are priced cheaply enough to replace-low cost assembly line labor. And if this is happening at Foxconn, there's little doubt it is happening elsewhere too.

According to Engadget, robots such as ABB's FRIDA, which has human-like arms and can manipulate small parts, are the likely replacement workers. Other industrial robotics companies to watch include Panasonic, Rockwell Animation, Canada's ATS Automation Tooling Systems, Germany's Kuka, and Japan's Nachi-Fujikoshi, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Noticeably absent from the industrial robot sector, Tobe noted in a blog post about Foxconn's plans, is the United States, which long ago lost this market to foreign competitors. In the U.S., the robotics industry starts and ends with the military, as msnbc.com's Wilson Rothman reports this week in the video below.

Ten years of war have given robot developers a chance to refine and improve their bots. Now the robots are finding all sorts of new jobs on the homefront.

More on Foxconn and robot workers:

John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com.