Mercedes-Benz is firing robots and bringing in humans to do the job instead.
Robots can’t keep up with the changing pace and adaptation required by the luxury car-maker; instead the flexibility and dexterity of human workers is required. “We’re moving away from trying to maximize automation, with people taking a bigger part in industrial processes again,” said Markus Schaefer, head of production at the company.
This change comes as many car manufacturers are moving towards an age of individualization, offering more options to consumers. Mercedes’s S-Class sedan, for example, comes with an array of options, from carbon-fibre trim, heated and cooled cup-holders and four types of caps for the tyre valves.
“Robots can’t deal with the degree of individualization and the many variants that we have today,” Schaefer explains.
Customizing on this scale proves difficult for robots, which aren’t programmed for adaptations. The variations have proved too much for the machines, with robots requiring to be reprogrammed and assembly patterns to be adapted.
The chart below shows how luxury car-makers are expanding their ranges, jumping from less than 15 options in 2000 to more than 35 for Mercedes Benz in 2015.
The automotive industry is the largest user of industrial robots. According to the International Federation of Robotics, nearly 1.3 million industrial robots are expected to come into use by 2018, with the automotive industry expected to maintain its prominence in using robotics.
Mercedes isn’t going completely robot-free, though; they’ll be using smaller and more flexible robots in conjunction with skilled human workers.
This "robot farming", as Mercedes has dubbed it, will equip workers with smaller machines they can work with, rather than separating machines and workers.