New developments show robotics will continue to change manufacturing practices, although it may be in novel ways. In some cases, the robotics may be used to support human workers, rather than replace them. It may be premature, however, to tell how other robotic technology will eventually be used.
The Mercedes-Benz S-Class sedan features a growing number of options such as carbon-fiber trim, heated and cooled cup holders and four types of caps for the tire valves. That level of customization places a premium on the flexibility and dexterity of human workers on Mercedes’s assembly lines because while robots are good at reliably and repeatedly performing defined tasks, they’re not good at adapting, say Mercedes executives in a Bloomberg article.
“Robots can’t deal with the degree of individualization and the many variants that we have today,” Markus Schaefer, the automaker’s head of production, said at its factory in Sindelfingen, the anchor of the Daimler AG unit’s global manufacturing network. “The variety is too much to take on for the machines. They can’t work with all the different options and keep pace with changes.”
By focusing manufacturing around a skilled crew of workers at the Sindelfingen plant, Mercedes can shift a production line in one weekend instead of the weeks needed in the past to reprogram robots and shift assembly patterns, Schaefer says in the Bloomberg article. During that downtime, production would be at a standstill.
The revamped Mercedes E-Class, which goes on sale in March, is an example of how the company increasingly relies on human dexterity. To align the car’s head-up display, which projects speed and navigation instructions onto the windshield, the carmaker will replace two permanently installed assembly robots with either one movable, lightweight machine or a worker.
Other automakers also are investigating the use of smaller and more flexible robots. BMW AG and Volkswagen AG’s Audi, for instance, are currently testing lightweight robots equipped with sensors to allow them to safely work alongside humans.
At the other end of the spectrum, you may have seen video of a new robot walking in the snow and picking itself up after being knocked down. Atlas—a five-foot-nine, 180-pound biped—was designed by Boston Dynamics, the robotics company Google acquired two years ago.
The new-and-improved robot is “designed to operate outdoors and inside buildings,” Boston Dynamics wrote in a description of the video posted on YouTube. “It is specialized for mobile manipulation. It is electrically powered and hydraulically actuated. It uses sensors in its body and legs to balance and LIDAR and stereo sensors in its head to avoid obstacles, assess the terrain, help with navigation and manipulate objects.”
The video shows Atlas bending down to pick up 10-pound boxes and pivoting its torso to put each package on a shelf. In another instance, a human handler uses a hockey stick to push Atlas off balance. The robot stumbles backwards but regains its balance.
The Atlas robot is a game changer, not just for companies, but for society, Insider.com CEO Jason Calacanis told CNBC last week.
“This is really the end of manual labor,” Calacanis said on CNBC’s “Squawk Alley.” “Manual labor is going to end in our lifetime, and in this video you can see how close we really are. It’s a huge societal issue with jobs, but it’s going to be a huge lift in terms of efficiency of companies that nobody expected.”
On the CNBC show, Calacanis said he believes this type of robot will be walking down the street delivering pizzas and working in offices in 10 to 15 years. I’d like to know if you agree with that prediction. At the same time, do you think companies like Mercedes will place more emphasis on human dexterity for some tasks but continue to augment that performance with new smaller, lightweight robots?