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Mercedes: Less Robots, More Laborers

Posted March 02, 2016 1:12 PM by HUSH

When discussing the growing role of robots and automation in manufacturing and industry, it usually spawns a conversation about at least one of the following, in order of decreasing popularity: job replacement; efficiency; safety; hacking threats; development and maintenance costs; and universal income.

Without a doubt, fears of replacing human jobs with robots in manufacturing are a main concern. At the moment, multi-axis arms and tables, along with process lines and LAN integration, are the primary threat. Humanoid robots that can multi-task and quickly, independently problem solve at flexible work stations are still a ways off.

Due to this, Mercedes-Benz recently scaled back automation efforts at its Sindelfingen, Germany, production factory. The company cited that humans are more adaptable and better suited to a variety of tasks as the primary reasons for this technological reversal. At this plant Mercedes-Benz is producing its S-Class saloons, which are highly customized according to customer specifications. S-Classes used to be marketed with the slogan, "Engineered like no other car in the world," as it was designed for regular Autobahn use by engineers who weren't tied to purse strings. 2016 base model S-Classes start at $95,000, and the price could double depending on what a customer orders. With this price, Mercedes can afford to pay laborers instead of developers and technicians.

This is confirmation of what we've long suspected: certain human jobs are in no immediate danger of replacement. Humans remain better for cross-training and retraining, aesthetic and artisan work, and for flexible manufacturing environments. Instead, Mercedes plans to supplement workers with smaller, lighter robots that are better for performing repetitive mechanical tasks, and less dangerous to human coworkers. However, the skills gap between humans and robots is rapidly eroding.

Even though robots aren't up to human problem-solving standards, they're becoming more adaptable and human-like by the day. Check out this video of the latest iteration of Atlas by Boston Dynamics. Despite the creepy marching, the machine is nimble and articulate. The above-linked article states it can take weeks to reprogram a robot to do a different job, but I find that hard to believe. Arm Atlas with a few robotics engineers, and it seems primed for the production line any day now.

So this seems like a temporary setback for robots, mostly because it seems Mercedes didn't have proper expectations for their automation efforts. While we like to blame robots for many business and social changes, this one isn't on the android.

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Power-User

Join Date: Jun 2011
Location: Caerdydd, Cymru
Posts: 137
Good Answers: 10
#1

Re: Mercedes: Less Robots, More Laborers

03/03/2016 4:57 AM

/Fewer/ robots.

"Less" singular; "Fewer" plural. Fewer cars, less traffic. Not that I'm a bit obsessed with precision & correctness :-)

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Guru
Canada - Member - New Member

Join Date: Jul 2013
Location: Canada but south of 49
Posts: 763
Good Answers: 18
#2

Re: Mercedes: Less Robots, More Laborers

03/03/2016 8:23 AM

You find the key words "highly customized" mid way through the blog. I do all custom work and it is hard to justify robotics, especially in a company of my size. Orders can vary from 1 piece to 1000 pieces and complexity varies greatly as well. While there are a few items that may be common to most, even then the volume cannot justify the capital expenditure of robot(s).

I know the key is the people you have working for you, and,, I believe I am fortunate enough to have hired a bunch of relatively good ones. I can switch jobs in a matter of minutes just by moving people around.

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