Bloomberg just broke a story that’s probably mindboggling for a lot of people: Mercedes is actually firing robots and hiring more people. We’re not talking about sales associates at dealerships, but the bringing on of more flesh and blood to put cars together.
It turns out that the Germans think humans do it better. Markus Schaefer, who is the head of production for Mercedes, told Bloomberg that it’s the variety of tasks that humans can perform easily that makes them superior. One look at the modern Mercedes-Benz model lineup and you can see there’s an endless sea of variants, which would make it necessary for the production line to accommodate all those crazy individualized models.
Another issue has to do with programming. Robots need weeks of lead time to get ready for changes. Humans, on the other hand, can be trained in just a couple of days or so.
Mercedes is using different kinds of robots in its factories. Instead of the big, lumbering things with arms the size of three Cadillacs, the company is going with smaller, lighter units. They work with the people more, doing the tasks that are too rigorous for humans, while their fleshy counterparts do the things that robots don’t exactly perform as well. It’s a great relationship.
As Bloomberg points out, BMW and Audi are going in the same direction. The robots are equipped with a bunch of sensors, like the cars. That means you can have mobile robots walking around the factories, making vehicles and drinking coffee in the break area, just like everyone else.
Every automaker in the world is in a crunch these days. With the increased globalization of car manufacturing, facilities have to be able to adapt faster to market shifts, and churn out higher-quality vehicles in less time. It might seem counterintuitive to go with a low-tech approach to get the job done, but then again we humans are pretty amazing when we want to be.