22 October 2016
A worker applies adhesive to a car component at the Mercedes-Benz factory in Sindelfingen, Germany. Photo: Bloomberg
A worker applies adhesive to a car component at the Mercedes-Benz factory in Sindelfingen, Germany. Photo: Bloomberg

Why Mercedes is replacing robots on assembly lines with people

Human workers are reclaiming space on Mercedes-Benz assembly lines as they prove robots are no match to their flexibility and dexterity.

The German carmaker believes customization holds the key to wooing modern consumers, and in this area, robots can’t keep up, Bloomberg reports.

“Robots can’t deal with the degree of individualization and the many variants that we have today,” Markus Schaefer, the German automaker’s head of production, said at its factory in Sindelfingen.

“We’re saving money and safeguarding our future by employing more people.”

The Sindelfingen plant, Mercedes’s biggest, processes 1,500 tons of steel a day and churns out more than 400,000 vehicles a year. That gives importance to efficient, streamlined production.

But the age of individualization is forcing changes to the manufacturing methods that made cars and other goods accessible to the masses.

While robots are good at reliably and repeatedly performing defined tasks, they’re not good at adapting.

That’s increasingly in demand amid a broader offering of models, each with more and more features.

“The variety is too much to take on for the machines,” said Schaefer, who’s pushing to reduce the hours needed to produce a car to 30 from 61 in 2005. “They can’t work with all the different options and keep pace with changes.”

With manufacturing focused around a skilled crew of workers, Mercedes can shift a production line in a weekend instead of the weeks needed in the past to reprogram robots and shift assembly patterns, Schaefer said.

During that downtime, production would be at a standstill.

The revamped Mercedes E-Class, which goes on sale in March, is an example of cutting back on machines.

To align the car’s head-up display, which projects speed and navigation instructions onto the windshield, the carmaker will replace two permanently installed robots with either one movable, lightweight machine or a worker.

While robots won’t completely disappear, they’ll increasingly be smaller and more flexible and operate in conjunction with human workers.

Other makers of luxury cars such as BMW AG and Volkswagen AG’s Audi are also testing lightweight, sensor-equipped robots safe enough to work alongside people.

The edge they’re seeking is to be better and faster than rivals as the pace of change affecting the auto industry quickens.

Cars are increasingly morphing into smartphones on wheels, and manufacturers are under pressure to upgrade their models more frequently than the traditional seven-year cycle.

Automakers also need to cater to consumers demanding to be different. For Mercedes, that means adding 30 models by the end of the decade, including 10 all-new styles, and offering custom options such as bamboo trim, interior fragrances and illuminating the Mercedes star.

“We’re moving away from trying to maximize automation with people taking a bigger part in industrial processes again,” Schaefer said. “We need to be flexible.”

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