Over the past few decades, the automation trend in auto manufacturing has steadily replaced growing numbers of human workers with sophisticated robots, with the laudable goal of reducing errors and decreasing cycle times.
But in what may seem like a surprising twist to outside observers, a recent trend embodies exactly the opposite phenomenon: now humans are replacing robots.
The reason for this about-face is straightforward: flexibility. Today’s unprecedented level of product variation is in need of a human touch. With connected cars and luxury options, there are near-infinite variations for consumers, and robots simply cannot adapt to that degree of individualization (at least not easily and cost-effectively).
This issue came to the forefront of the public consciousness with the revelation Mercedes-Benz is bringing operators back to the factory floor to replace some of the large robots on its production lines. The attention-grabbing lead in one article began with “Mercedes-Benz is firing robots,” a tongue-in-cheek way of describing the current role reversal relative to what has happened to many manufacturing professionals over the years.
Bringing in humans to do the job – in collaboration with smaller-scale robots and emerging tools and technologies such as augmented reality – is an important piece in the larger tectonic shift in the roles of tech and talent taking place in automotive manufacturing.
The notion that automated processes are inherently better and more efficient, and that robots and automated mechanisms replacing people is part of an inevitable evolutionary arc within the industry, is such a strong narrative that bringing more people back onto factory floors and assembly lines might seem counterintuitive. But more and more companies are recognizing the extra flexibility and intelligence humans bring to the job has real value.
In an article in The Guardian, Mercedes-Benz’s head of production, Markus Schaefer, was quoted as saying: “Robots can’t deal with the degree of individualization and the many variants that we have today. We’re saving money and safeguarding our future by employing more people.”
Repetitive tasks are easy for robots. But once variation goes up, the time required to program those robots and keep production systems updated outweighs the benefits conferred by automation.
This dynamic is reinforced by the fact that those companies that have invested the most in automation tend to be among the least productive in the automotive/OEM space, while brands that have been more balanced and strategic about integrating automation with people power have more successfully lowered costs and labor hours per vehicle.
The caveat here is that you do need to have the right tools. Robots became popular in the first place for two reasons: consistency and efficiency. People are, well, human – and they tend to make mistakes. But new tools are emerging that dramatically change that equation.
Augmented-reality technologies, such as those utilized by my company’s Light Guide Systems, are one of the most promising categories of those tools. Human error can be virtually eliminated when we use technology to assist instead of replace, while retaining the all-important human intelligence and flexibility.
And while automated tools are improving and evolving all the time, so are the new collaborative tools that make it easier for human workers to manufacture highly complex products safely and with fewer errors.
Augmented-reality technologies are one of the most promising categories of those tools. The best provide manufacturing professionals with customized hands-on guidance through dynamic, interactive and adaptive visual instruction in addition to integrated audio and visual cues. The result is real-time instruction, pacing and direction through a virtual road map that sometimes can be projected directly into a workspace or onto a work surface.
Just to be clear: Robots are not going away anytime soon. Nor should they! Robots handle certain tasks well and are particularly well-suited for processes and spaces where it would be unsafe for a human to work. Examples include paint booths or other enclosed spaces where toxic fumes and hazardous materials are present, or when sharp or heavy objects are used.
But the (augmented) reality is that there are a great many manufacturing circumstances where people power makes technical, logistical and economic sense. And if recent adjustments to the human-machine balance are any indication, the automotive-manufacturing sector once again may be at the forefront of an important new trend.
Engineer, inventor and entrepreneur Paul Ryznar created Light Guide Systems and is the founder, president and CEO of Wixom, MI-based OPS Solutions.