When Humans Take A Robot's Job

Mercedes has returned skilled humans to its production lines


Researchers from Oxford University have estimated that, within the next two decades, 47% of US jobs could be automated. Such a figure needs only to come to partial fruition to have an incredible effect on the workforce of the world's third-most populated country - grim reading for the 40% of young people worried automation will render them jobless within a decade.

According to the International Federation of Robotics, 1.5 million industrial robots were online in 2014, with 1.3 million more expected to be put into operation within the next two years. Author and entrepreneur Martin Ford, in his 'Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future', takes a dim view of a potential world in which AI and robotics have overhauled the economy. A world in which Google now hold a patent to create working robots with personalities, and, according to Wired, 'a manufacturing device from Universal Robots doesn't just solder, paint, screw, glue, and grasp - it builds new parts for itself on the fly when they wear out.' Regardless of your opinion of automated work, the advancements are impressive and the advantages of precise, cost-effective machine workers are clear.

But Mercedes has been forced to buck the trend, removing robots from their production lines in Sindelfingen and replacing them with skilled humans. The luxury auto manufacturer, which holds 1.9% of the US market share, boasts a host of customization options on its S-Class sedan - produced at the Sindelfingen factory - ranging from heated or cooled cup holders to four types of caps for the tyre valves. Such variation in production is, as explained by head of production Mark Schaefer, too much for the current machines to handle. '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.' Humans can change a production line over a weekend, where it takes time - often weeks - to reprogram and realign the robots that have been in use for over 40 years. Over 40,000 vehicles a year are produced at the south Germany factory and, with a range of new models in the pipeline, the issue of customization is only set to worsen.

However, before we laud the death of automation and the indomitable adaptability of the human worker, it should be noted that this does not mark the complete removal of automation from the production line. Rather, it means that humans will be paired with smaller, more flexible machines - a process known as 'robot farming', intended to speed processes along and aid versatility. The robots being introduced have improved safety features that negate the necessity for safety space between them and their human counterparts, a feature that is hoped will lead to improved collaboration and clear the way for manufacturing innovation.

Both BMW and Audi are also testing robots that have the sensory equipment necessary to work alongside humans in a collaborative environment, while Toyota, world leaders in industrial robotics, have begun similar replacement. It is a relatively rare situation in which consumer demand - in this case for customizaton of luxury cars - has surpassed technological capability, forcing innovation and potentially creating jobs. The steps taken by Tesla and other technology-driven car manufacturers have brought innovation further into the center of an industry in which no manufacturer is safe from being left behind.

Some will view Mercedes' decision as a small victory in the otherwise one-sided conflict between robot and factory floor worker. Others will see the change as part of a wider trend toward collaboration rather than overhaul. Either way you look at it, the complexion of the factory floor in the near future remains a mystery. 

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