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At another station, a cobot takes new spare tires off a conveyor belt and stacks them on a cart. This, GM’s Linn said, was a job workers universally hated because it was repetitive and back-breaking

At the end of the line, cobots ensure headlamps are properly aligned. They will also be used to test sensors on automated vehicles, Linn said.

Markus Schaefer, head of production and supply chain at Daimler AG‘s Mercedes-Benz Cars, said the German automaker is “paring back automation” in final assembly to boost flexibility.

 

A red 2018 Chevrolet Bolt EV vehicle is seen on the assembly line at General Motors Orion Assembly in Lake Orion, Michigan,
A red 2018 Chevrolet Bolt EV vehicle is seen on the assembly line at General Motors Orion Assembly in Lake Orion, Michigan, U.S., March 19, 2018. Photo taken March 19, 2018. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

 

“We need this because we are making a greater variety of derivatives and, as a premium automaker, we make highly individualized vehicles,” he said.

Schaefer said Mercedes will eventually have plants that can build vehicles with different powertrains and with both front- and rear-wheel drive.

The automaker is converting its showcase Sindelfingen plant to build the GLA, a compact front-wheel-drive utility vehicle, as well as its rear-wheel-drive S-Class luxury sedan.

 

SHAPING THE FUTURE

How collaborative robots and other digital tools are used will determine the size and layout of future factories – and how many humans work there.

 

A General Motors assembly worker removes a Headliner after a Collaborative Robot applied hot glue and HIC plastic caps, intended for 2018 Chevrolet Bolt EV and Sonic vehicles, at Orion Assembly in Lake Orion, Michigan,
A General Motors assembly worker removes a Headliner after a Collaborative Robot applied hot glue and HIC plastic caps, intended for 2018 Chevrolet Bolt EV and Sonic vehicles, at Orion Assembly in Lake Orion, Michigan, U.S., March 19, 2018. Photo taken March 19, 2018. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

 

Ford Motor Co executive Joe Hinrichs created a stir last October when detailing the automaker’s vision of a future factory for electric vehicles, which have fewer parts than those with combustion engines and thus would require far less floor space, fewer workers and lower investment.

But like other major global carmakers, Ford appears reluctant to invest in dedicated electric-vehicle plants until there is sufficient – and consistent – demand to justify the expense.

 

A General Motors assembly worker loads the HIC plastic caps at a Collaborative Robot station, intended for 2018 Chevrolet Bolt EV and 2018 Sonic vehicles, at Orion Assembly in Lake Orion,
A General Motors assembly worker loads the HIC plastic caps at a Collaborative Robot station, intended for 2018 Chevrolet Bolt EV and 2018 Sonic vehicles, at Orion Assembly in Lake Orion, Michigan, U.S., March 19, 2018. Photo taken March 19, 2018. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

 

Ford has years of experience building different types of vehicles on one line, including versions of the Focus compact with gasoline engines and electric motors.

Ford has installed a few collaborative robots at its recently renovated Louisville, Kentucky, truck plant. The company is also using digital tools such as including augmented reality to map new assembly lines, and predictive analytics to schedule repairs and maintenance before machines break down.

 

A Collaborative Robot applies hot glue adhesive to a Headliner intended for 2018 Chevrolet Bolt EV and 2018 Sonic vehicles on the assembly line at Orion Assembly in Lake Orion,
A Collaborative Robot applies hot glue adhesive to a Headliner intended for 2018 Chevrolet Bolt EV and 2018 Sonic vehicles on the assembly line at Orion Assembly in Lake Orion, Michigan, U.S., March 19, 2018. Photo taken March 19, 2018. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

 

The company has no immediate plans for a separate, highly automated plant for its next-generation electric vehicles, some of which are expected to share factory space with traditional combustion-engine models, according to sources familiar with Ford’s strategy.

An April report by Barclays’ global auto investment team predicted “robots won’t kill all automotive jobs,” at least not in the near term.

Auto companies are working on “perfecting the combination of human and robot,” according to the report, because “the human touch is still necessary.”

 

 

Even Tesla chief executive Elon Musk, who long praised robots’ virtues and promised to turn his California electric car factory into a highly automated “alien dreadnought,” has had something of an epiphany.

Bedeviled by technical glitches, Musk recently tweeted: “Excessive automation at Tesla was a mistake … Humans are underrated.”

 

(Edward Taylor reported from Frankfurt, Germany, Norihiko Shirouzu reported from Shanghai and Nick Carey reported from Detroit; Written by Paul Lienert; Edited by Gerry Doyle)

 

Automated Guided Vehicles transport the chassis for 2018 Chevrolet Bolt EV vehicles on the assembly line at General Motors Orion Assembly in Lake Orion,
Automated Guided Vehicles transport the chassis for 2018 Chevrolet Bolt EV vehicles on the assembly line at General Motors Orion Assembly in Lake Orion, Michigan, U.S., March 19, 2018. Photo taken March 19, 2018. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

 

A 2018 Chevrolet Bolt EV vehicle is seen on the assembly line at General Motors Orion Assembly in Lake Orion, Michigan,
A Chevrolet Bolt EV vehicle is seen on the assembly line at General Motors Orion Assembly in Lake Orion, Michigan, U.S., March 19, 2018. Photo taken March 19, 2018. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

 

General Motors assembly workers connect a battery pack underneath a partially assembled 2018 Chevrolet Bolt EV vehicle on the assembly line at Orion Assembly in Lake Orion,
General Motors assembly workers connect a battery pack underneath a partially assembled 2018 Chevrolet Bolt EV vehicle on the assembly line at Orion Assembly in Lake Orion, Michigan, U.S., March 19, 2018. Photo taken March 19, 2018. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

 

A Collaborative Robot applies hot glue to a Headliner intended for 2018 Chevrolet Bolt EV and 2018 Sonic vehicles on the assembly line at Orion Assembly in Lake Orion,
A Collaborative Robot applies hot glue adhesive to a Headliner intended for 2018 Chevrolet Bolt EV and 2018 Sonic vehicles on the assembly line at Orion Assembly in Lake Orion, Michigan, U.S., March 19, 2018. Photo taken March 19, 2018. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook