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.
“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.
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.
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.
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)