Mercedes halting robots’ reign on production line – Salt Lake Tribune

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Mercedes’s Sindelfingen plant, the manufacturer’s biggest, is an unlikely place to question the benefits of automation.

While the factory makes elite models such as the GT sports car and the ultra-luxury S-Class Maybach sedan, the 101-year-old site is far from a boutique assembly shop.

The complex processes 1,500 tons of steel a day and churns out more than 400,000 vehicles a year.

That makes efficient, streamlined production as important at Sindelfingen as at any other automotive plant. But the age of individualization is forcing changes to the manufacturing methods that made cars and other goods accessible to the masses.

The impetus for the shift is versatility.

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 rather than set off behind safety fences.

Mercedes calls equipping workers with an array of little machines “robot farming.” About 1.3 million industrial robots will go into operation in the next two years, the International Federation of Robotics said in a study published Thursday.

The world’s second-largest maker of luxury cars isn’t doing this in isolation. BMW and Volkswagen’s Audi are also testing lightweight, sensor-equipped robots safe enough to work alongside people.







Mercedes halting robots’ reign on production line – Salt Lake Tribune