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What just happened? In yet another story that proves it's not just generative AI that threatens to eradicate human jobs, BMW has announced that humanoid robots will begin working at its vehicle manufacturing plants, starting in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
The 5-foot 6-inch, 130-pound robots come from Californian Robotics startup Figure, which has just signed a partnership with BMW to deploy them in the automotive giant's manufacturing facilities after initial use cases have been identified. The rollout will start with the Spartanburg plant, the only one BMW has in the US.
Just last week Figure 01 learned how to make coffee using an end-to-end AI system– Figure (@Figure_robot) January 18, 2024
We are excited to be introducing industry leading AI to the automotive sectorpic.twitter.com/DNAZWnaYK3
Figure says that its robots are designed to carry out jobs that are undesirable or dangerous, such as manufacturing work that falls into the difficult, unsafe, or tedious categories. The robotics firm says its robots will enable companies to increase productivity, reduce costs, and create a safer, more consistent environment.
Single-purpose robots have been used in the auto manufacturing process for decades, but this is the first time autonomous, human-like general-purpose machines have made their way into this work environment. Figure's robot uses its five-fingered hands for assembly and even takes breaks every five hours so it can walk to a charging station to plug itself in.
As was the case when Amazon introduced humanoid robots to its warehouses in October, the move has sparked more debate over automation replacing human jobs; around 11,000 people work at BMW's South Carolina facility, the largest automotive exporter in the US. Brett Adcock, Founder and CEO of Figure, doesn't help alleviate those fears when he says the company is looking forward to working side-by-side with BMW Manufacturing to integrate AI and robotics into automotive production.
Reuters writes that the partnership will start with small quantities of Figure's robots being used by BMW and expand if performance targets are met. After being trained to perform specific tasks, they will be integrated into manufacturing processes that include the body shop, sheet metal, and warehouse in the next 12-24 months.
Honda and Hyundai are just two car makers that have been experimenting with humanoid robots over the years. There's also Tesla, which recently revealed its Optimus Gen 2 humanoid robot (below).
Elon Musk's company doesn't have the best reputation when it comes to humans and robots mixing. In 2021 an autonomous machine at the Texas Gigafactory sank its metal claws into an engineer's back and arm, leaving a "trail of blood" along the facility floor. It happened when the employee was programming the software that controls manufacturing robots at the plant.