There are many articles that warn of the inevitable loss of jobs as robots become increasingly advanced and replace humans in certain industries. One of the most publicized of these is the car manufacturing sector, where machines have been making humans redundant for many years. But Mercedes-Benz, it seems, is doing the opposite; the German vehicle maker is replacing assembly robots with humans.
A report from Bloomberg states that the robots cannot handle the complexity of the many customization options available on the company’s new S-Class sedan. These include carbon-fibre trims, heated and cooled cup holders, seat cover colors, various in-car technology, and even four different types of caps for the tire valves.
Mercedes-Benz said that the robots take too long to reprogram and retool when adapting them for new production runs, so the company has hired more flexible and dexterous humans to complete the tasks.
“Robots can’t deal with the degree of individualization and the many variants that we have today,” said Markus Schaefer, the firm's head of production. “We’re saving money and safeguarding our future by employing more people.”
The robots are being replaced at the company’s biggest manufacturing plant, the 101-year old Sindelfingen factory in Germany, which produces 400,000 vehicles a year and processes 1500 tons of steel a day.
Not all the robots will find themselves looking for new jobs. Many of the smaller machines will work in tandem with employees to perform some of the core repetitive tasks, with the more complex elements of production handled by the humans. The company is calling the processes of man and machine working side-by-side “robot farming.”
While Mercedes-Benz’s decision doesn’t mean the trend of many jobs becoming automated will end, it does show that humans and robots working together can be more productive than machines working alone.
“We’re moving away from trying to maximize automation with people taking a bigger part in industrial processes again,” said Schaefer. “We need to be flexible.”