Mercedes boots ro­bots from the pro­duc­tion line

The Pak Banker - - COMPANIES/BOSS -

Mercedes-Benz of­fers the S-Class sedan with a grow­ing ar­ray of op­tions such as car­bon-fiber trim, heated and cooled cuphold­ers and four types of caps for the tire valves, and the car­maker's ro­bots can't keep up.

With cus­tomiza­tion key to woo­ing mod­ern con­sumers, the flex­i­bil­ity and dex­ter­ity of hu­man work­ers is re­claim­ing space on Mercedes's as­sem­bly lines. That bucks a trend that has given ma­chines the up­per hand over man­power since leg­endary U.S. rail­road worker John Henry died try­ing to best a motorized ham­mer more than a cen­tury ago.

"Ro­bots can't deal with the de­gree of in­di­vid­u­al­iza­tion and the many vari­ants that we have to­day," Markus Schae­fer, the Ger­man au­tomaker's head of pro­duc­tion, said at its fac­tory in Sin­delfin­gen, the an­chor of the Daim­ler AG unit's global man­u­fac­tur­ing net­work. "We're sav­ing money and safe­guard­ing our fu­ture by em­ploy­ing more peo­ple."

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 EClass, 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." The world's se­cond-largest maker of lux­ury cars isn't do­ing this in iso­la­tion. BMW AG and Volk­swa­gen AG's Audi are also test­ing light­weight, sen­sor-equipped ro­bots safe enough to work along­side peo­ple. The edge they're seek­ing is to be bet­ter and faster than ri­vals as the pace of change af­fect­ing the auto in­dus­try quick­ens. Cars are in­creas­ingly mor­ph­ing into smart­phones on wheels, and man­u­fac­tur­ers are un­der pres­sure to upgrade their mod­els more fre­quently than the tra­di­tional seven-year cy­cle.

Au­tomak­ers also need to cater to con­sumers de­mand­ing to be dif­fer­ent. For Mercedes, that means adding 30 mod­els by the end of the decade, in­clud­ing 10 all-new styles, and of­fer­ing cus­tom op­tions such as bam­boo trim, in­te­rior fra­grances and il­lu­mi­nat­ing the Mercedes star. That's a stark con­trast to the days when mass- pro­duc­tion pi­o­neer Henry Ford quipped that cus­tomers could have any color they wanted as long as it was black.

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