Here’s an interesting story. According to Quartz, Mercedes is replacing some of the robots on its automobile assembly lines with human workers. Markus Schaefer, Mercedes’ head of production, told Bloomberg News that humans are better suited for the customization their cars require. “Robots can’t deal with the degree of individualization and the many variants that we have today,” he said. “We’re saving money and safeguarding our future by employing more people.”
Robots are excellent at doing repetitive task reliably, but don’t do as well at adapting when the specifications for individual car.s vary. Mercedes now plans to use smaller robots that will work alongside people. This is an idea that is gaining traction at BMW and Audi as well.
Peter McOwan, computer science professor at Queen Mary University of London, tells Quartz that humans often have superior skills, even on the production line. They have better vision, for example. Robots can struggle to adjust with changes in lighting, shadows, or recognizing objects from a variety of directions and distances. Humans also have a highly developed sense of smell, which is something robots lack, at least for now.
Because of those extra senses, people can smell burning and recognize it is a warning sign. They can also tell that a certain scraping sound may mean that an object isn’t fitting correctly. Humans have flexible hands that can fit into small spaces. They can adapt to the various pressures needed to hold an egg or lift a brick. Robots don’t usually have such a variety of skills integrated into one device..
McOwan does point out that the next generation of robots will be far better equipped to mimic human behavior. “They are still a while away from being deployed in the rough and tumble world of the manufacturing floor, and clearly need a great deal of real world testing both for quality and consistency of performance in complex and flexible real world situations,” he says. “There are issues of ensuring proper levels of safety too, and such robots will be more expensive than humans in the beginning.”
In other words, there will always be a place in manufacturing for human beings — at least for the next couple of years.
Photo credit: Reuters/Petr Josek Snr via Quartz