Mercedes: Production lines need more people, less robots
(Image: Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg)

Mercedes: Production lines need more people, less robots

Mercedes-Benz is kicking back against the robotics revolution – and employing more people.

Repetitive production line tasks which have to be completed with precision, lend themselves to robots over humans as error can be eliminated and speed increased. One of the areas where robots have displaced humans is in the production of cars.

But robotics and a high degree of customisation don’t mix according to Mercedes-Benz, which has taken a look at its largest production plant at Sindelfingen in Germany (with about 26,000 workers it produced more than 400,000 vehicles in 2013), and decided to replace some robots with people.

Markus Schaefer, Mercedes-Benz head of production, told Bloomberg: “Robots can’t deal with the degree of individualization and the many variants that we have today.”

Mercedes-Benz prides itself on the level of customisation it offers on its cars. The S Class sedan, which retails in the UK from £68,000, has a huge range of customisation options – the ‘optional equipment’ package in its online brochure runs to several pages and includes multiple variations to details like upholstery and trim and even offers choices on electric roller blinds, armrest heating, and a range of steering wheels.

Robots lack flexibility

It seems that robots are fine for repetitive tasks, but, Schaefer said: “They can’t work with all the different options and keep pace with changes.” He says reprogramming robots to take account of production line changes can cause a production line to stop completely – and Mercedes-Benz doesn’t want that.

It will continue to use robots, although there will be less larger robots and more smaller ones which work alongside humans.

More than 129,000 employees worldwide work in the Mercedes-Benz Cars Division. Loss of jobs due to robots is always a concern for production line workers, and it will be good news for them that Mercedes-Benz thinks robotics can’t do everything as well as humans can.

Rise of the robots

But this doesn’t mean that robotics has no future on the production line. The International Federation of Robotics published a report on Friday saying that 1.3 million industrial robots will be working in factories around the world by 2018.

Its analysis of ‘robotic density’, posits a current average of 66 robot units per 10,000 employees. It says 21 countries have an above average robotic density at present, with 14 of these in the EU. The report notes that China currently lies in 28th place on the density scale, but is the world’s largest sales and growth market for industrial robots. It anticipates that China will account for more than a third of the industrial machines worldwide in 2018.