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Humans – 1 Robots – 0: Mercedes deautomates production lines

Machines are just too inflexible, says production boss

In a surprise win for humanity, Mercedes Benz has announced that it's ditching the robots used on its assembly line in favor of human workers because they can cope with the job better.

"Robots can't deal with the degree of individualization and the many variants that we have today," Markus Schaefer, the luxury car-maker's head of production told Bloomberg. "We're saving money and safeguarding our future by employing more people."

The robot marching papers are being handed out at the firm's largest manufacturing plant in Sindelfingen, Germany, which churns out 400,000 cars a year. In line with other auto-makers, the firm has diversified its car lineup to provide many different options, and the machines can't cope with the choices available.

"The variety is too much to take on for the machines," Schaefer said. "They can't work with all the different options and keep pace with changes."

The firm plans to add 30 new models to its lineup over the next four years, and that means a lot of customization in the manufacturing process. All of these will also have individual features picked by the buyer – from in-car technology to the color of the seats, and this is best done by human builders, he said.

The production line won't be entirely robot-free, Schaefer explained, but instead, humans will work side by side with smaller robots that can handle the main repetitive tasks while German workers do the tricky stuff. As an added bonus, paid workers can buy cars, further driving demand.

Such a move is very much against the flow in robotics, with more and more companies turning to robot staff in favor of actually paying people to do the job. On Thursday, the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) released its annual report and noted that in the automotive sector, robot use increased 43 per cent between 2013 and 2014 and now accounts for $32bn in spending.

South Korea leads the robotics stakes with 478 per 100,000 workers, Japan comes in second and Germany third. But the fastest growing market is China, and if current trends persist, the Middle Kingdom will account for a third of all robot workers in the world.

"The robotic boom is laying down an important milestone in the realisation of the fourth international revolution," said Joe Gemma, the IFR's president. "Further impetus is coming into the form of the technological breakthrough in human-robot collaboration: Robotic workers will in future be found working hand-in-hand with human staff, helping to replace traditional, rigid production processes with flexible structures." ®

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