German Automakers Deploy Robot Assistants on the Assembly Lines

Oxford University published a study in September 2013 that said 47 percent of U.S. employment is at high risk of being replaced by a machine in one to two decades as an increasing number of skilled professions are computerized.

Today German scientists are alarmed that not enough is being done … for the machines.

An expert commission delivered its annual recommendations to the government in February, warning for the first time that Chancellor Angela Merkel must devise an explicit strategy to increase the use of robots in both the manufacturing and service sectors.

The panel of scientists said the number of domestic industrial robots rose only by 7 percent between 2011 and 2014 compared with double- or even triple-digit growth rates in other major manufacturing countries such as China. As a result, they forecast Germany will drop two notches to fifth place this year.

The national commission’s most recent figures show its carmakers in particular risk being overtaken by their closest rivals because they employed 1,149 robots per 10,000 workers — fewer than Japan and only as many as the U.S. and South Korea.

Carmakers are now also experimenting with new collaborative approaches that would see flexible, small-scale robots working alongside humans on the assembly line for the first time. Previously robots have been hulking in size, incapable of performing other tasks elsewhere in the plant, and kept behind a cage to protect employees from injury.

Audi has been testing a robot at its Ingolstadt factory building the A4, A5 and Q5 models that hands coolant expansion tanks to line workers. So far the experience has proved successful and Audi expects to begin using one in Neckarsulm by the end of this year to assist with assembling tailgates.

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Audi plant uses robots to move cars

Volkswagen has employed a similar helper robot to assist during powertrain pre-assembly at its Wolfsburg plant since late May. 

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Ford, meanwhile, unveiled a small robot last month that is used in two work stations at its factory in Cologne. Ford claims the robot “can be programmed to do everything from make coffee to give you a head massage.”

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Ford Plant: Human & Robot working in harmony

Carmakers argue this new approach is driven mainly by the need to boost efficiency in an aging society through more ergonomically sustainable working stations. BMW, for example, has a target of lowering factory costs per unit produced by 5 percent annually.

Mercedes’ Schaefer does not believe that collaborative robots or indeed any machine will replace his workers. He views robots more as an aid for his workers, who will have an increasingly hard time lifting a heavy plate of steel such as a trunk lid or car door hundreds of times a day as they get older. 

Mercedes’ U.S. plant in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, now has a human installing cockpits with the help of a machine, replacing the robot that was there before. Only a healthy human workforce is flexible enough to cope with the problems stemming from the variety of products and sheer range of individualization features that change from one vehicle to the next. – AutomotiveNews

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