Conventional wisdom long suggested that factories will increasingly rely on automation and robots in coming years — likely at the expense of human workers.
The rapidly evolving auto industry, however, could put a dent in those forecasts.
Bloomberg reports that Mercedes-Benz's largest auto plant is instead removing some robots from its assembly lines in order to accommodate an expanded workforce.
Although robots can perform one consistent task at a rate that would be unfathomable to a regular plant worker, they can't adapt on the fly to changing plant conditions.
And as automakers react to a changing marketplace, they increasingly need to turn over models faster, create new models sooner and offer a broader array of features to discerning car buyers.
“The variety is too much to take on for the machines,” Markus Schaefer, Mercedes-Benz's head of production, told Bloomberg. “They can’t work with all the different options and keep pace with changes.”
The automaker's Sindelfingen plant in southwest Germany can overhaul a human production line over a weekend, while reprogramming robots to do the same thing would take weeks.
Instead of deploying an assembly line using large robotic arms to put cars together, Mercedes-Benz officials now envision a plant where humans work side-by-side with smaller and safer robots to provide more flexibility and efficiency.
The Sindelfingen plant eventually hopes to be able to produce one car in 30 hours; in 2005, it took 61 hours to make a car at the facility.
Schaefer told Bloomberg that the transition saves money — an unexpected turn given rising labor costs and the increasing ease of automation — and that the addition of human workers is "safeguarding our future."