Poet Alexander Pope’s observation that “to err is human” has been firmly entrenched in conventional wisdom for centuries. For all of their considerable attributes, people are, after all, only human — and humans make mistakes. That human fallibility is one of the biggest reasons why the clear trend in automotive manufacturing over the last 20-30 years has been one of automation, with increasingly sophisticated robots making growing numbers of human workers obsolete. With productivity, efficiency and safety at a premium, OEMs and their professional partners have looked to robots to reduce errors and increase cycle times. In an eye-opening reversal, however, we have recently begun to see the scales of man versus machine tilt back in the other direction, with humans actually replacing robots in many circumstances.
By far the most significant reason for this turnaround is the flexibility and adaptability that human workers bring to the table. With product variation on the rise, the value of those very human assets is once again ascendant. For all of its advantages, mechanized automation cannot yet provide the same level of individualization and procedural flexibility of a human — not without logistical complexities that would incur additional costs and potentially delay production times. And that customization and increasing product variation shows little sign of slowing down, as new technologies and high-end options create a dizzying array of potential options for demanding consumers.
While this trend has been developing for some time, its significance was highlighted recently with the publicity surrounding the Mercedes-Benz announcement about bringing human operators back to their factory floors, replacing some of the large robots on their manufacturing lines. The appealingly counterintuitive notion that Mercedes-Benz is “firing robots,” inspired a burst of media coverage. In light of the prevailing and seemingly inexorable global trend toward more automation rather than less (not only in automotive manufacturing, but across a range of industries), the fact that there might be new opportunities for manufacturing professionals and a renewed appreciation for the value of human contributions seems to have captured the imagination of those both inside and outside of the industry.
Automotive manufacturing professionals who want to capitalize on this trend, should keep the following priorities and perspectives in mind:
Free Your Mind
While robots still have their place, more companies are relying on humans to get the job done and using a wide range of new and emerging tools and technologies, like augmented reality, to strike a balance between talent and technology in automotive manufacturing. The idea that automation is inherently superior is a tough one to shake. It is not just the automotive industry, but society as a whole, that has long viewed increased technical sophistication as evolutionary advancement: progress toward a better, more efficient future. In that context, choosing analog over digital (or people over robots) is sometimes seen as a kind of affectation. But, as some OEMs have been discovering, bringing people back to factory floors and assembly lines is not nostalgia, it’s a supremely practical decision, rooted in the inherent and inescapable value of the intelligence and flexibility that human workers possess. Markus Schaefer, head of production at Mercedes-Benz, explained the company’s decision in The Guardian with the observation that “Robots can’t deal with the degree of individualization and the many variants that we have today. We’re saving money and safeguarding our future by employing more people.”
Strike a Balance
Again, variation is the critical factor. While repetitive tasks are well-suited for robots, who can deliver efficiency and productivity metrics that are unattainable by human counterparts — increased variation means that production systems need to be updated or, at the very least, reprogrammed and reconfigured. The time and resources required to do that make some automation solutions more of a liability than an asset. While that might seem like a surprising conclusion, it is supported by the fact that those companies that have invested more aggressively in manufacturing automation in some cases tend to be less productive than their competitors. Brands and businesses that have been more strategic and thoughtful about balancing robots and human workers have generally achieved more impressive standards in terms of lower costs and labor-hour-per-vehicle.
Use Your Tools
That is only possible, however, if those human workers have access to the right tools. Whole categories of powerful new tools have emerged in recent years, some with the potential to dramatically improve traditional standards of human performance in a manufacturing environment. The best of these tools are collaborative in nature, using technology to enhance rather than replace human potential, reducing and even eliminating avoidable human errors in the process. Perhaps the most exciting tools are those that utilize augmented reality (AR) technology to provide customized hands-on guidance and real-time instruction. Using dynamic, interactive and adaptive visual instruction — along with integrated audio and visual cues — the best AR tools streamline and simplify the process of creating or assembling even the most highly complex products. Some are capable of providing pacing, parts and process confirmation, and no-faults-forward direction through what amounts to a kind of virtual road map that can be projected directly into a work space or onto a work surface.
This is not a eulogy for industrial robots-far from it. Manufacturing automation is here to stay. There are things robots do well — and those things aren’t going to change. Fully automated solutions will almost always be preferable for environments or processes where safety is a concern, particularly enclosed spaces like paint booths where toxic fumes are present, or where any sharp, heavy or otherwise hazardous materials or substances are unavoidable. But the last few years have made it clear that automation is not always superior, and that there are countless manufacturing scenarios where man truly is superior to machine. With the help of new tools, tactics, technologies and techniques, the automotive manufacturing sector may be leading the multi-industry resurgence in (and renewed appreciation for) good old fashioned people power.
Paul Ryznar is the founder, president and CEO of OPS Solutions.