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Man-ufacturing: The Return of Man Over Machine in Factories

man standing over assembly

The last few decades have seen a steady trend toward more automation in manufacturing. Sophisticated robots have gradually replaced human workers on many factory floors and assembly lines, as manufacturers work to reduce error rates and improve cycle times. Given that long-term trend, what is happening today (particularly in the automotive manufacturing space) may seem surprising: in certain circumstances, humans are replacing robots.

But why now? What has changed? The answer is manufacturing variability, and the corresponding need for flexibility. OEMs are responding to consumer demand and competitive pressures by producing more options and product variations, and that production diversity is a challenge for robots and automated systems.

While several OEMs–including Audi, BMW and Toyota–have brought back more human workers to replace some robots or have taken steps in that direction, the news that Mercedes-Benz is “firing” some of its robots and bringing operators back to the factory floor has made a particularly large splash in manufacturing circles.

In an article in The Guardian, Mercedes-Benz’s head of production Markus Schaefer said, “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.”

To outside observers, the idea of replacing robot efficiency with fallible human workers might seem counterintuitive. Automation is automatically more efficient, right?

Not necessarily. The human touch–specifically the flexibility, adaptability and intelligence of human workers–is an important asset when greater variation requires costly and time-consuming updates and reprogramming.

Consider this: Companies that have invested the most in automation tend to be among the least productive in the automotive/OEM space, while brands that have been more balanced and strategic about integrating automation with people power have generally been more successful at lowering costs and labor hours per vehicle.

The critical caveat is that those human workers need to have the right tools. Robots are consistent and efficient, and human workers are, after all, only human. They make mistakes. That’s why we’ve designed a solution that can be used to improve manufacturing assembly, training, inspection, and quality control processes to ensure each product is built perfectly—every time.

We’re driving a new era of man and machine collaboration by combining augmented reality with human intelligence in a way that’s never been done to aid job creation and retention in manufacturing.

Designed to make factory floors smarter, safer and more efficient, our projector-based augmented reality tool — LightGuide Systems — provides audio and visual prompts, pacing and direction to guide operators through every step of a manual process. All they have to do is follow the lights. The result is real-time direction and pacing through a virtual road map that can be projected directly onto any workspace or surface.

It is important to note that, while human workers might be enjoying a renaissance of sorts, robots are here to stay. But the notion that robots always outperform humans is no longer the conventional wisdom. As variability grows and more adaptability is needed, we will likely continue to see more industries putting the “man” back in manufacturing, and utilizing new and evolving augmented reality tools and technologies to get the job done.