Skip to main content

A New Generation of Robots Are Joining People on the Plant Floor

It was big news a few months ago when a headline emerged that Mercedes-Benz was replacing robots with human workers.  While Mercedes will continue to make automation part of its production process, the company is also investing heavily in people. As big, monolithic machines make their way out of Mercedes’ plants, a new generation of smaller, safer, and more flexible machines that work well with people will be moving in. Mercedes is just one of the many auto manufacturers shifting toward integrating robots into human work teams… and it’s not just the auto industry going in this direction.

Changes on the Manufacturing Floor


Why the change? Customers in every industry are demanding more variety and customization in the products they buy. All manufacturers have to innovate, shorten product life cycles, and offer more choices in order to compete. And, as lean manufacturing emphasizes the efficiencies of smaller lot sizes, there are more changeovers per shift, which means they must be fast. All these trends are making old-fashioned robots obsolete.


Traditional robots are good at well-defined repetitive tasks that don’t often change. Re-programming and re-tooling them is a complex process that requires specialists in automation technology. What’s more, a changeover can take weeks. People, on the other hand, can learn faster, switch instruction sets faster, and can sense problems that robots simply cannot. People solve problems.


It’s Not a Human vs. Robot Battle


Manufacturers don’t have to choose between people and robots however. So-called “cobots” – or collaborative robots – are joining teams of human workers and proving their worth.  A cobot can learn a new routine after being guided through it once by a shopfloor worker.  Small enough to fit on top of a workbench, they can lift loads of up 10 kilograms (22 lb.) and cost from $10, 000 to $30,000. Compare that to a traditional robot which costs from $100,000 to $150,000 to put in place.


To accelerate the shift, a new Advanced Robotics Manufacturing Institute (ARM) is being formed by MIT, Carnegie-Mellon, Georgia Tech, robotics companies, and other organizations.* These partners and federal research funding will provide $140 million to support research over the next five years.  In testbeds at several ARM hubs, robotic equipment firms, academic experts and industrial customers will be able to keep up with research and development.


ARM has three development goals:


  1. Develop collaborative robotics, in which humans work side-by-side with robots.
  2. Ensure automation of automation, in order to cut the lead time for setting up automation systems. The goal is to develop simpler automation that can be programmed without the need for specialized technicians.
  3. Advance toward true mass production in quantities of one, and facilitate the ability to produce many variants of a product in a single order stream.


Not surprisingly, the concept of cobots is already on the market. Companies like Universal Robots, Fanuc, Yaskawa, ABB, Kuka, and Rethink Robotics are featuring them at trade shows. Manufacturers owe it to themselves to follow Mercedes’ lead and start investigating the possibilities of downsizing robotics and integrating the new smaller machines into their work teams. If they do, lean, flexible manufacturing will be more agile than ever before.


* ARM’s partners include MIT, Carnegie-Mellon, Georgia Tech, the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Texas A&M University, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Connecticut, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Southern California.


Karen Wilhelm has worked in the manufacturing industry for 25 years, and blogs at Lean Reflections, which has been named as one of the top ten lean blogs on the Web.

    Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a contributing author and not necessarily Gray.

    Get the Latest.