By on January 24, 2018

Accord Engine Production

The car industry was one of the first to employ widespread automation as a way to streamline manufacturing. However, plenty of jobs have been handed over to robots since the 1980s. Cashiers, tollbooth operators, librarians, and practically everyone who has worked in shipping has seen some aspect of their job replaced with automation. But automakers now claim the usefulness of robots has reached its peak — at last for the time being.

In the midst of an autonomous revolution where drivers will be eventually be replaced by computer-controlled vehicles, numerous carmakers suggest robots still can’t substitute humans on the assembly line. 

That, of course, comes with a caveat. Robots will still be in charge of performing some of the more dangerous and repetitive tasks. It just makes more sense to leave painting and welding to a mindless drone.

They’re also great at driving screws, but not so hot at wriggling into those tight spaces where you’ll sometimes find them, nor are they particularly good at swapping over to install the seemingly endless options a customer might want on their new car. For that, you need the fleshy, adaptive frame of a human being.

“We can’t find anything to take the place of the human touch and of human senses like sight, hearing and smell,” Tom Shoupe, the chief operating officer of Honda’s Ohio manufacturing unit, told Bloomberg in a recent interview.

Toyota has also promised a reduced need for robotics in its manufacturing. It claims to use just a handful of automated units at the Camry final assembly line at its plant in Georgetown, Kentucky, and doesn’t see a need to add any more, according to chief production engineer Mark Boire. However, it is the last leg of the manufacturing process where machines are the least useful. Fitting various trim pieces is one of the elements of car building where humans have the clear advantage.

That’s one reason why, in 2016, Mercedes-Benz said it actually planned to scale back automation. Luxury customers like options and, with more choices than ever, Mercedes said it needs to lean on real people to install them.

All of this is in direct opposition to studies and reports that robots would soon usurp every human-held job. Don’t be mistaken — automation is still coming. There may even be a point where we have to reassess the very nature of society once there aren’t enough jobs for people to do. But, in the short term, robots are still really bad at plenty of jobs. Call an automated customer service line with any nuanced problem if you don’t believe me. A single curveball is all it takes to grind a robot’s progress to a screeching halt.

Back in Ohio, Honda’s Marysville plant manager Rob May said the 10th-generation Accord isn’t possible without people and robots working together. While the factory may have installed 342 welding robots to assemble the vehicle’s body, he claims the rest of the process requires near-constant human involvement. May said the factory only has about 20 robots on the final assembly line, with a human workforce that is 4,200 strong.

“You have to have timing,” said James Erwin, a 15-year Marysville plant veteran working in tandem with a blue robot nicknamed G-Smurf. “I don’t think robots can take over. They don’t have the manual dexterity or judgment that we have.”

We can’t assume that will always be the case. One good leap forward in technology could be all it takes for the automotive industry to see another push toward robotics. Some manufacturers are already banking on it.

Tesla, which always seems to have its eyes on the far-off future, wants to develop an “alien dreadnought” factory that’s entirely automated. Tesla CEO Elon Musk claimed such a plant would be able to surpass current production speeds and eliminate job-related injuries. Of course, it would also eliminate jobs. The company purchased Perbix, a private machining firm that makes automated equipment for factories, last November to help it reach that goal.

That’s not to pick on Tesla, either. Only a boutique manufacturer (which are becoming less common these days) would option for hand-built cars when there’s a cheaper and safer alternative. As kind as these mainline manufacturers sound for keeping people employed, it’s a necessary solution to an automation problem nobody has been able to solve. Even if they do care about their employees, they won’t be competitive once a rival company has a major breakthrough in robotics — and, believe us, they are all working on it.

[Image: Honda Motor Company]

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21 Comments on “Automakers Claim Robots Won’t Steal Any More Jobs – For a While, Anyway...”


  • avatar
    Sub-600

    I believe that robots aren’t the biggest threat to jobs, autonomous cars will be. When people stop driving there will be no need for the DMV, save for registration issues. What about the massive auto insurance industry? What about aftermarket products, are people really going to care what their car looks like if they aren’t driving it? Performance parts? Why? So much of the car culture involves personal taste, it probably won’t matter in pods. Interior creature features will probably be in demand but I don’t see them offsetting the losses in other areas.

    • 0 avatar
      AtoB

      “I believe that robots aren’t the biggest threat to jobs, autonomous cars will be. When people stop driving there will be no need for the DMV, save for registration issues. What about the massive auto insurance industry? What about aftermarket products, are people really going to care what their car looks like if they aren’t driving it? Performance parts? Why? So much of the car culture involves personal taste, it probably won’t matter in pods. Interior creature features will probably be in demand but I don’t see them offsetting the losses in other areas.”

      Counter that with smooth, efficient traffic flow, no idiots shutting down rush hour freeways with displays of hooliganism. No assholes forcing their way ahead in because in their mind “they are more important”. No more morons who park their newly bent-fendered cars in the middle of the road because they don’t care to move their drama to the side of the road out of the way of traffic and other morons creating massive traffic jams because they want to slow down to take a look.

      Good riddance to all that.

  • avatar
    Lou_BC

    MAGA

    Make Automation Great Again

  • avatar
    St.George

    Perhaps there will be a reduction in the number of low skilled, repetitive mundane type assembly jobs (not just in the auto industry but throughout the world). However, there will be an increase in the number of better paid jobs designing/engineering/manufacturing & servicing/repairing these robots.

    Whether this is a net positive or not is beyond my knowledge. We’re really screwed though if robots start designing, building and servicing other robots!!!

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    “I don’t think robots can take over. They don’t have the manual dexterity or judgment that we have.”

    And that’s the same problem with autonomous vehicles.

    • 0 avatar
      jjster6

      Also machines don’t WANT to do anything. They have no desire to do something and only do what they are told. Artificial Intelligence today is just more complicated if statements.

      Build a machine that wants to do something and then we are in real trouble. It could want to eliminate us humans. Self driving cars are still a long way from that.

  • avatar
    Big Al from Oz

    There will always be humans involved in manufacturing. But where, how many, doing what?

    Mercedes and other prestige vehicle manufacturers will not produce the appliances of the future. So there processes will be different for their small consumer base.

    Many auto jobs will go, a few will replaced with new jobs.

    The auto industry is far greater than the production line. It seems many who comment on TTAC only see the production line. “Made in ‘Murica” I hear with imported parts.

    This articles glosses over and omits the multi-faceted, tiered processes that bring us cars and trucks.

    More research is needed prior to producing this opinion piece. That’s all the is, an ill researched opinion.

  • avatar
    tylanner

    So you’re telling me that machines capable of carrying out a complex series of actions precisely and automatically with superhero like strength and quickness are not going to replace machines that are emotional, inefficient, error prone, soft, weak, demanding and quarrelsome?

    Manufacturing floors will be barren (climate and dust controlled) wastelands…

  • avatar
    SPPPP

    Do you think all the first-world robots are going to be looking for work if robots in developing nations take their jobs?

  • avatar
    SaulTigh

    You can do a lot with robots and computers. I’m a bit of a watch guy, and one of the most interesting out there right now is the Swatch Sistem51. A self-winding mechanical wristwatch with only 51 components (hence the name), completely assembled start to finish in a clean room environment and hermetically sealed into it’s case without a single human hand touching it. Swatch will sell you this bit of engineering ingenuity for a mere $150.

    And…it works. I bought one for my wife and she wears it from time to time. My only criticism of how it functions is that it has more play in the hands than any other watch I own so I have to set it a full minute ahead and then let the gear train catch up.

    I still believe the robots are coming for most of us, and I for one welcome our robot overlords.

  • avatar
    dont.fit.in.cars

    I can show you warehouses full of broken robots.

    The reason they will not replace humans are cost, tooling and programing. Initial cost is 30-40K for a small one, add tooling and programing and safety cages your bumping a 2-3 year ROI.

    • 0 avatar
      krhodes1

      Humans are easily created by unskilled labor, and highly adaptable right out of the box. The programming takes a while, but isn’t horribly expensive for simple assembly work. :-)

      • 0 avatar
        dont.fit.in.cars

        Assuming a single task. What every boy salesman finally realizes is small and medium companies have multiple revenue streams, requiring various processing requirements, rotating throughout the week.

        Bots work in single applications with capital companies.

  • avatar
    brandloyalty

    Rather than sabotage the efficiency and precision of robots and force humans to do boring simple repetitive jobs, the civil solution is to share the savings with the workers displaced. Either to provide semi- or earlier retirement, or retraining for other work. Of course this would require a complete rethink of the American “every man for himself” ethic.

  • avatar
    bobmaxed

    The author did quote quite a few people at auto plants, but what about the robot makers themselves. With out their input this is close to a useless article.

  • avatar
    AtoB

    A clear example of automation potential is pharmacies. Pharmacy staff are expensive, especially the pharmacists. A machine can mix powders and liquids (and gasses) to order in a more timely manner than a human and do so with perfect safety (e.g. instantly check the patients medical history to ensure no adverse drug interactions are possible). The robot will not itself steal the drugs (unless programmed to do so) and does not mind existing inside an airless theft proof box with a 24/7/365 work schedule.

    The doctors prescription is transmitted electronically and the prescription is filled within minutes. Any prescription questions can be addressed with a video conference to a licensed pharmacy consultation (call) center located anywhere in the world where skilled labor is cheaper.

    As ATM’s replaced most bank tellers in the 1980s with 24/7/365 service, the same should be true of pharmacies.


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