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MIT Technology Review

Throwing robots at an assembly line won’t solve a factory’s problems

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While automation can increase efficiency in factories, robots can’t simply plug in to any worker’s role and instantly save a business money.

Automating intelligently: Tesla is a case in point. It had to shut down Model 3 production last month to “improve automation.” The manufacturer wrongly assumed its robots could pull off tasks that other companies have yet to automate.

The solution: As a recent article in Harvard Business Review explains, factories must redesign their processes, not just buy (or build) more advanced robots. Old human-based methods don’t necessarily work well for robots. Manufacturing procedures must be engineered from the ground up to take advantage of a robot’s skills.

For example: Automation has helped BMW’s plant in Spartanburg, South Carolina, double production, to over 400,000 cars annually. The adoption of a “cobotic” door assembly process (in which humans work together with robots) now helps pump out 5,000 doors a day. But the factory’s robotic painting process, which remains virtually unchanged from when it was done by human hands, is still slow and expensive. It takes 12 hours, more than 100 robots, and four miles of travel in the factory to paint a car. All the robots in the world won’t fix a problem like that unless the task is fundamentally rethought.