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Intelligent Machines

Mercedes Sees Fewer Robots in Its Future

German automaker Daimler is scaling back on the number of robots used to build its S-class cars. But it’s still a step forward for robotics.

Proud owners of the new Mercedes-Benz S-Class might be surprised to learn that their car was made using less automation and more old-fashioned elbow grease than previous models.

According to Daimler, the German company that produces the high-end sedan, increasing customization, like fancy carbon-fiber trim or heated cup holders, means that fewer robots are being used on its main production line in Sindelfingen, Germany.

“Robots can’t deal with the degree of individualization and the many variants that we have today,” Markus Schaefer, head of production at Daimler, told Bloomberg. “We’re saving money and safeguarding our future by employing more people.”

Unsurprisingly, the news has been picked up by many outlets, with some proclaiming it as evidence that the “robot revolution” is in trouble. In fact, as the original story explains, conventional industrial robots are still widely used on the Daimler line; it’s just that these machines aren’t so good for custom jobs because they can’t be reprogrammed quickly.

A new generation of safer, more flexible, and easier-to-program robots is better suited to such tasks, and such machines are increasingly being used in auto factories and elsewhere. So the real story is less about robots being replaced by human workers than people and bots increasingly teaming up to do things more effectively.

(Read more: Bloomberg, “Increasingly, Robots of All Sizes Are Human Workmates”)

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