April 19, 2024

Mercedes-Benz is testing using humanlike robots to take over the physically demanding and “repetitive” responsibilities in one of its factories, as it faces difficulties finding “reliable workers.”

The Stuttgart, Germany-based automaker will trial the humanoid Apollo robots made by Austin, Texas-based Apptronik to deliver parts to assembly lines and conduct quality inspections. The 5-foot-8-inch robots weigh roughly 160 pounds and can lift up to 55 pounds.

“To build the most desirable cars, we continually evolve the future of automotive production: Advancements in robotics and AI open up new opportunities also for us,” Jörg Burzer, a member of Mercedes-Benz’s board of management, said in a statement. “We are exploring new possibilities with the use of robotics to support our skilled workforce in manufacturing.”

Robots hit the body shop

Although robots have been used in manufacturing for decades, they’re usually heavy arms meant to lift machinery or otherwise automate tasks. General Motors has been using factory robotics since 1961 to transport die castings for welding on car bodies.

But the Apollo robots are set to be one of the first humanoid robots ever used in a factory setting. The difference: because the robots imitate humans, they allow carmakers to automate their factories more heavily without making expensive changes to their layout or production lines.

Chinese startup Nio has been trialing using humanoid robots developed by UBTech Robotics on its factory production lines since late February, while BMW has enlisted Silicon Valley-based Figure’s humanoid robots in its facilities since late January. Although not a carmaker, Amazon has been testing Agility Robotics’s Digit robots in its warehouses.

Tesla has been working on its own humanoid robot, the Optimus, since August 2021. Although CEO Elon Musk has said there’s a “good chance” Tesla will begin shipping Optimus next year, the robots haven’t been highly-received.

“Mercedes plans to use robotics and Apollo for automating some low skill, physically challenging, manual labor — a model use case which we’ll see other organizations replicate in the months and years to come,” Apptronik CEO and co-founder Jeff Cardenas said in a statement.

Will robots replace factory workers?

Labor unions have opposed humanoid robots, arguing that it’s just the latest case of companies looking to cut costs and eliminate jobs amid opportunities to automate work. Between 60% and 70% of workers in the U.S. are exposed to artificial intelligence, and the technology is only getting more popular with companies looking to chip away at expenses.

A major focus of last year’s surge in American labor activity was protecting workers from the dangers of automation and AI; the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and Writers Guild of America fought for limitations on artificial intelligence. Meanwhile, the United Auto Workers fought for better job security in an industry that’s heavily invested in robots.

At the annual CES convention in January, startups showcased robotic masseuses, baristas, and robots, which concerned some attendees.

“It is very scary because tomorrow is never promised,” Roman Alejo, a barista at the Sahara hotel-casino in Las Vegas, told the Associated Press. “A lot of AI is coming into this world. It is very scary and very eye-opening to see how humans can think of replacing other humans.”

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