“Robots can’t deal with the degree of individualization and the many variants that we have today,” Markus Schaefer, the German automaker’s head of production […] While robots are good at reliably and repeatedly performing defined tasks, they’re not good at adapting. That’s increasingly in demand amid a broader offering of models, each with more and more features.
“The variety is too much to take on for the machines,” said Schaefer, who’s pushing to reduce the hours needed to produce a car to 30 from 61 in 2005. “They can’t work with all the different options and keep pace with changes.”
With manufacturing focused around a skilled crew of workers, Mercedes can shift a production line in a weekend instead of the weeks needed in the past to reprogram robots and shift assembly patterns, Schaefer said. During that downtime, production would be at a standstill.
Automakers also need to cater to consumers demanding to be different. For Mercedes, that means adding 30 models by the end of the decade, including 10 all-new styles, and offering custom options such as bamboo trim, interior fragrances and illuminating the Mercedes star. That’s a stark contrast to the days when mass-production pioneer Henry Ford quipped that customers could have any color they wanted as long as it was black.
“We’re moving away from trying to maximize automation with people taking a bigger part in industrial processes again,” said Schaefer. “We need to be flexible.”