Why are people replacing robots?

Mercedes-Benz is replacing some of the robots in their factories with people.

http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/feb/26/mercedes-benz-robots-people-assembly-lines

3127953038There had to be some passionate conversations between factory managers, and executives at Mercedes-Benz with this one. Replacing some robots with people has caused all sort of problems. If the factories are quite new, and were built for automation they probably don’t have many toilets near the factory floor. Or a large car park, or canteen. Robots don’t drive to work, and need to eat. Factory managers will take personal and professional pride in running efficient operations and automation has made cars affordable, reliable and available.

What is going on when the factories start employing people to replace robots? Wearing an efficiency hat this doesn’t make sense. Robotic factories have been the only future imaginable for years.  What has changed? Does the factory rulebook need to be rewritten?

Increasing pace of change and complexity 

From the Guardian article:

The robots cannot handle the pace of change and the complexity of the key customisation options available for the company’s S-Class saloon at the 101-year-old Sindelfingen plant, which produces 400, 000 vehicles a year from 1,500 tons of steel a day.

We need to be flexible. The variety is too much to take on for the machines. They can’t work with all the different options and keep pace with changes.”

Robots can’t currently mange the complexity of the customisation options. People are currently able to outperform robots at tasks requiring variety, at least until the robot manufacturers catch up.

Managing Variety 1: Making something you can sell

To find where this variety has come from, we can start in sales. Mercedes is in business to sell cars to customers. To do the sales folk need to offer what the customer environment wants, a…

… dizzying number of options for the cars – from heated or cooled cup holders, various wheels, carbon-fibre trims and decals, and even four types of caps for tire valves –

There may be customer demand for these, or marketing could have created the demand. Either way, with a lean, efficient production line, the sales folk are selling something the robotic factories can’t make.

Variety 2: Selling something you can make

Mercedes need to reduce the variety their customers demand to a level their factories can cope with. Balancing this equation is essential. Of course the ultimate offer would be a custom Mercedes for each customer, but this is not possible for the cost of a Mercedes.

To do this marketing and production have to work together to design and market cars that they can make in their factories. Mercedes-Benz are a luxury brand, so cost efficiency is not the sole purpose of the factory.

Marketing has to create and manage demand for the sort of customisation that their factories, restructured with people and robots, can produce. People can cope with the operational variety that robots, or people behaving like robots can’t.

Using robots, machines or computers increases efficiency, but reduces the ability of the system, in this case a factory, to cope with variety in an fast changing environment.

At every level we must ensure that the variety equations balance. If a car dealer can’t supply what the customer is asking for, they will buy elsewhere. If the factory can’t make what the car dealer is selling then the business won’t last long.

 

 

 

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