From the moment they were created, the pair known as "Heidi" and "Erin" were destined to be with each other their whole lives -- or at least as long as their Audi A7 wasn't involved in a crash. In Neckarsulm, Audi's most flexible plant, driver-side airbags are named after girls, while the steering wheels have boys' names. Other components are designated according to seasons or places -- anything to help make it easier for production workers to remember when sorting and installing them.
While a robot could read any of their 12-digit product identification codes in a microsecond, auto executives say they could not deal with the enormous complexity facing their human colleagues, who assemble six model lines and 21 vehicle derivatives at the plant.
"Today it would be impossible to add all the sensors necessary to replace the human sense of touch," Audi production boss Hubert Waltl said. "People can reach into a box and without looking immediately recognize a larger part from a smaller one."
The trend toward an ever expanding range of niche models and individualization options creates a nightmare for logistics managers and it may also be reversing the previously unstoppable march toward greater automation. This contrasts starkly with the widely accepted view that smart factories and intelligent computer algorithms will lead to increasingly fewer workers. Oxford University published a study in September 2013 that said 47 percent of U.S. employment is at high risk of being replaced by a machine in one to two decades as an increasing number of skilled professions are computerized.
Switzerland, where manufacturing jobs were hit hard by the strong currency as investors piled into safe haven assets such as the Swiss franc, held a referendum in June as to whether each citizen had a right to an unconditional basic income. To symbolize their fears that machines were increasingly crowding them out of the workplace, hundreds held a rally in Zurich in April dressed in cardboard robot costumes urging "fellow humans" to vote in favor of the proposal, which failed.
One German blue chip CEO, Frank Appel of Deutsche Post, even proposed last month incentivizing companies to maintain their workforce by taxing the work performed by robots.
German scientists are alarmed that not enough is being done ... for the machines. An expert commission delivered its annual recommendations to the government in February, warning for the first time that Chancellor Angela Merkel must devise an explicit strategy to increase the use of robots in both the manufacturing and service sectors. Throughout the nation's educational institutions, "robotics should be granted a much higher importance that has been the case previously," the commission recommended.
The panel of scientists said the number of domestic industrial robots rose only by 7 percent between 2011 and 2014 compared with double- or even triple-digit growth rates in other major manufacturing countries such as China. As a result, they forecast Germany will drop two notches to fifth place this year.
The national commission's most recent figures show its carmakers in particular risk being overtaken by their closest rivals because they employed 1,149 robots per 10,000 workers -- fewer than Japan and only as many as the U.S. and South Korea.
Traditionally machines are almost entirely used in those parts of the factory where work is exceedingly strenuous, dangerous and requires absolute precision, including stamping sheet metal, welding body frames, or gluing windshields in place. They are also deployed when absolute, cleanroom-like conditions are required, such as when layers of paint are applied to a vehicle. "When you walk through this plant, in the press shop, the body shop, or the paint shop, there are not many people working there; maintenance staff and so on of course, but it is already fully automated," BMW production chief Oliver Zipse said about the automaker's Munich factory.
Carmakers are now also experimenting with new collaborative approaches that would see flexible, small-scale robots working alongside humans on the assembly line for the first time. Previously robots have been hulking in size, incapable of performing other tasks elsewhere in the plant, and kept behind a cage to protect employees from injury.
Adam, the helper robot
After receiving safety certification, Audi has been testing a robot at its Ingolstadt factory building the A4, A5 and Q5 models that hands coolant expansion tanks to line workers without the need for any protective fence. Unlike the thousand other robotic arms that weld, glue and solder parts of the body, it is the only machine to have a name – Adam, symbolic for first of its kind. So far the experience has proved successful and Audi expects to begin using one in Neckarsulm by the end of this year to assist with assembling tailgates.