More than hundred years ago, the founder of Ford Motor Company, Henry Ford alongside his team at Highland Park assembly plant, launched world’s first moving assembly line. That eventually went ahead and simplified the assembly of the Ford Model T’s 3000 parts by breaking it into a total of 84 different steps performed by various groups of workers while a rope pulled the vehicle chassis down the line. The all new process of car manufacturing revolutionized production and the car assembly time dropped from massive 12 hours to mere 90 minutes.
After reducing the time, money, and the needed manpower to build a car, Henry Ford was quite successful to reduce the price of Model T from $850 to less than $300, which brought the Model T within reach of common Americans. Eventually, Ford went further ahead and built a Model T every 24 seconds, and by 1927, it sold more than 15 million Model Ts worldwide, accounting half of the automobile sold.
Cut to recent days, now most of the automobile companies are heavily investing in robotic innovations, to improve its vehicle quality and production efficiencies. Now organizations use the various new system, which includes robotic vision in order to create a digital model of each car in the final assembly line to analyze the paint quality and imperfections in the surface by comparing with a perfect model.
The automated robotic systems can perform most of the automated tasks on vehicle frames, chassis, underbodies, fenders, as well as interior parts during the production of the vehicle. Previously, changing a line to work on the different model was quite tedious and lengthy process, however, nowadays one can easily reset a robot and reprogram it according to the preferences, which eventually increases the versatility of the production line without hampering the production. Back in the late 1990s another American manufacturer Chrysler started robotic automation process in their factories, and eventually produced a completely unprecedented number of different models. Producing different models from a single assembly line is by no means a small feat, the manufacturer was able to do that due to the versatility of the robots used. As different model means different materials, shapes, sizes, and obviously, design and Chrysler was able to do that due to the material handling automated robots.
When US based companies are investing heavily in robotics and on automating the production line, how can the Japanese manufactures be left behind? One of the stalwarts of the Japanese industry Honda has also improved their productivity by using robotics. Honda has robots that can perform various tasks including spot welding and painting on different vehicles, which not only increases production quality but also speeds up production. The automated robots of Honda can do risky jobs including welding and painting, which often produces toxic gases and fumes, keeping human workforce out of the harm’s way.
According to several studies, various Japanese car makers, mainly led by Toyota have achieved the highest level of automation and the manufacturing efficiency in the world of automotive industry. However, according to few of the observers, the Japanese firms copied various production techniques from U.S and eventually helped workers with better educations. Still, this was not the case with Japanese companies based in U.S, as they have demonstrated same or higher levels of productivity, equivalent flexibility, and quality compared to its U.S counterparts. On the other hand, not all the firms from Japan copied the techniques and machinery of U.S. Those who were interested in experimenting and creating new opportunities, started to build their production line and technology. One such manufacturer was Toyota, who went against the tide and avoided copying foreign models, designs, and technology and eventually focused on developing better and more efficient production line specifically for the Japanese market. Toyota did all these when brands like Nissan, Hino, Isuzu, and Mitsubishi assembled and developed various European and American vehicles under license, and all of them used conventional mass production technology that was drawn up in U.S. All these models eventually accounted for 30 percent of Japanese car manufactured for quite a long time. Slowly Toyota and other manufacturers from Japan implemented conventional mass production processes much more efficiently; by making few changes in the procedures that were being used in U.S. Eventually, during 1960s-1970s brands like Daihatsu, Mazda, Nissan, and Hino scrapped the U.S production techniques and copied the production techniques introduced by Toyota.
However, robots can’t match a human’s intelligence and when it comes to intricate designs and customizations robots often cannot match up. So, the Bavarian giant Mercedes-Benz has been forced to trade in some of the assembly line robots for its more capable human counterpart. As per the century old company, robots can not handle the complexity of the key customization option available for the flagship S-Class saloon. As the robots can not deal with the personalization options that Mercedes have nowadays. It is saving money and safeguarding its future by investing and employing heavily on the human workforce. Now the company is moving away from trying to maximize automation with people taking much bigger part of the industrial processes. This is mainly due to robots can not work with all the different options, and they often fail to keep pace with the changes. Now the company is slowly moving towards robot farming where it will equip workers with small and more flexible tools to work alongside robots. Mercedes is not the only one to shift towards more flexible systems, its arch rivals like Audi and BMW are testing robots, that are fitted with sensors and intelligent systems that are safe to work alongside its human counterpart. Even the Japanese manufacturer, Toyota, which is famous for its reliability is also replacing robots with humans to counter waste and increase efficiency.
The main key is to maintain the qualities of robotics, consistency, and obviously reliability while gaining an edge to be quicker to change as the industry adapts to new technology. Nowadays traditional car manufacturers are coming under constant pressure from the likes of Tesla. Now speed is the key, but still, a traditional car takes around seven years to hit full fledged production. At the same times, models have boomed, and customization has become the key ingredient, so mass production is not at all a good idea.