Why it matters that Mercedes-Benz is firing robots and hiring people.
It could be said that the only thing Americans love more than cars is making robots to build them.
The American auto industry was the largest in the world until the 1980s, when it was overtaken by Japan. America now has the second-largest automobile industry by volume.
For the most part, we should be thanking car-building robots for that.
According to the International Federation of Robotics (which is a real thing and not an evil globe-dominating corporation from a Philip K. Dick novel), the automotive industry is the largest user of industrial robots. Nearly 100,000 robotic car assembly units shipped in 2014, say IFR statistics.
Unfortunately, a lot of that innovative robotic automation came at the cost of human jobs.
With the increased use of automation in the 1980s, car manufacturers realized that they could maximize efficiency and productivity by filling their assembly lines with robots instead of people. Not to mention that people require things like salaries, sick leave, vacation days, and health care that robots do not.
Over half a million automotive jobs in North America were lost from 2000 to 2012, partly due to increased automation at manufacturing plants.
One car maker in Germany, however, is starting to reverse that trend.
They're actually hiring salary-earning human workers instead of robots. Yes, that's right! Flesh-and-blood people! Aka nature's original meat-robots.
Luxury car company Mercedes-Benz has been hiring human beings over robots at its 101-year-old plant in Sindelfingen.
But before you feel too bad for the unemployed robots, remember that they don't actually need money. Or a home. Or clothes. They don't even need to be told that they're doing a good job. They're just dumb robots. (You should still be nice to them, though, so they spare your life during the inevitable robot uprising.)
Why look to human workers instead of relying on automation?
With increased demand for more customization in cars, there's been an increased need for human hands at car factories.
While robots are good at everything from playing pool to shaving your head, they don't quite have the nimble motor skills and on-the-fly problem-solving abilities needed to do some of the custom jobs Mercedes-Benz requires.
For instance, if a customer wanted heated cupholders on the driver's side but not the rear passenger side and chrome tire valves on the front wheels but matte black valves on the back wheels, it'd be much harder to program various robots to remember all that for one specific job than it would be to tell a human worker, "Hey just a heads up, this customer is the f**king worst."
In short, smart, capable workers with heartbeats and brains are what the company needs to run efficiently. Which is good news for people who like employment — and stealing jobs back from robots.
Humans are a damn good investment, too.
“Robots can’t deal with the degree of individualization and the many variants that we have today," Markus Schaefer, head of production at Mercedes-Benz, told Bloomberg. "We’re saving money and safeguarding our future by employing more people.”
Since the plant processes 1,500 tons of steel a day and produces more than 400,000 vehicles a year, automation and streamlining of systems is of the utmost importance.
On top of that, Schaefer has said he wants to reduce the amount of hours needed to produce a car from 61 to 30 — and humans are the way to do that.
“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.”
If car manufacturers in Germany can bring back autoworker jobs, so can we.
Americans like luxury cars too! No one is more demanding of unnecessary customization than Americans! We even like to customize our toilet paper!
Maybe our unflinching need to get exactly what we want will do some good for once and lead to a surge in human employment.
In Detroit, for example, where the American auto industry was essentially invented, thousands of jobs have been lost to automation. And all over the country, the number of American workers in manufacturing jobs has declined from 40% to 10% since World War II, in part because of robots.
So here's to you, human beings.
I haven't met all of you. But I've met enough to know that sometimes you can be pretty cool, and also that you're really good at building things.
One day, when I can afford a Mercedes-Benz with heated cupholders, red carbon-fiber trim, chrome door handle inserts, and five-spoke wheel caps, I'll know who to actually thank.