In the factory of the future, robots will e-mail their overseers when they spot a problem. Supervisors will run a factory's assembly lines from locations halfway around the world. And even the lowly fasteners on a vehicle will tell workers whether they have been torqued properly.
And yet, despite these and other innovations that will revolutionize the factory floor, the question remains: Can a person build a car more efficiently than a robot?
It's a question as old as automation itself. Even as robots have gotten smarter and more agile, workers continue to improve their productivity by embracing the principles of continuous improvement.
In fact, a credible school of thought says humans will retain the edge in many of the complex tasks required to assemble cars.
So what will factories look like 10 or 20 years from now? To answer that question, Automotive News interviewed more than 20 experts who work for automakers, suppliers and consulting firms.
Our conclusions: Ten years from now:
- Assembly plants will shrink as suppliers ship more pre-assembled component modules.
- Assembly lines will have fewer workstations.
- Factories will still need workers - fewer, but better trained.
- Robots will be used more frequently for delicate work - such as assembling engines and transmissions - that now requires a human worker's touch.
No 'lights out' plant
Manufacturers have given up on the dream of the "lights out" factory - the hypothetical assembly line that is so completely automated that workers aren't required.
"Gosh, you don't hear about that anymore," says manufacturing guru James Womack, chairman of the Lean Enterprise Institute in Cambridge, Mass.
In assembly plants that produce a variety of different vehicles, humans are more flexible than expensive arrays of robots. "If you have a lot of products in the mix, people can be a lot more flexible," Womack notes.
But even if the lights-out factory is unattainable, companies such as Fanuc Ltd., Textron Inc. and CogniTens Inc. are making huge strides in automation.
Robots of the future will be cheaper and more reliable. The next generation of robots will vastly expand their reach into engine and transmission manufacturing because they will be able to see, feel and communicate better than ever.
While they are assembling vehicles, robots will even collect data about the quality and quantity of the parts they handle, says Bryce Currie, TRW Automotive Inc.'s vice president of quality.
And robots will be able to send e-mail to anyone that wants to know how they're doing. Fanuc Robotics America Inc., the North American unit of the Japanese automation company Fanuc Ltd., is experimenting with these kinds of robots in its Michigan laboratories.
"The technology is there," says Gary Zywiol, vice president of product development at Fanuc Robotics. "In the future, the calls can come from the robot itself.
"They send an e-mail to the plant maintenance department or even to service people at our hot line at Fanuc Robotics. They say, 'Hey, I'm a robot in Canton, Ohio, at such-and-such facility, and I'm predicting that in the next month I'm going to need preventive maintenance,'" Zywiol says.
Robotics makers, long chastised for making machines that put people out of work, view themselves as protectors of jobs in North America. The reasoning: If automation can be done cheaper in the United States than shipping a plant to China, it saves U.S. jobs.