"Thanks buddy." A co-bot helps out on the Ford Fiesta line at Cologne

"Thanks buddy." A co-bot helps out on the Ford Fiesta line at Cologne

Thoughts this week are with the clever technology that is gradually changing the world of manufacturing. Machines can be very expensive, but they are also very quick and very reliable. Whenever I visit a car plant and see the spot-welding performed by those big robots, I am pretty transfixed.

We also learnt last week about robots working collaboratively with humans on the Ford Fiesta line at Cologne. These are collaborative robots or 'co-bots', man and machine working in harmony. The robot can do the things that the human struggles with. Fascinating.

Ford Cologne trials co-bots to fit Fiesta shocks

The rapid growth in the power of silicon chips, sensors and high-bandwidth communications is creating more powerful robots. Also, R&D in robotics is being boosted by more flexible, shared platforms. Expect to hear more along the lines of Ford's announcement in the coming years. Automotive manufacturing is likely to continue to be in the vanguard of automation and robotics introduction because of its inherent complexity (circa 20,000 parts per vehicle), manufacturing plants with still-high labour costs, high volume through-put and the quality/reliability benefits that follow greater automation. It's a slow train coming, perhaps, but one that could be about to speed up.

In a slightly different vein to Ford's announcement, General Motors has been working with NASA on robotic glove technology to develop a new grasp assist device for industrial use that could increase human operator efficiency while reducing fatigue in hand muscles. It is described as a major step toward introducing soft exoskeleton technology that assists the human body in carrying out physical work. There are still some things that a human can do better than a machine – greater dexterity in many situations - but humans do tire.

GM/NASA robot glove finds automaking applications

I was also reminded of the clever innovations that BMW is trialling to help its ageing assembly line workforce in Munich. The 'chairless chair' is particularly impressive.

BMW Group prioritises factory digitalisation and ergonomics as workforce ages

So, the world of manufacturing is facing change. Robots will do more and they are becoming more agile and sophisticated, unit costs coming down with scale economies; it has the feel of an inexorable trend (automation has been on the march for decades, but could ramp up now). And the fewer humans who remain in the factory will increasingly be helped by clever tech to have a more ergonomically efficient and less physically taxing experience. They should be more productive as a result, too.

Has anyone given any thought about what the displaced humans will do with their time though?