Imagine this: accompanied by the mechanical roar, a group of “hands and feet” robots is tirelessly assembling car components on a production line. How would this scene unfold? Recently, BMW has “hired” such a batch of “steel workers.” According to a report by Reuters on the 19th, the California-based robot startup Figure has signed a cooperation agreement with BMW to deploy humanoid robots inside BMW’s factories in the United States. In recent times, humanoid robots have been increasingly applied in various scenarios, especially in logistics companies like Amazon. With human-like operational actions and intelligent activity control, can humanoid robots accelerate their integration into the automotive manufacturing industry?
According to the product information presented by Figure, these humanoid robots have a height of around 170cm, a “weight” of about 60 kilograms, can walk on two legs, and use flexible hands to assemble machines. They take a break every 5 hours, walking to the charging station for recharging, and after the battery is fully charged, they “resurrect” to continue working on the production line. Reportedly, Figure’s humanoid robots will be deployed in BMW’s new factory in Spartanburg, South Carolina, USA, which has over 11,000 employees.
These robots, after training for specific tasks, will be deployed on assembly lines, including parts production, car body sheet metal, warehousing, etc., within 12-24 months, as reported by Axios on the 23rd. Humanoid robots are advantageous in manufacturing; they work almost around the clock and have lower costs compared to hiring skilled workers. As versatile robots, they can be flexibly used in different stages of production, especially accelerating the launch of new production lines.
“The automotive industry is developing rapidly. The use of robots can enhance productivity,” said Robert Engelhorn, President and CEO of BMW Manufacturing in the United States. In addition to deploying humanoid robots in the automotive manufacturing process, BMW and Figure will explore advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence, robot control, manufacturing virtualization, and robot integration.
Figure’s robots are seen as direct competitors to Tesla’s Optimus humanoid robot, with both companies being technologically close. Recently, a video circulated on social media showing Optimus robot autonomously folding clothes, and its smooth movements even sparked debates about the authenticity of the video.
The analysis suggests that while the commercial market for single-purpose robots has saturated over the decades, the full potential of humanoid robots remains untapped. The widespread application of humanoid robots in the future can improve company productivity, reduce costs, and create a safer and more consistent working environment. According to Figure’s website, there are approximately 10 million job positions in the United States that require labor, and humanoid robots will fill those positions that people are reluctant to engage in.
Better Suited for Manufacturing Industrial Products Designed According to Human Activities
Many tasks on the car assembly line, such as installing car interiors, attaching car labels, and sealing glass windows, are challenging for ordinary industrial robots to replace human workers. This is because the structure of cars is designed based on the movements of the human body. Ordinary robots cannot perform certain assembly tasks that require bending or squatting like humans. Humanoid robots are more suitable for automobile manufacturing.
The introduction of humanoid robots into car manufacturing has a significant impact on production pace, an essential indicator for evaluating efficiency. “At first, it may seem that the efficiency of robots is not as high as that of assembly line workers. However, with the improvement of collaboration and standardization of equipment among robots, coupled with the ability of robots to work 24 hours a day, enterprises applying humanoid robots will have a more competitive advantage,” said Jiang Lei, giving an example. In car production and sales, assuming a workshop has 200 workers, during peak seasons, it needs all 200 workers to work at full capacity, but during slow seasons, only 80 workers are needed. In such cases, deploying 150 workers and 50 humanoid robots would be more reasonable.
“Humanoid robots have the potential to fundamentally change the way the automotive manufacturing industry operates,” said Markus Mingels, an automotive economist in Munich, Germany. Many traditional automotive manufacturing companies, hoping to seize opportunities in the future automotive revolution, as they lag behind companies like Tesla and BYD in the transition to new energy vehicles, see humanoid robots as a key option.
Labor shortages have become a challenge for a significant number of countries globally. Humanoid robots are likely to be a focal point for humans to enhance productivity in the future. If humanoid robots are well-applied in automobile manufacturing, their capabilities are expected to replicate in broader production and living scenarios. The automotive industry serves as an ‘experimental field,’ paving the way for humanoid robots to perform various tasks.
Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of Tesla, stated on social media on the 21st that as long as the foundation of human civilization remains stable, there could be one billion humanoid robots on Earth in 20 years. In an event in October 2022, Musk expressed the hope to manufacture millions of Optimus robots, each estimated to be priced at $20,000.
Many Challenges Exist
Currently, humanoid robots are rapidly entering enterprises. At the end of 2023, Amazon began testing humanoid robots from Agility Robotics to support its intelligent logistics business. The operating cost of these robots is approximately $10 to $12 per hour. Amazon expects costs to decrease to $2 to $3 per hour as robot production increases, significantly lower than the original labor costs.
In recent years, humanoid robot technology has rapidly evolved, becoming a new battleground for technological competition, a new track for future industries, and a new engine for economic development. In the field of humanoid robots, three noteworthy technological trends include enhanced cognitive capabilities through embedding large models, strengthened training platforms through the development of distributed computing platforms combined with the cloud, and critical technologies at the execution level, represented by “dexterous hands,” further enhancing the application capabilities of humanoid robots.
According to Forbes, the advantages of humanoid robots lie in their ability to cover most human scenarios on the assembly line, including walking on uneven surfaces and climbing stairs. They can move in complex environments with the dexterity of human limbs, supporting complex industrial operations and even household chores. Some humanoid robots are designed to focus on interaction with humans. They have facial recognition, speech synthesis, and natural language processing capabilities, enabling them to engage in conversations with humans and understand human emotions.
The promotion of humanoid robots also faces some significant obstacles. High production costs due to advanced technology and complex engineering may limit their popularity and practicality.
Mingels told reporters that the future of humanoid robots in the automotive industry faces challenges. In the current industrial applications, ordinary robots are cheaper and offer better production stability than humanoid robots. He also mentioned that industry standards are being developed, and the one who takes the lead in this field will have more say in setting standards.
Currently, humanoid robot technology is not mature, with main “stumbling blocks” in walking on lower limbs and precise hand operations. For example, humanoid robots find it challenging to tidy up messy cables. In the short term, humanoid robots are unlikely to completely replace workers on production lines. Industry estimates suggest that a significant number of humanoid robots will enter manufacturing around 2035, and even then, it will be a collaborative production model between humans and robots.
The inclusion of humanoid robots will indeed impact employment in the short term, but we should focus on the structural changes in future industries and the improvement in human education and living standards. Low-skilled labor itself is already on a declining trend, and in the future, humans are likely to engage in more intellectual activities.