CONTRIBUTOR

Humanoid robotics specialist Apptronik and German automaker Mercedes are partnering up to reshape automotive manufacturing using AI-powered machines to aid assembly workers in vehicle production.

The collaboration will see both firms exploring applications of advanced robotics, particularly in streamlining logistics and automating physically demanding tasks within Mercedes-Benz’s manufacturing facilities.

Mercedes is investigating various applications for Apollo humanoid robots in transporting parts to the production line for assembly by workers, a process commonly referred to as assembly kit delivery, and inspecting components simultaneously.

Additionally, Apollo will be utilized to deliver tote bins containing kitted parts later in the manufacturing process.

The integration of humanoid robots like Apollo into automotive factories could help Mercedes optimize operations without the need for extensive facility redesigns, automating repetitive and physically challenging tasks and addressing the growing difficulty in sourcing reliable human labor for such roles.

Apollo has a form factor that roughly matches the size of a human worker, standing at 5 foot 8 inches tall, it weighs 160 pounds and can lift 55 pounds.

Barry Phillips, chief commercial officer at Apptronik, said these design choices were all intentionally made, as Apollo was built to operate in industrial spaces alongside people, while simultaneously taking on the physically demanding tasks.

“Apollo runs on 4-hour, hot swappable battery packs, meaning it can stay on the floor near constantly,” he said.

All it requires to keep pushing ahead following an initial four-hour “shift” is a battery swap – no moving to a charging station and sending in new units from their latest charge.

“This flexibility makes it well-suited for industrial settings,” Phillips said.

Apollo can leverage the latest foundation models, enabling it to learn a wider variety of tasks using human demonstration, video and text as prompts.

Apollo could then use those generalizable skills and its ability to recognize its environment to predict what to do next to achieve its goals – therefore, as Apollo’s task library increases, so do its use cases, which would further adoption.

Phillips said one particularly unique aspect of Apollo is that it is entirely electric – traditionally, robots use hydraulics, a high-pressure system, where leaks could be dangerous to people.

“Apptronik’s system, the electric actuation system, is much more efficient, but also requires a lot less maintenance compared to the hydraulic system,” he said.

The next decade is expected to witness more advancements in automotive manufacturing than the previous 70 years, with automation offering both opportunities for efficiency gains and concerns about potential job displacement.

Apollo serves dynamic operations where robots can work side-by-side with people to support physical labor and do the tasks that people don’t want to, or can’t do.

“Apollo doesn’t replace workers, it supplements the labor force with robots powered by AI technology to help fill holes in the dwindling labor market, with a specific focus on tasks such as heavy lifting and material handling,” Phillips said.

Apollo takes on the tasks that have a high risk of injury, promoting employee well-being and improving retention.

“By supplementing workers with AI-powered humanoid robots, we can increase production efficiency while allowing manufacturing operators to focus on higher-level tasks at work,” he said. “Our goal is for workers to allocate physical, material movement labor to the robots versus doing all the work manually.”

Pedro Pacheco, a Gartner analyst, said while this announcement may not be groundbreaking, it reinforces this clear trend in the industry.

“Many automakers are starting to physically introduce human robots to their assembly lines, but the future vision is different from automaker to automaker,” he said.

Hyundai, Tesla, Neo and BMW are all automakers who have either publicly confirmed or are in the process of adopting humanoid robots in their production lines.

Pacheco emphasized the dichotomy between automakers driven by a desire for full automation to reduce costs and increase production speed, and those who view humanoid robots as a solution without a clear problem.

“While the current technology may not match the dexterity of human workers, advancements are expected to continue, potentially leading to significant cost savings for automakers in the future,” he said.

He added that while some automakers are piloting the use of humanoid robots in specific factories, it’s unlikely to be implemented across all facilities.

“Additionally, there are multiple providers of humanoid robots working with different automakers, although the performance differences between them are not yet fully assessed,” Pacheco said. “Overall, the automotive manufacturing industry is undergoing significant transformation, with automation playing a crucial role in driving changes.”