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Car Factories Turn Robots And Humans Into Co-Workers

Robots are working alongside humans on car production lines, taking what Technology Review calls "a huge step toward revolutionizing the role of robots" at car factories. Previously, robots had been seen as being too unsafe to place them shoulder-to-arm-joint with humans on the assembly line.

It's nothing new to put robots on the assembly line, as the tech website notes. As far back as the 1960s, the huge Unimate arm was put to work in a GM car factory. But new systems in two factories are seen as being safe and reliable enough to work next to humans, without guards or other barriers between them.

The robot arms are made by Denmark's Universal Robots. In Germany, the company's robots are working next to humans, helping to produce engines for Volkswagens at a facility in Salzgitter.

Universal Robots says that the "robotic arm is able to collaborate directly with people without any guards. It thus contributes significantly towards optimizing healthy working processes."

In the United States, BMW's factory in Spartanburg, S.C., employs more than 7,000 people, according to the carmaker, making an average of about 1,000 vehicles each day. It also employs Universal Robots to help make car doors.

BMW says the plan isn't to replace people on the assembly line, but instead to help them work at an older age.

"Our workers are getting older," BMW's head of innovation, Stefan Bartscher, tells Technology Review. "The retirement age in Germany just rose from 65 to 67, and I'm pretty sure when I retire it'll be 72 or something. We actually need something to compensate and keep our workforce healthy, and keep them in labor for a long time. We want to get the robots to support the humans."

Technology Review says that "BMW is testing even more sophisticated final assembly robots that are mobile and capable of collaborating directly with human colleagues."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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