Technological trends are reshaping the workplace. Where the future will take us is not yet clear, but at Volkswagen the transformation has already begun.
The future begins with problems
As so often happens, the future begins with a problem. Andres Davila and his team are standing around a lightweight construction robot. It doesn’t look at all like a robot, but more like a giant silver arm with bulky orange joints. The software has crashed and everything has frozen. A technician goes to the laptop and restarts the program.
Andres Davila is a production planner at Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles’ plant in Hanover. His job is to ensure that production runs efficiently and that staff are able to work in ergonomically ideal conditions. The special feature of this robotic steel limb is that it yields if a human touches it. If it is pushed too hard, something which can occur during its work on the production line, the robotic arm shuts off completely – a safety feature designed to prevent injury.
Andres Davila (Photo by Ériver Hijano)
The machine's "sensitivity"
Unlike its heavy steel colleagues, towering behind giant protective screens as they go doggedly about their work, this lightweight robotic arm is equipped with what experts call its “sensitivity”. This morning Andres and his team are testing how fast and accurately the new lightweight robot can attach plastic clips to the interior paneling of a VW Transporter. The plastic clips to be installed number several hundred: a monotonous task, which for a human requires clambering around inside the vehicle to align the paneling and push the clips into the walls – a job that strains the thumb and wrist.
It is not yet clear whether this type of robot will become a standard feature of the assembly line. It is not just a question of demonstrating that the technology works, but also of the employees’ willingness to work so closely with the robot. “You can’t use a sledgehammer to get humans to collaborate with robots. Ultimately, it’s our colleagues on the assembly line who are going to have to work with the robot in three shifts every day”, Davila explains.
Humans always at the center of innovation
“Klaus” is working on assembly line 2 in Wolfsburg. He carefully feels his way to the bolt for the pendulum support beneath an engine block. But Klaus cannot see: sensors help him find his way, locate the bolt and tighten it. Klaus is another lightweight construction robot – and another experiment. But unlike his counterpart in Hanover, he has already left the laboratory and is currently being tested for full production: he now awaits the verdict of his flesh-and-blood colleagues, the most important one.
Andres Davila recalls an international competition where robots had to open a door. Most of them fell over – the task was just too complex for them. Davila says: “Technology is meant to support humans, not replace them. Ultimately, every story is about humans”.
Source: Volkswagen AG