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Robots have revolutionized auto manufacturing, but they've hardly replaced the human touch. NPR's Camila Domonoske reports.
CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: At Volvo's new plant in Ridgeville, S.C., a half dozen robot arms move in coordination behind a safety fence. They're spot welding a car's body together. Eventually, this will be an S60 - a luxury sedan.
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DOMONOSKE: A small cluster of sparks flies up. We are at the very start of the production line...
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DOMONOSKE: ...Where metal components are combined to form the car's body. Here, automation dominates. There are more robots than people in this building. And right here, where the robots are welding roofs together, it's dimly lit. Robots don't need much light to work. Jeff Moore is the head of manufacturing for Volvo in America. He says when you're thinking about what jobs to assign to a robot, you start with work that's repetitive, especially if there are safety concerns.
JEFF MOORE: With all the heat and sparks and the high current and things like that associated with welding, that's a natural spot to be looking at where you can more heavily automate.
DOMONOSKE: But follow the car body as it moves down the assembly line and soon enough, the lights come up and humans take over. At the other end of this building, people run their hands over the surface of the metal, feeling for imperfections. There are some things robots are better at than people. They're precise and consistent. But there are other things people are better at. Humans are underrated, Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted last year after Tesla tried to switch to an extremely automated system. Ultimately, the company gave jobs back to people.
And we're good at more than just testing how things look and feel. Here at the Volvo plant in another vast building, a long line of people are preparing engines to go inside the cars. This work involves a lot of fiddly parts with odd shapes, which need to be threaded together or moved around in complex ways. Robots are bad at these fine motor skills. People are great at it.
And this line handles different engines - gas or hybrid, all-wheel drive, eventually electric motors. They all take different parts. Humans are good at switching back and forth. Robots - not so much. Jason Dodgins, working on this line, used to work at a plant that made bearings. That was less hands-on, he says.
JASON DODGINS: The machine did a lot of the actual labor part. You were basically doing the inspection. This has a lot more manual labor to it.
DOMONOSKE: Then there's problem-solving. Skip ahead down the line and workers have put together the engine, transmission, axles - everything to make the car go. The car body is waiting on an elevated conveyor. Now the two need to come together. Trey Yonce helps set up the line where this marriage happens.
TREY YONCE: If this radiator is not pushed back far enough, it will crash with the body.
DOMONOSKE: At first, workers had to fix the placement again and again. Now, a robot could see that problem, but it won't get annoyed by it. People?
YONCE: They just got tired of doing it. And a fellow just came up with an idea, and it worked.
DOMONOSKE: He points to a little yellow piece of plastic. It holds the radiator in place to prevent that crash. Jeff Moore says Volvo has already applied for multiple patents based on ideas that came from workers at this new plant.
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DOMONOSKE: Humans have strengths compared to robots in all sorts of workplaces, not just auto plants. And in general, people and robots work best together, with robots handling dangerous, monotonous jobs and precision work while people switch between tasks and make decisions. And there's a sort of philosophical lesson here. Susan Helper is an economist at Case Western Reserve University.
SUSAN HELPER: People often think of manufacturing workers as actually a poor substitute for a robot.
DOMONOSKE: People complain. They get tired.
HELPER: So, gee, wouldn't robots be better?
DOMONOSKE: That's a fundamental misunderstanding, she says.
HELPER: But in practice, these things are really difficult. And the assembly line worker is making judgments a lot. And it turns out that when you take that person away, you end up with some problems that are hard to solve.
DOMONOSKE: Historically, Helper says, some factories have tried to treat their workers like robots - doing repetitive work without thinking. The best thing robots can do is not replace people but free them up to work like people. Camila Domonoske, NPR News, Ridgeville, S.C.
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