BMW is taking a page out of Tesla’s playbook by experimenting with artificially intelligent human-like robots at one of its car plants. Figure, a California startup developing said humanoids, announced a deal with BMW on Thursday to “deploy general purpose robots in automotive manufacturing environments.”
Of course, robotics in car manufacturing isn’t anything new. Car companies have steadily automated the way vehicles are built over the years. But the machines currently in operation are programmed to do one thing over and over—like move a door panel from here to there or weld this to that. Figure’s robots, on the other hand, would be able to do a whole bunch of different tasks that are overly tedious or unsafe for human workers, the company says.
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Will humanoid robots take over jobs at automotive factories?
BMW, like Tesla, thinks that humanoid robots have a spot at automotive factories. They may, but don't expect them to perform complex tasks anytime soon.
"Single-purpose robotics have saturated the commercial market for decades, but the potential of general-purpose robotics is completely untapped. Figure's robots will enable companies to increase productivity, reduce costs, and create a safer and more consistent environment," Brett Adcock, Figure’s founder and CEO, said. Adcock also founded Archer Aviation, an electric air taxi company.
BMW and Figure will identify where robots can fit into the carmaker’s manufacturing processes before letting them loose—in stages—at the carmaker's plant in Spartanburg, South Carolina. That’s where BMW assembles the X3, X4, X5, X6, X7, and XM SUVs.
Standing at 5 feet 6 inches tall, the Figure 01 can carry 44 pounds, operate for five hours on a full charge and walk at a speed of 2.7 miles per hour. Figure, which emerged from stealth in 2023, aims to deploy the robot across industries like warehousing, logistics and retail to start.
Tesla is working on a similar robot called Optimus, which it plans to unleash on its factory floors to do manual labor. Elon Musk has said Optimus could also serve as a personal butler and that Tesla’s robotics division will someday eclipse its car business. (By the way, Hyundai already employs camera-equipped robot dogs from Boston Dynamics, which it owns, to do quality control.)
Gallery: Figure 01 Humanoid Robot
In the auto world, human jobs are already under threat by regular-old automation and the rise of electric cars, which are simpler to build and require less labor than their combustion-powered counterparts. If humanoid robots become smart, skilled and, crucially, cost-effective enough for car companies to use in significant numbers, we could see the automotive workforce erode further. For what it's worth, Figure says on its website that there are 10 million unfilled jobs in the U.S. and that it sees robots as a solution for filling roles people don't want.
The robot takeover of complex manufacturing processes isn't happening tomorrow; Figure’s robot just learned how to make coffee.
Granted, it learned how to use a Keurig, basically the simplest coffee machine to operate on the planet. But the fact that it learned to do so just by watching people make coffee for 10 hours is extremely cool and impressive. See it in action here: