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Notebook Technology

Pink slip for robots

Production at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Sindelfingen (Deniz Calagan/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP)

University of Southampton

The King James Bible

Technology

Pink slip for robots

For a German carmaker, humans prove more efficient than automation

The conventional wisdom says it’s only a matter of time before robots take over most human jobs. But that wisdom may not hold—at least when it comes to automobile manufacturing, where human workers are making a comeback.

In response to the increasing demand for car models with a wide variety of customized options, such as carbon fiber trim and temperature-controlled cup holders, automaker Mercedes-Benz has chosen to cut back on the number of robots on its S- and E-Class sedan production lines and replace them with humans.

“Robots can’t deal with the degree of individualization and the many variants that we have today,” Markus Schaefer, the German automaker’s head of production, told Bloomberg Business. “We’re saving money and safeguarding our future by employing more people.”

Schaefer is trying to streamline production at Mercedes-Benz’s massive plant in Sindelfingen, Germany, where the manufacturing process relies on crews of skilled workers. In the past, reprogramming robots for new assembly patterns took several weeks, during which time production was shut down. But a human-crewed production line can be shifted in a weekend.

“The variety is too much to take on for the machines,” said Schaefer, who told Bloomberg his goal is to halve the time needed to produce a car from 61 hours to 30. “They can’t work with all the different options and keep pace with changes.”

Mercedes-Benz won’t completely eliminate robots on its production lines. But they’ll likely be smaller, operating alongside human workers rather than set off behind safety barriers.

With pressure on automakers to upgrade models more frequently and incorporate the latest technology, the future of auto manufacturing may involve both humans and lightweight, sensor-equipped robots.

Long-term memories

All our digital treasures will eventually wear out: According to technology website Gizmag, CDs and DVDs—along with the music, videos, and documents we think we’ve permanently captured—can deteriorate in decades. The current state of the art for digital storage in those forms lasts no more than about a century.

But now scientists at the University of Southampton in England have demonstrated a data storage technology they claim will preserve digital data for at least 13 billion years, according to a university press release.

The technique, called five-dimensional storage, uses a laser to record layers of microscopic dots in a disc of fused quartz glass. The resulting nanoscale grating changes the polarization of light passing through the glass. Users can then read the disc using an optical microscope and a filter, similar to those found in polarized sunglasses.

About the size of a half-dollar coin, each glass disc can store 360 terabytes of data, according to researchers who developed the technology at the university’s Optoelectronics Research Center. That’s as much storage as nearly half a million conventional CDs.

As a proof of concept, the researchers have already recorded the King James Bible, the Magna Carta, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They believe the preservation technique would be useful for organizations with large book or data collections, such as national archives, museums, and libraries. —M.C.