Shiny, silver human-shaped robots the size of lightweight boxers are getting ready to start shuffling their way through BMW’s US factory floors. The carmaker recently reached a commercial agreement with the robotics startup Figure to bring its eponymously named “general purpose” humanoid robot to BMW’s manufacturing facilities, starting with its Spartanburg, South Carolina location. The agreement puts BMW in a race with Tesla and other automakers who’ve embraced a vision of humanoid robots in an effort to further automate their already tech-filled facilities. It’s clear the robots are coming, but nobody really seems to know exactly what to do with them just yet.
How does the robot work?
The Figure robot is a 5’6, 130-pound bipedal hunk of metal capable of lifting around 45 pounds and walking up to 2.7 miles per hour. Figure, which aspires to make “the world’s first commercially viable general purpose humanoid robot” says its Figure 01 model can operate for around five hours before needing to recharge. Though it’s unclear exactly how the robot will work in an automobile factory setting, Figure believes its device generally will “enable the automation of difficult, unsafe, or tedious tasks.”
As to what the humanoid robots will be doing at the factory exactly, Figure spokesperson told PopSci that “tasks have yet to be announced publicly.” A BMW spokesperson said that the automakers are “investigating concepts.”
The agreement between BMW and Figure features multiple phases. At first, the companies will look to “identify initial use cases” for the robots. Once those are established, the robots will make their debut at BMW’s Spartanburg, South Carolina manufacturing facility. A BMW spokesperson from the company’s South Carolina facility told PopSci it’s investigating ways to use the humanoid robot in the facility and said it could prove useful in situations where two hands are needed to grip certain objects. The BMW spokesperson did not provide more specific use cases and said there isn’t currently a timetable for when the robot could arrive on site.
“BMW is always exploring the latest technology to make our processes more efficient. Companies that invest in innovation such as this are more sustainable, become more productive, and have a competitive advantage,” the spokesperson told PopSci. “We need the right tools for the future, and this is just one tool in our toolbox that can be used.”
A spokesperson for Figure, meanwhile, told PopSci their goal is to have robots perform in the BMW manufacturing facility sometime in 2024.
Robots in car factories aren’t anything new, but up until now they’ve mostly resembled single-purposed machines only capable of performing specific preset tasks. Robotics manufacturers like Figure believe their new Humanoid robots, made in the image of humans, could act as a type of generalist able to walk a factory floor and perform various tasks. The inclusion of hands, for example, could help the Figure bot open doors and use tools. Arms and legs, meanwhile, could help the robot climb up stairs, traverse terrain, and lift heavy boxes.
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“Single-purpose robotics have saturated the commercial market for decades, but the potential of general purpose robotics is completely untapped,” Figure Founder and CEO Brett Adcock said in a statement. “Figure’s robots will enable companies to increase productivity, reduce costs, and create a safer and more consistent environment.”
“Figure 01 brings together the dexterity of the human form and cutting edge AI to go beyond single-function robots and lend support across manufacturing, logistics, warehousing, and retail,” Figure notes on its website.
Figure vaguely says it’s using AI to build “intelligent embodied agents” capable of interacting with real world environments in unique and unstructured real world scenarios. Recently the company released this video claiming to show the Figure robot using AI to learn how to make a cup of Keurig coffee after ingesting 10 hours of footage.
Carmakers are racing to bring humanoid robots to factory floors
BMW’s new agreement with Figure comes around three years after Tesla announced its own plans to introduce artificial intelligence-enabled humanoid robots to its factory floors. At the time, Tesla’s robot was actually a dancing man wearing tight spandex. Since then Tesla has shown several prototypes of its “Optimus” robot which features a similar body design to the Figure model. The latest iteration of Optimus can reportedly squat and fondle eggs, but it’s still unclear exactly how that will translate to building cars. Tesla CEO Elon Musk previously told investors Optimus’ importance would “become apparent in several years” and even suggested the staggering machine could one day be worth more than Tesla’s automobiles. Tesla did not immediately respond to PopSci’s request for comment.
Regardless of whether or not Musk’s predictions come true, other larger scale industrialists are taking note. In 2021, automating giant Hyundai completed an estimated $1.1 billion acquisition of Boston Dynamics, which is best known for creating odd videos of hulking humanoid robots performing backflips and various forms of calisthenics. Outside of the auto industry, Amazon recently revealed it was testing a bi-pedal humanoid robot from a firm called Digit which it said could one day work alongside employees in warehouses.
So, why all the interest in robots now? Recent reporting from The Wall Street Journal suggests automakers like BMW see expanded automation through robotics as a way to offset rising labor costs and cut product prices. US autoworkers part of the United Auto Workers Union recently agreed to a new contract with Ford, Stellantis, and General Motors that includes a 25% wage increase over the course of four years. Other automakers like Toyota and Hyundai responded with their own wage increases. Humanoid robots, while costly to produce and untested in terms of reliability, could prove theoretically attractive investments for carmakers looking to offset rising labor–if they learn to outperform trained humans at making cars.
Still, the sci-fi promise of a relentless, hyper efficient, never-sleeping robot workforce, for the time being at least, remains mostly speculative. Even Figure’s robot will reportedly have to walk itself to a charging station every few hours for a brief break.