The interest in humanoid robots continues to gain steam. Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Figure AI signed an agreement with BMW Manufacturing to test its 01 humanoid at the car maker’s plant in Spartanburg, S.C. This is an impressive milestone for Figure, which was founded in 2022 and exited stealth in early 2023.
BMW Manufacturing employs 11,000 people at its 8 million-sq.-ft. campus. The Spartanburg plant assembles the BMW X3, X4, X5, X6, X7, and XM Sports Activity Vehicles and Coupes and their variants. BMW said its Spartanburg facility is the largest automotive exporter in the U.S., and it has assembled more than 6.3 million BMWs over the past 30-plus years.
Figure called this a “milestone-based” deal. In the first phase, the company has been identifying the initial tasks its robot could perform. Brett Adcock, Figure’s founder and CEO, said the initial tasks include moving bins and boxes and other “various logistics things” inside the BMW body shop.
While Adcock wouldn’t reveal the number of humanoids being used, a BMW spokesperson told The Robot Report that in these first stages it “will have one robot for technical evaluation.” If all goes well, the tasks and number of humanoids at the BMW plant would likely increase.
Adcock said Figure is targeting the end of 2024 to start commercially carrying out these initial tasks.
However, BMW told The Robot Report, “we are still experimenting on how robots like this can be used, and it’s exciting to get on the ground floor of this new technology. We have some work packages currently under way. No timetable has been established.”
BMW also said it is investigating the use of humanoid robots in a limited number of areas.
“A humanoid robot can manipulate objects of varying complexity, and some objects may require that two ‘hands’ be used versus a gripper,” noted the automaker. “The humanoid robot has the potential to address our current ergonomic topics versus traditional robots, because it offers a wider range of ambidexterity and mobility.”
Adcock said he expects humanoids to gradually evolve from warehouse functions to “front-of-house” tasks closer to humans.
Meet @Figure_robot, a leader in the race to build commercially viable humanoid robots.
For episode 20 of S³, we got the world’s first close up look at what they’re building. pic.twitter.com/MVxpMXIOOU
— Jason Carman (@jasonjoyride) December 3, 2023
Humanoids stepping out into the world
The deal with BMW marks the first commercial deal of any kind for Figure. This, again, is quite remarkable. In less than two years, the company has hired a team including renowned humanoid expert Jerry Pratt as chief technology officer, raised $79 million, developed a working humanoid with dexterous manipulation capabilities, and landed this deal with BMW.
Figure AI publicly showed its humanoid walking for the first time in October 2023. Adcock said the company has a backlog of customers but said it can’t disclose partners besides BMW.
“It’s an interesting time for humanoids,” he said. “Having a big group like this stepping in is validating for the space.”
Historically, humanoids have been relegated to university and corporate research labs to study locomotion and control theory. But now there are many companies developing such robots for commercial customers. Agility Robotics, Apptronik, Fourier Intelligence, Sanctuary, Tesla, and Unitree are just a few of them. And China wants in on the action, saying it will mass-produce humanoids by 2025.
Agility Robotics is still the furthest along, although the gap could be closing. In late 2023, Agility announced pilots with Amazon, which is one of its investors, and GXO Logistics, which claims to be the world’s largest pure-play contract logistics provider.
Amazon and GXO are both testing the ability of Agility’s Digit humanoid to move totes from Point A to Point B. GXO’s testing has included Digit placing a tote full of product onto a Chuck autonomous mobile robot (AMR) from 6 River Systems.
“I believe by the end of the year, we’ll have a humanoid that can do human-like work every day,” Adcock said. “It will walk around, pick things up, and communicate with a warehouse management system. We need to build reliable hardware, which is getting better each generation. We need to hit performance metrics per hour and over a certain number of days. We need to get humanoids into markets and do useful work.”
“Historically, humanoids have always hit this invisible wall,” Adcock added. “Where’s the wall [now]? I don’t know. We’re prepared, we’re energized, we have clients and AI systems being trained every day.”
BMW embraces robotics
BMW is no stranger to robotics. It won a 2021 RBR50 Robotics Innovation Award for the launch of Munich, Germany-based subsidiary IDEALworks, which stands for Industry-Driven Engineering for Autonomous Logistics.
IDEALworks was formed by BMW’s Logistics innovation team, which during the previous five years had developed the Smart Transport Robot STR with the Fraunhofer Institute and other technology partners such as NVIDIA. STR is an AMR optimized for intralogistics work in BMW’s automotive factories.
Several BMW production sites had used the STRs — now renamed iw.hub — prior to the founding of IDEALworks, but in 2020, the iw.hub became commercially available to companies outside of BMW.
The Spartanburg facility has used robots for a variety of manufacturing tasks. On its website, BMW Manufacturing said there are “more than 2,000 high-tech precision robots” inside its body shop.
It uses a number of Titan industrial robot arms from KUKA that can handle up to 2,200 lb. The Titans pick up the entire underbody of a BMW and place it in a fixture so studs can be welded on. After the process is completed, the Titan moves the underbody from station to station until all the studs are in place.
BMW Manufacturing has also used ABB robots to plug holes in its vehicles. According to BMW, “when the vehicle goes through the paint shop, there are dozens of holes on the underbody that allow the paint fluids to escape during the e-coat/phosphate bath. Prior to going through the assembly process, the holes are plugged, and much of the process is performed by ABB robots.”
“When the vehicle enters the cell, the robot takes a vision picture of each hole that it’s programmed to plug,” explained BMW. “The robot checks for the roundness of the hole and makes sure the plug is going into the correct hole. It installs the plug, then takes another picture to ensure the plug has been installed correctly. The robots install between 80% and 95% of the 75 holes on every vehicle.”
It also claimed that the Spartanburg plant as the first automotive plant in the world to use an exoskeleton for overhead work. The exoskeleton, which is fitted to each workers, transfers the weight of the arms to the body’s core, evenly distributing the load to reduce stress.
And back in 2013, BMW detailed how four collaborative robots from Universal Robots helped install sound and moisture insulation inside the doors of BMW X3s.
“BMW is always exploring the latest technology to make our processes more efficient,” said a company spokesperson. “Companies that invest in innovation such as this are more sustainable, become more productive, and have a competitive advantage.”
“Innovation, digitalization, and sustainability are key success factors for our future,” said BMW. “With the ever-changing automotive industry, we know there will be more and more complexity. We need the right tools for the future, and this is just one tool in our toolbox that can be used.”
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