A Visit to the BMW Plant in Munich – Technology and Manpower must Coexist in the Future Workplace

(Published in The Huffington Post India : http://www.huffingtonpost.in/shaira-mohan/ )

It all started when my cousin in Dallas, Texas announced that he had purchased a car from BMW and was coming to Munich in August to pick it up.

Why was he coming all the way to Munich when BMW has dealerships and a manufacturing plant in the USA too? Because of their very impressively thought out marketing strategy. BMW runs a promotional offering for a potential buyer from the United States – for select models of cars, they provide a substantial discount on the price, free hotel stay, free tour of the plant in Munich to name a few of the many frills that complete a very desirable package and make it worth your while to travel all the way to Germany to sign those possession papers – and even make a vacation out of it!

The experience of receiving your car at the BMW Welt in Munich- right from the wait in the lounge where a sprawling breakfast buffet is laid out for you, to the opportunity to view your parked car rotating on the panel below from the glass windows on the second floor and then driving off with your car on a spiral ramp right in the center of the building certainly adds spice to the whole affair. But, the day before the car pick up, we were in for a special treat.

When my cousin informed me that he had free passes for us for the two-hour plant tour, I was ecstatic. Being a resident of Munich, I had already visited the magnificent BMW museum and the Welt many times before but the plant tour was still on my checklist.

The day finally arrived and we punctually reported for the tour. As soon as we arrived at the first stop on the tour, I knew the next two hours were going to be unforgettable.

Our tour guide informed us that the plant produces close to 1000 cars in a day at this facility and the percentage of human involvement in the entire process is only 2%. The facility itself is spread over a whopping 400,000 sq. m area! As we were taken from the Press shop, to the paint shop and further on to every process that contributes to the assembly and the final culmination of every part to produce the finished product, I couldn’t peel my eyes away from the ‘robots’ that occupied each room in large numbers and every shape and size. Designed to work with meticulous precision to complete every step in the assembly line within 58 seconds – a pre-defined rule – each robot used the efficiency of machinery and technology while impersonating very ‘human’ movements like the opening and shutting of a car door and ‘stepping aside’ to give room for another machine to complete its task simultaneously. It was all very fascinating!

We always read about machines and robots taking over the world and the very real risk that humans run today of becoming redundant in the work space. Recently, the Indian Express published a piece on DreamWriter, the robot journalist designed by a Chinese technology and gaming giant that churned out a 916 word business article in just 60 seconds, fueling a storm in the media. Much is being written and discussed about such technology coming to the fore and whether this will retire or regenerate the human workforce.

Automobile plants like BMW that deploy this ‘alternative’ and undoubtedly more efficient workforce are certainly thinking ahead and are testament to the idea that technology and manpower can work very well in tandem to produce the most qualitative and profitable results. In almost every room in the BMW plant, from the welding and drilling to the paint shop and even final assembly, the presence of just a few employees as against the rows of giant robots was immediately noticeable. If it wasn’t for the algorithms that have to be written by humans, the already high rates of unemployment would see a significantly higher jump.

Artificial intelligence, robotics, 3-D Printers and so on are fast becoming the ‘double-edged swords’ of the future. Vivek Wadhwa, author and fellow at Stanford University, Corporate Governance expressed concern over this and stated that he saw no role for humans in the long run, while many others argue that while there may be truth to this, it will be imperative for organizations and authorities to create and maintain jobs for humans too and ensure a market wherein humans and machines can coexist and co-create.

My visit to the BMW plant got me thinking about this issue and what I saw made it clear to me that even though we are fast moving towards an age where machines won’t need human supervision, humans and machines do need to coexist and work together. Experts predict a drastic increase in job cuts in the future. But what about customer care? Surely there are very ‘human’ aspects that machines are not so skilled with. In today’s corporate landscape that has multiple players stacked in every industry, customer care, acquisition, and retention are key functions that often require a personalized touch that can make all the difference. Browsing the internet, I came across a piece on artificial intelligence that talked about a machine learning technology that seems to be in the works that will aid customer care agents to efficiently respond and satisfy all customer queries and problems and provide all the information they need to this end on a single interface.

So, while humans are not ‘getting extinct’ from the job market any time soon, they are certainly in for a rude awakening. However, it is my view that machines and humans supplement each other and their working in harmony is what will garner the desired, profitable and successful results in the future.

If you live in or happen to visit Munich, or are already there for the Oktoberfest, do take out two hours of your time for a tour of the BMW Plant. It’s not every day that you get to see magic in motion.

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