Last Updated May 10, 2011 2:06 PM EDT
Customization has been a hot topic in the auto industry for the past decade, as technology and the Internet have conspired to present consumers with far more options in creating semi-bespoke merchandise. The challenge has always been to transform mass production into mass customization. The robotics industry believes it has a solution. But the problem is that, increasingly, people don't want custom -- they want standardized excellence.
But what about the robots?
Industrial robots have radically altered the auto assembly line since they first began to appear a generation ago. Now Vincent Duchaine, an academic, and Samuel Bouchard, CEO of robot-maker Robotiq, think they're ready to evolve. This is from their recent jointly authored article at Robotics Online:
The car makers' dream is to make and ship a car to a customer's order in two weeks, just like Dell does with laptops. This mass customization approach would solve important inventory issues and provide the highest satisfaction to customers to ensure they get their "dream" car. This naturally imposes engineering challenges on automated manufacturing systems. Robot flexibility will need to reach yet another level to account for constantly changing assembly tasks.They go on to outline a "paradigm shift" that will allow much more sophisticated robots and human laborers to work collaboratively (at the moment, robots are isolated from human workers for safety reasons). It sounds cool. But consumers don't want dream cars -- the want cars that fit increasingly uniform expectations, that are numbingly superb.
The auto industry aspires to be Apple
Duchaine and Bourchard's use of Dell (DELL) as an example is telling. The company does enable customers to build PCs their own specifications, but scaling that model up to autos -- and going beyond mere cosmetics -- would be extremely complex.
A better model is Apple (AAPL) the last great vertically integrated maker of stuff. Apple certainly offers a range of "under the hood" options in its various devices, but the products themselves are rather limited in terms of customization. One model of iPhone. One model of iPad. A narrow set of MacBook choices.
This is where the auto industry is headed, as the age of prolific choice gives way to a future in which lifestyle and resource constraints dictate form and function.
Don't confuse customization with aftermarket customizing
People like to pimp their rides, and this desire made the automotive aftermarket grow to an estimated $6 billion annual business. But spoilers and seat covers aren't the same as interior configurations and engine configurations, much less overall vehicle aerodynamics.
One of the reasons why the Toyota (TM) Prius and the Honda Insight look so much alike is that hybrid gas-electric cars need to get some of their high-MPGs in wind-tunnel testing. But this trend toward same-ness goes beyond vehicles whose primary goal is fuel economy.
Mass-market front-wheel drive sedans -- your Honda Accords, Toyota Camrys, Chevy Malibus, Ford (F) Tauruses and so on -- are all essentially the same car. The market dictates this core blandness because people have said they want a certain level of space, combined MPGs, and reliability. Quality trumps choice these days.
Better cars, just not personalized ones
The robotics guys are probably right that robots have a bright future on the assembly line:
Industrial robots turned 50 this year. In the next few years, we might see a new branch in their evolution, removing barriers between them and their human co-workers. This added flexibility should bring exciting opportunities to all levels in the robotic industry.Which is great. But don't expect these evolved robots to be creating autos that say you, you, you. Cars will be cool in the 21st century. But the way they're built is going to involve fewer choices, not more.