Doggy-like and humanoid robots swan around BMW plants

Robots for welding and assembling have been a familiar sight for decades in car manufacturing plants. However, humanoid robots on two legs or doggy-likes on four legs wandering around the aisles of the BMW factories of Spartanburg (US) or Group Plant Hams Hall (UK) to ensure production processes run smoothly are relatively new.

The latest arrival at BMW Group Plant Hams Hall in the UK is ‘SpOTTO,’ a four-legged robot dog equipped with visual, thermal, and acoustic sensors that act like a watchdog, overseeing the maintenance of production facilities and collecting data for the ‘digital twin’ of the factory.

Gathering data for digital plant

That’s a complete digital model in which 3D representations of the entire plant are generated. Those can be used for quality assurance and production planning, among other things. “Thanks to the digital twin, we have an enormous quantity of precise data and evaluations, as well as a real-time picture of production processes,” says Plant Hams Hall director Dirk Dreher.

“The project team at Plant Hams Hall has created unique use cases for our four-legged friend and integrated him perfectly into our processes.” SpOTTO is able to perform numerous maintenance tasks. He monitors the temperature of manufacturing equipment and immediately recognizes if an installation is running too hot, which is an early sign of potential failure.

Down the technical basement

He also specializes in identifying leaks in the compressed-air lines used in production. Detecting leaks quickly can significantly lower energy consumption. According to BMW, other potential uses are being trialed in the plant’s technical basement. These include reading analog operating controls or performing complex movements that make the four-legged robot even better at accessing hard-to-reach production areas.

SpOTTO is BMW’s name for ‘Spot’, the commercialized four-legged robot from American engineering and robotics design company Boston Dynamics. The latter was founded in 1992 as a spin-off from the world-renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Honoring Gustav Otto

Spot was rebaptized ‘SpOTTO’ by BMW as an homage to Gustav Otto, one of the company’s founders and son of Nicolaus Otto, inventor of the four-stroke internal combustion engine. But he’s not the only one of his kind actually ‘working’ in factories.

Other ‘Spots’ are working in the Purina dog food factory, for instance, to inspect packaging for leaks, looking for signs of corrosion on equipment on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, crawling through tunnels made by grave robbers in ancient Pompei for the Italian police.

Crawling through Fukushima’s remains

What to think about checking for radiation in the remains of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant? Spot can access places where humans haven’t come since the disaster in 2011 to measure radiation and gather samples.

With his four legs, the ‘doggy robot’ is much more stable than a humanoid robot on two legs. It can climb stairs, handle rough terrain, and access places where humans can’t go. Spot sees through five stereo cameras, two in the front, one on each side, and one in its ‘butt’. Depending on the tasks Spot has to perform, extras can be added, such as thermal cameras, acoustic sensors, LiDAR, and a robotic arm to grab things.

Robots on two legs

However, the auto industry is also testing humanoid robots to trial to automate low-skill, physically challenging manual labor. BMW announced in January this year it signed an agreement with AI robotics company Figure, which claims to bring one of the first general-purpose humanoids to life.

The Figure 01 two-legged humanoid robot is intended to replace hard-to-find employees for  tedious, repetitive, and often dangerous tasks /Figure

BMW will trial the Figure 01 robot at its South Carolina manufacturing facility. The Figure robot is a 1.7-m tall, 65-kg bipedal hunk of metal capable of lifting around 25 kg and walking at a pace of up to 4.3 km per hour.

As part of the milestone-based deployment deal, the automaker assesses the humanoid robot’s ability to perform hazardous, physically demanding, or repetitive tasks at its manufacturing plants.

BMW isn’t the only one experimenting with humanoid robots like this. Austin-based robotic company Apptronik recently announced it had entered into a commercial agreement with Mercedes-Benz to pilot ‘highly advanced robotics’ like Apollo—Apptronik’s 80 kg bipedal robot—in manufacturing. Tesla just released a new video of a prototype of Optimus, its humanoid robot, that will be used to perform fundamental tasks inside Tesla factories by the end of the year.

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