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Working as junior reporters for Genius, Daimler’s initiative for STEM education, is a very special experience. We get to see lots of fascinating things, and we’re always surprised to see what awaits us.
This time, Andreas Friedrich, the manager of the TECFACTORY in Sindelfingen, invited Nick and me for a visit. We began by talking to him about what kinds of things they have here, and next we were allowed to get really close to a technology that we thought was awesome. I thought, will this only be available in the future? But let’s start at the beginning…
An interview with Andreas Friedrich
TECFACTORY — that sounds interesting. The first question we asked Andreas was what people actually do here and what kinds of things there are to see. He told us that the people here do research and develop the production methods of tomorrow and even the day after tomorrow. So we knew we’d get a peek at the future.
The world is changing very fast, said Andreas — and of course we already know that from the world of smartphones, tablets, and apps. And we already saw at the IAA that these technologies and many others are also being increasingly used in the automobile industry. That’s also happening with robots that the people work with here.
On the way to see Andreas, we saw some of these huge machines up close. Of course we wondered whether the robots would someday be able to do everything entirely on their own — and whether we wouldn’t need people any more to build cars! But Andreas reassured us that robots will never replace human beings. Instead, the engineers at the TECFACTORY are working to bring robots and people closer together. I can really clearly imagine myself working together with a robot.
Andreas also mentioned something very interesting: At the TECFACTORY, the real world and the virtual world are merging. Of course Nick and I wanted to take a closer look at that! Andreas’ colleague Gerald came to pick us up and show us what he’s working on at the TECFACTORY.
Off we went to the TECFACTORY production hall!
Wearing the cool new TECFACTORY T-shirts Andreas had given us, we went down to the production hall with Gerald. Here they’ve got not only robots but also a huge cell with gigantic displays along the sides and even on the floor. Gerald called it the virtual assembly station. He and his colleagues came up with this idea themselves. We were impressed, and we wanted to know more details right away.
What can you do with a virtual assembly station like this one? The engineers at the TECFACTORY are trying to make work processes as comfortable as possible for their colleagues. For example, they’re trying to make sure that the production workers don’t have to bend over so far when they are assembling cars. We already saw how much work goes into producing a car when we visited the production hall of the S-Class in Sindelfingen, where they let us get very close to the assembly line.
Like a computer game: Assembling cars with the Avatar
Nick asked whether using the virtual assembly station is the same as watching a 3D film at the movies. Gerald explained how it works — a bit differently from a 3D film. Here they don’t work with a projector. Instead, the displays consist of lots of very tiny LEDs. When you go very close, you can even see the tiny points. Gerald said that it’s like a computer game, so of course we wanted to try it out for ourselves.
And we got right down to it! Gerald set up an assembly situation, and I was amazed to see a virtual factory worker on the displays in front of me and under my feet, who was copying my every movement. The engineers call this virtual worker Avatar. When I tried to reach the components, I realized I had to stretch my arms out quite far. Gerald changed the setting, and that made it easier. Now I realized what he had meant before.
The images on the displays had changed. I looked around to see where Nick was, and saw that he was at the PC with Gerald, who was controlling the virtual assembly station. I was getting curious, so I asked them what they were doing. Nick told me proudly that we were no longer in Sindelfingen. Instead, we were at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Tuscaloosa — virtually, of course. I had a sudden idea. I asked Gerald whether the setup could really simulate any place in the world — and I looked at Nick to see if he was having the same idea.
Chilling out at the beach
At first Gerald was modest. He said he could at least try it — but in the blink of an eye we were no longer at the Mercedes-Benz plant or at the TECFACTORY. We were standing on a beach! There and then, the virtual assembly station had transported us to the Caribbean. White sand, blue water, beach chairs, and sunglasses — after this exciting day we definitely deserved some rest and relaxation. The only thing missing was ice cream!