Humans and machines. Since ancient times, human beings have built and used machines to perform certain tasks. In 1927, a silent film directed by Fritz Lang (Metropolis) imagined what the year 2026 would be like. According to Fritz Lang the rich would be far removed from the poor and the 'man-machine' would replace the human being in everything.

The film Metropolis inspired (or was cited in) many other science fiction films, to name but a few: the Star Wars saga (from 1977); Blade Runner (1982) or Terminator (from 1984). In Italy, in 1980, Alberto Sordi narrated the man-robot relationship in the film "Io e Caterina". In 2004, Audi presented the RSQ concept car in "I, Robot" and recently the film "The Mitchells versus the Machines" (2021) showed what could happen to human beings if smartphones rebelled and turned an army of robots against us.

In short, the cinema has for years accustomed us to a reality where robots coexist with us and now we are there. The car industry (a trillion-dollar behemoth) was the first to make large-scale use of robotics, and with artificial intelligence we have come to call them by their names: Apollo, Optimus or Figure 01. They are just the beginning, so it is worth getting to know them better.

Optimus, Tesla's robot

It is 19 August 2021, Tesla organises Artificial Intelligence (AI) Day and unveils a prototype humanoid robot called Optimus, in homage to the Transformers film character 'Optimus Prime'. Three years later, as the layoff of hundreds of people who worked on Tesla Superchargers makes headlines, the company releases a new video of Optimus working in the factory.

According to the company, Optimus will be sold to external customers by the end of 2025. It will continue to be optimised year by year, and discerning readers will also remember the fuss made at the end of 2023 by the news that the robot had injured a worker.


Figure 01 assembles BMW

January 2024: robotics start-up Figure signs an agreement with BMW to introduce its humanoid robots at its plant in Spartanburg, South Carolina (USA). The robots, an official statement explains, are intended to automate 'difficult, dangerous or tedious' production tasks.

"Single-use robotics have saturated the commercial market for decades, but the potential of generic robotics is completely untapped," says Brett Adcock, CEO of Figure. "Figure's robots will enable companies to increase productivity, reduce costs and create a safer, more consistent environment." How many robots are currently being tested is unknown, but the experiment is set to affect factories around the world.

Figure 01 assemba BMW

Figure 01 assemba BMW

Apollo works for Mercedes

Another announcement is dated 2024. The robotics company Apptronik is collaborating with Mercedes to experiment with Apollo, a one-metre-high bipedal robot that can lift up to 25 kg. "This is a new frontier and we want to understand the potential of both robotics and automotive production to fill labour gaps in areas such as low-skilled, repetitive and physically demanding work and to free up our highly skilled team members on the production line to build the world's most desirable cars," says Mercedes head of production, Jörg Burzer.

Again, we do not know how many robots are in development, but we expect news very soon.

Phoenix is employed in Magna's factories

April 2024, Sanctuary AI, a company founded in 2018 with the goal of creating "the first human-like intelligence in general-purpose robots", announces that it will collaborate with Magna (the giant that manufactures and assembles cars on behalf of various brands, including Mercedes, Jaguar and BMW).

"By integrating general-purpose AI robots into our manufacturing facilities for specific tasks, we can enhance our capabilities to deliver high-quality products to our customers," says Todd Deaville, vice president of Advanced Manufacturing Innovation at Magna. So welcome Phoenix, you can see it in action in the video below:

Not just cars

There are all kinds of robots in car factories. The "humanoid" ones are just the latest arrivals and go alongside robots called articulated, articulated-arm, six-axis collaborative, Cartesian (consisting essentially of linear actuators), cylindrical...

This is why humanoids are also referred to as 'bipedal robots' and we find them in factories of various kinds. Digit, for example, has two arms and two metal legs and helps out in Amazon's warehouses to pack deliveries.

Umanoidi robot

Digit works in Amazon's warehouses

In addition to factory work, these robots with human features are also beginning to be employed in the service area. At the Beijing Motor Show, Omoda and Jaecoo presented Mornine, an intelligent android made in cooperation with AiMoga (Chery's strategic partner), which in the video below we see engaged in describing a car for sale.

Will these machines be able to do better than the human being in every respect? In Japan, despite constant technological growth, the Takumi masters (the most experienced craftsmen working at Nissan or Toyota) are still capable of outperforming robots in the finishing of high-quality products. But does craftsmanship still have a future?

Gallery: Humanoid robot