Erika and I took a short vacation in Germany last week to check off a few items on her bucket list and my Epic Life Quest. I drove a Mercedes E-class on the Autobahn, visited the Porsche Museum, and toured their factory in Stuttgart.
The Porsche museum was lovely, and it really crystallized to me that I’m a Porsche guy. I’ve admired so many of their cars through my life. I wouldn’t really bother blogging about that though – it’s a museum, it’s got cars, they’re cool – but the factory tour was spectacular. Thing is, the factory tour doesn’t allow cell phones or photographs, so the photos in here are all from the museum.
There were less BIG robots than I expected.
When I was in middle school way back in the 1980s, I visited the Corvette factory in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Back then, I remember seeing a couple of big robots moving car parts around. The vast majority of the assembly line consisted of people, but there were definitely a couple of robots.
Walking into the Porsche factory in 2018, I expected that the vast majority of the production line would consist of robots. I was wrong. The humans-to-big-robots ratio still looked a whole lot like the 1980s Corvette factory. There were a few stations with large robots doing things like applying glue to windshields or doing compression tests on engines, but they were dwarfed by the number of human beings.
The tour guide said, “Everybody here is a highly trained mechanic, and it doesn’t make sense to have highly trained mechanics putting glue on windshields or screw in a dozen screws. The robots do the repetitive, monotonous stuff that don’t require trained humans.” And that made perfect sense.
But there were way more SMALL robots.
The engine assembly line looks simple – it’s a conveyor-belt-style line where engines continuously move along from one station to the next. It’s just a big long line of engines.
And at a glance, you’d probably think all the engines are the same, but they’re not. Our tour guide explained that every country’s emissions and regulations requirements mean that they’re all different, with ever-so-slightly different parts lists.
Each engine (and I don’t mean each engine design, I mean each physical engine that goes into each car) has its own dedicated parts rack. If you order a 911, you get your own parts rack. Computers build a list of the specific parts required for your 911’s engine, based on the options you chose and the country where you live. Your parts rack contains all the parts you need.
A robot – really, a self-driving cart – picks up the parts rack, takes it down to the assembly line, and that parts rack rides alongside the assembly line as your engine is delivered. The factory workers don’t have to think about which parts are required – they just put the right parts in the right places. If there are any parts left over on the rack at the end of assembly, something went wrong. This makes so much more sense than technicians grabbing parts out of a bin.
I fell in love with those robots that move parts racks around from one place to another. They’re not glamorous, they’re not smart, they just follow lines and magnets in the floor, shuffling parts around to make life easier for humans. As they move around, they even call elevators all by themselves!
The tour guide called them “my autonomous colleagues.” I loved that.
I couldn’t find videos of the Porsche robots online, but they’re very similar to Amazon’s Kiva robots, except much bigger:
That big-vs-small robots thing reminded me so much of what we data professionals are dealing with today. We’re not getting replaced by robots – we’re just getting new autonomous colleagues that help take care of the parts of the job we were never really all that good at.
There was an odd gender division.
On the factory floor, Erika nudged me and whispered, “There’s no women.” And she was right – we didn’t see a single female (other than, uh, her.)
I whispered back, “I bet when we get to the saddlery, it’s 100% women.” The saddlery is where Porsche crafts the leather for the seats, dashboard, air vents, etc.
And sure enough, it was.
But the instant we stepped out of the saddlery and back onto the factory floor where the gorgeous leather was applied to interior parts, boom, back to the sausage fest.
I was totally surprised by that, much like I was surprised that there’s still smoking areas indoors in the factory, and there’s beer dispensers because you can drink on the job. I’m still mentally absorbing some of that. (Not absorbing the beer, I mean absorbing what I saw.) I get that Porsche has a reputation for old-school hand-crafted quality, but there’s just a few things there I can’t quite wrap my head around yet.
I don’t want an old Porsche anymore.
In the museum, I saw so many beautiful examples of past machines that stirred my soul.
But on the factory tour, watching the ruthless approach to quality, safety, and technology…you know what? I really want a piece of that.
Old cars are…old. They weren’t all that high quality when they went through the assembly line to begin with, even on a good day. Sure, they’re gorgeous, and they bring back great memories of posters on my wall, but those times have passed. Today’s machinery is so much more advanced, faster, quieter, and safer.
Well, I should qualify that: I don’t want an old 911 as a daily driver. Yes, I really used to want one – it’s not like I do all that much driving, so I thought I’d be completely fine with it. But not anymore – I want a new one just for the reliability and safety.
I still want an old 911 – but not until I have plenty of garage space and free time. I don’t wanna drive it on the highway during rush hour to a doctor’s appointment, for example. I would only wanna drive it on a canyon run on a weekend when I’ve got no traffic and nothin’ but time.