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BMW will deploy Figure’s humanoid robot at South Carolina plant

Figure today announced a "commercial agreement" that will bring its first humanoid robot to a BMW manufacturing facility in South Carolina. The Spartanburg plant is BMW’s only in the United States. As of 2019, the 8 million-square-foot campus boasted the highest yield among the German manufacturer’s factories anywhere in the world.

BMW has not disclosed how many Figure 01 models it will deploy initially. Nor do we know precisely what jobs the robot will be tasked with when it starts work. Figure did, however, confirm with TechCrunch that it is beginning with an initial five tasks, which will be rolled out one at a time.

While folks in the space have been cavalierly tossing out the term “general purpose” to describe these sorts of systems, it’s important to temper expectations and point out that they will all arrive as single- or multi-purpose systems, growing their skillset over time. Figure CEO Brett Adcock likens the approach to an app store -- something that Boston Dynamics currently offers with its Spot robot via SDK.

Likely initial applications include standard manufacturing tasks such as box moving, pick and place and pallet unloading and loading -- basically the sort of repetitive tasks for which factory owners claim to have difficulty retaining human workers. Adcock says that Figure expects to ship its first commercial robot within a year, an ambitious timeline even for a company that prides itself on quick turnaround times.

The initial batch of applications will be largely determined by Figure’s early partners like BMW. The system will, for instance, likely be working with sheet metal to start. Adcock adds that the company has signed up additional clients, but declined to disclose their names. It seems likely Figure will instead opt to announce each individually to keep the news cycle spinning in the intervening 12 months.

Unlike some other humanoid designers (including Agility), Figure is focused on creating a dexterous, human like hand for manipulation. The thinking behind such an end effector is the same that’s driving many toward the humanoid form factor in the first place: Namely, we’ve designed our workspaces with us in mind. Adcock alludes to Figure 01 being tasked with an initial set of jobs that require high dexterity.

As for the importance of legs, the executive suggests that their importance for maneuvering during certain tasks is as -- or more -- important than things like walking up stairs and over uneven terrain, which tend to get most of the love during these conversations.

Training, meanwhile, will involve a mix of approaches, including reinforcement learning, simulation and teleoperation to help the robot out of potential jams. Figure 01 will very much be learning on the job, as well, refining its approach during real-world testing, much as we humans do. As for whether the systems will be long-term additions to the BMW line, that depends entirely on whether the robots are able to meet the automaker’s internal expectations of output. Meantime, Figure is effectively leasing the systems through RaaS (robotics as a service), a model it expects to maintain for the foreseeable future.