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AI Robotics Transportation

Mercedes-Benz Swaps Robots For People On Assembly Lines (theguardian.com) 156

The usual narrative in the last few years is that robots relentlessly displace humans in today's highly mechanized workplaces (like factories and mines), but sometimes robots' speed and dexterity can't overcome their basic problem -- namely, they're robots. Reader jones_supa writes with this story from The Guardian about why robots aren't always the right tool, excerpting: Bucking modern manufacturing trends, carmaker Mercedes-Benz has been forced to trade in some of its assembly line robots for more flexible humans. The robots cannot handle the pace of change and the complexity of the key customization options available for the company's S-Class saloon at the 101-year-old Sindelfingen plant, which produces 400,000 vehicles a year from 1,500 tons of steel a day. The dizzying number of options for the cars – from heated or cooled cup holders, various wheels, carbon-fibre trims and decals, and even four types of caps for tire valves – demand adaptability, a quality that is still more easily fulfilled by humans than robots.
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Mercedes-Benz Swaps Robots For People On Assembly Lines

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  • by creimer ( 824291 ) on Monday February 29, 2016 @09:55AM (#51607699) Homepage
    The robots wanted better working conditions and got replaced by humans. Damn corporations!
    • by Anonymous Coward

      ...Marketing weenies.

      About the time the engineers have the robots all programmed and tested for the available options, here comes the marketing department and management, changing their minds.

    • The robots wanted better working conditions and got replaced by humans. Damn corporations!

      Robots are people too, you know.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Opportunist ( 166417 )

      You're laughing, but it's serious.

      People are simply cheaper. No initial cost, people come pre-made and ready to use. No maintenance costs, people are self-fixing and self-repairing, and if repair times are too long you simply dump them and buy, I mean, hire a new one. Same for wear and tear, once the human is too damaged to continue, simply replace it.

      Why use machines when humans can do the same job more flexibly and cheaper?

      • Why use machines when humans can do the same job more flexibly and cheaper?

        Consistency of results comes to mind.

      • I seem to recall some famous person saying something about the amazing computational abilities of a human, and that they can be produced with unskilled labor. History doesn't repeat but it does rhyme, said another famous person that I cannot recall.

      • by mjwx ( 966435 )

        You're laughing, but it's serious.

        We're talking about an S class, not an A class here (Americans, a Mercedes A class is a hatch similar to a Golf or Focus). An S class goes for serious money, so this is more about saying the car is "hand crafted" rather than built by robots. Its the same thing with food, a sandwich made by a "Sandwitch Artisan" goes for more than one you get out of a vending machine.

        Its not just Mercedes either. The VR38DETT found in the R35 Nissan GTR is hand assembled in a clean room (IIRC Lambo and Ferrari engines are

  • by rmdingler ( 1955220 ) on Monday February 29, 2016 @10:03AM (#51607725) Journal
    The threshold for profitable robotic replacement [thegatewaypundit.com] does keep dropping.

    People are flawed creatures capable of manufacturing more profitable iterations of themselves for the workplace.

    What jobs are safest?

    • by Viol8 ( 599362 ) on Monday February 29, 2016 @10:07AM (#51607747) Homepage

      "What jobs are safest?"

      Robot programming? Until they can program themselves of course.

      Of course once enough blue & white collar people are put out of work by automation and a threshold is crossed whereby massive social unrest ensues then the standard corporate goal of reducing costs no matter what will have to be re-evaluated. Either voluntarily or by force.

      • by MasseKid ( 1294554 ) on Monday February 29, 2016 @10:23AM (#51607847)
        If we can have Robots that make everything for nothing, including themselves, then we will be in a Utopia as no one will have want for anything. If there is a dictatorship (economic or not) that keeps people from having things that are no longer a scare resource, that is a problem that has nothing to do with robotics.
        • If we can have Robots that make everything for nothing, including themselves, then we will be in a Utopia as no one will have want for anything. If there is a dictatorship (economic or not) that keeps people from having things that are no longer a scare resource, that is a problem that has nothing to do with robotics.

          Unless armed, (semi-)autonomous robots are a primary tool of the dictator's oppression.

          • Unless armed, (semi-)autonomous robots are a primary tool of the dictator's oppression.

            What would be the point? In America, the bottom quintile of households already get 40% of their income from redistribution. In a post-scarcity economy, they could be bought off even more cheaply, and live much better, with no net tax increase on the rich.

            • by peragrin ( 659227 ) on Monday February 29, 2016 @11:56AM (#51608447)

              Well that sounds like the top 5% aren't giving the bottom 40% enough money to begin with. If the bottom 40% were paid more then they wouldn't need government redistribution.

              Seriously what makes a better company. Paying the employees who work for a living more or paying the cep another 2 million in compensation on top of his 10 million a year?

              The janitors generally work harder and longer hours than CEOs. As the janitors don't get 6-12 weeks of paid vacation a year.

              • by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) on Monday February 29, 2016 @12:15PM (#51608563)

                Seriously what makes a better company. Paying the employees who work for a living more or paying the cep another 2 million in compensation on top of his 10 million a year?

                Was Apple successful because of Steve Jobs, or because they had better assembly line workers than their competitors?

                The janitors generally work harder and longer hours than CEOs.

                Subsistence farmers in Africa work even harder.

                • Without assembly line workers Apple has nothing to sell.

                  • by tnk1 ( 899206 )

                    Without assembly line workers Apple has nothing to sell.

                    And the day that there aren't assembly line worker candidates lined up around the block to take those jobs, they will be paid more.

                    Remember, those "slave labor" workers in China are coming to the city from the countryside to make more money than they did before. They may have terrible working conditions, but they are actually getting value from that pay, as minuscule as it seems to us.

              • by sjbe ( 173966 ) on Monday February 29, 2016 @12:56PM (#51608869)

                The janitors generally work harder and longer hours than CEOs.

                No as a matter of fact janitors do NOT work harder and longer than the CEOs. The fact that you say that shows that you have no idea what a CEO of a large company actually does or the sort of hours they put in. I'll presume you know what a janitor does but I've yet to meet one who works harder than a CEO. They also provide quite a lot less value to a company and are far more easily replaced.

                Are a lot of CEOs overpaid? Certainly. Are a lot of rank and file workers underpaid? Of course. But let's not get absurd about the relative value or typical work ethic of janitors.

                As the janitors don't get 6-12 weeks of paid vacation a year.

                Neither do most CEOs and even if they did, most couldn't really take it. Being CEO of a large corporation is a pretty all consuming job. You don't get to that job by taking a lot of time off and you certainly don't stay there by taking time off.

                • No as a matter of fact janitors do NOT work harder and longer than the CEOs

                  Depends on the company, depends on the CEO. An emerging tech company, shoe-string budget, heated competition, something to prove? Work like hell.

                  Established commodity company? Government contractor? Off to the golf course... machine runs better without you around messing with it. Indeed, if you were to show up, all the Presidents and VP's feel the need to stop by and report to you (read: schmooze). Disappear, and they get back to work. Besides, don't you have a charity event or a board meeting that need

                  • Established commodity company? Government contractor? Off to the golf course... machine runs better without you around messing with it.

                    "Established commodity company"? What like a steel manufacturer? If you think those executives aren't involved you've not met too many of them. While I have no doubt you could find some lazy CEOs out there for the most part the job doesn't lend itself to kicking back and relaxing. I don't know if you've ever actually worked with government contractors but I have. I spent some time with working at Boeing and some of my current customers are government contractors and I've met their CEOs. They don't rem

                  • by tnk1 ( 899206 )

                    Thing is, you don't qualify for being that type of CEO unless you've done quite a few the jobs underneath. That person used to be one of those VPs, and possibly a director or even a minion. There are some that get into those roles because of Daddy, but that is not the rule at that level.

                    You may be on the golf course, or at a charity luncheon. But the reason you are there is because you know how to run a company, you know when to intervene and when to not. And you know that that luncheon is part of your

                    • I think what you may be talking about is the Milton Friedman principle [wikipedia.org]: a company’s primary purpose, and the purpose to which the CEO should solely focus, is to maximize shareholder value [colorado.edu]. A couple of generations have now grown up never knowing anything else. But the idea only dates back to the 1970's [forbes.com], but yet would have profound effects on the country [washingtonpost.com], including the binding of executive pay to stock performance, and would ultimately contribute to the slash and burn antics of the buy 'em, split 'em,

                    • by tnk1 ( 899206 )

                      To some degree I am talking about that, and I mention shareholder value, but there are other things CEOs do which can move forward a company without specifically discussing shareholder value too. For instance, the luncheons can be charity events, where a CEO tends to be sent to participate or officiate.

                      CEOs can be very in-the-trenches sorts of people, but when you're in charge of a holding company with not only many units, but many different types of companies, your responsibilities can vary a lot from dir

              • by ledow ( 319597 )

                And when the legal department come sweeping in to make sure the large mergers were done correctly and the company is compliant and looking for someone's head if it's not.... they will walk past the janitor who will simply go into "Not my job" mode.

                I'm far from management, but even I wouldn't want 1% of some of those kinds of responsibilities, even if they can be abused or "overlooked" for quite a long period of time.

                Because when the courts come looking for the person responsible, they aren't going to care a

                • I'm far from management, but even I wouldn't want 1% of some of those kinds of responsibilities, even if they can be abused or "overlooked" for quite a long period of time.

                  If you're thinking about the owner of a small business, who has to handle everything from payroll to inventory to facilities-management all by herself and a copy of Quickbooks, then yes, that's crazy hard.

                  But a CEO of a public company is a whole different world, because he has the budget to hire a staff, and thereby offload all the hard stuff to someone else (the word used at Yale business school is: "delegate"). Yes, so long as the cronies at the Board like you, you can be as dumb as a box of rocks, so lo

            • by pnutjam ( 523990 )

              In a post-scarcity economy, they could be bought off even more cheaply, and live much better, with no net tax increase on the rich.

              I've highlighted the issue, I can't tell you why, but some people just love to make others eat a shit sandwich.

            • In a post-scarcity economy, they could be bought off even more cheaply, and live much better, with no net tax increase on the rich.

              "In a post-scarcity economy"? Does that come with a side of unicorn farts and pixie dust? That's like saying that if Hogwarts were real we could use magic to do all the hard work. There is no such thing as a post-scarcity economy and there never will be. Unless you can find some way to literally generate vast (bordering on unlimited) energy with no negative side effects you will never get to anything resembling a "post-scarcity" economy. There is no remotely plausible way that is going to happen.

        • If we can have Robots that make everything for nothing, including themselves, then we will be in a Utopia as no one will have want for anything.

          You haven't thought it through my friend. First off, human want is basically infinite, so there is that. Second, we have limits to the amount of energy practically available to us. Energy is the ultimate constraint on production of anything. Third, there are plenty of resources beyond labor that are scarce and provide practical constraints on production of tangible goods. Unless you are going to invoke some Star Trek replicator level of science fiction, even a self replicating hugely flexible robot wi

          • You haven't thought it through my friend. First off, human want is basically infinite, so there is that.

            Human want is not even practically infinite, it is sometimes very large but quite finite. The incorrect assumption that human want is infinite is one of the mistakes that will cause the next economic collapse - right now we're assuming that the 1% can create enough demand to make work for the 99%, but they can't.

            • by ranton ( 36917 )

              You haven't thought it through my friend. First off, human want is basically infinite, so there is that.

              Human want is not even practically infinite, it is sometimes very large but quite finite. The incorrect assumption that human want is infinite is one of the mistakes that will cause the next economic collapse - right now we're assuming that the 1% can create enough demand to make work for the 99%, but they can't.

              Human want being infinite has nothing to do with the labor requirements of fulfilling those desires. You are describing the problem that the 1% cannot create as much economic demand as the 99% regardless of having similar net worth. These are linked issues but not the same thing.

              You are correct that human desire is not literally infinite, but I think sjbe is also correct that human desire can be treated as basically infinite for any discussion of resource allocation.

            • by khallow ( 566160 )

              The incorrect assumption that human want is infinite is one of the mistakes that will cause the next economic collapse - right now we're assuming that the 1% can create enough demand to make work for the 99%, but they can't.

              There are several things about this statement that I think illustrate its glaring ignorance. First, even though human want may not be "practically infinite", it is certainly much larger than what is actually consumed. People definitely want more living space, longer and better life, more stuff, children, etc. Second, we actually do have enough work for the so-called "99%". It's worth noting that the developing world is growing rapidly economically and employing billions of people.

              Third, so what of econom

        • Lakefront property will always be scarce. Today, money is how we decide who gets to live there. How do you propose we do it in the future?

        • Why can't we have both [marshallbrain.com]?

        • by tnk1 ( 899206 )

          The key development will be how we transition from having to work for our bread, to receiving it from a fully or mostly automated economy. It could become a dystopia in many ways. People without work can be a problem, because bored people are a very bad thing unless you've managed the transition so they can occupy themselves with something that keeps their attention and makes them feel like they're having a full life. They don't have to get everything, but humans have had jobs, hunted or tilled the soil

          • by Viol8 ( 599362 )

            Quite. The people who advocate a life of leisure clearly have little to no understanding of human nature. There's a reason even vastly rich people like Gates and Ellison still do some form of work even though they never need lift a finger again for the rest of their lives.

      • If it comes to that, it's easier to just let corporations be as efficient as possible while increasing tax rates to support the people who can't work, which shouldn't be terribly expensive if you've got cheap robot labor doing most of the work required to support people.

        At some point we'll probably end up with a Gattaca or Brave New World style approach where future humans are only created such that they will be capable of the kind of work that robots cannot yet do as there isn't much point in keeping ar
        • At some point we'll probably end up with a Gattaca or Brave New World style approach where future humans are only created such that they will be capable of the kind of work that robots cannot yet do as there isn't much point in keeping around large groups of people that can't really add much to society. Whether that occurs peacefully or violently remains to be seen.

          Is it a race to the bottom scenario? As human population drops, there will follow less need for robots doing things for them.My guess is the end result will be exactly 1 - 120 year old woman spending the last moments of her life surrounded by an army of idle robots that haven't had anything to for for a long, long time.

          Possible scenario 2. Robots mining, building roads and cars and maintaining all the other things that humans use, but since there are no more humans, merely recycling everything until the s

          • I don't think it's a race to the bottom or that automated labor will ever decrease. Keeping a fixed population but increasing the labor capacity means more stuff for each person. Just because we have fewer people doesn't mean they'll also stop wanting new stuff. Also, we could still have a population of several billion, only that all of them are capable of Ph.D. level physics or something just as advanced. If one single company ends up owning everything, how is it really that much different than a communist
        • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

          As quality of life improves people tend to be less interested in having lots of children anyway, especially once they understand that children are the primary reason their quality of life decreases. That's why the fertility rate falls to below 2.0 when educational programmes are introduced.

          The real question is how will a society where everything is provided for by robots react? When there is little down side to having many children, will people want many children or will their intellectual pursuits and desi

      • As you can see, no. Robot programming is only a secure job position as long as robots are cheaper than humans. Which simply is no longer the case.

    • The threshold for profitable robotic replacement [thegatewaypundit.com] does keep dropping.

      People are flawed creatures capable of manufacturing more profitable iterations of themselves for the workplace.

      What jobs are safest?

      There is a secondary problem that people rarely talk about. The intermediate step between humans doing the work and full automation is "almost full automation" where humans are just a cog in the machine. You can see this in mcdonald's, in amazon warehouses, in manufacturing plants, and even in things like amazon turk. These "almost full automation" plants have horrible working conditions as the steps performed by the humans are repetitive, boring, and have to be done at high speed to keep up with the res

      • There is a secondary problem that people rarely talk about. The intermediate step between humans doing the work and full automation is "almost full automation" where humans are just a cog in the machine. You can see this in mcdonald's, in amazon warehouses, in manufacturing plants, and even in things like amazon turk. These "almost full automation" plants have horrible working conditions as the steps performed by the humans are repetitive, boring, and have to be done at high speed to keep up with the rest of the machine. My guess is that although mercedes-benz might have put humans back into the loop that you still wouldn't want to work at one of those jobs.

        This is a good point. It mirrors what happened in the First Industrial Revolution. Those factory jobs were notorious for the brutal conditions of work.

        Also mirroring the FIR is the likely generations long gap between putting a large fraction of the population out of work, and the socioeconomic adjustment leading to distribution of the new wealth back to all segments of the population. In the case of the FIR that gap was at least 70 years long, from about 1770 to 1840 (optimists claim it was "only" 60 years,

    • The threshold for profitable robotic replacement does keep dropping.

      For specific well defined tasks of sufficient volume and economic value. The reason that I'm not worried about robots taking all our jobs is that there are SOOO many economically useful tasks for which will remain economically unviable to automation for the foreseeable future. I know dystopian futures are all the rage but the practical fact is that there are all sorts of technical and economic limits to automation. I run a manufacturing company and I can assure you that we are in no danger of robots push

    • by creimer ( 824291 )

      What jobs are safest?

      Wrong question. Are you willing to adapt and change to the job market?

      I've done software testing, help desk/desktop support, PC refresh, data center, and computer security over a 20+ year career. Shortest job lasted four hours, longest job lasted six years. If robots replace my job tomorrow, I'll get a job to maintain robots.

      • If robots replace my job tomorrow, I'll get a job to maintain robots.

        I always love this line. We are positing a future where robots are replacing humans across the board, from Doctors to Insurance Salesmen. Yet Robot Repair is going to be totally safe. Cause analyzing totally logical, deterministic machinery to determine what components of its fully documented system are out of spec is totally a job that's safe from being automated.

        • by creimer ( 824291 )

          Cause analyzing totally logical, deterministic machinery to determine what components of its fully documented system are out of spec is totally a job that's safe from being automated.

          I've spent the last 20+ years in IT. My specialty is cleaning up other people's messes. No technology is ever perfect because it was designed, implemented and maintained by flawed people. Who do you think consoles hurt computers and fixes broken people?

    • by plopez ( 54068 )

      "Agile" (actually "Chaotic" in many cases) development paradigms. Marketing is your friend!

    • by lorinc ( 2470890 )

      What jobs are safest?

      Capitalist with a good portfolio.

    • by smelch ( 1988698 )
      The safest jobs are the arts and services where you want a human element such as wait staff at a restaurant or a home decorator or a prostitute. These are services where the humanity is important and even if a robot could do a "better" job if you didn't know it was a robot, people will want to know that it is a real person.
  • by NotDrWho ( 3543773 ) on Monday February 29, 2016 @10:04AM (#51607733)

    Maybe the robots can ask for unemployment.

  • not replacing robots (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Gravis Zero ( 934156 ) on Monday February 29, 2016 @10:14AM (#51607793)

    Mercedes is shifting to what it calls “robot farming” - equipping workers with an array of smaller, lighter machines. ...
    The change will mean smaller, more flexible systems that work side-by-side with humans will replace some of the large traditional robotic machines, including in the production of the new Mercedes E-Class. A human or a lightweight machine will replace two fixed robots for the alignment of the car’s new heads-up display, which projects speed and directions on to the windshield.

    the basic problem is that Mercedes invested in large fixed machines that are limited in their abilities. they are temporarily relieving some of the large robots of certain duties to let more agile robots do the job. until the more agile robots are 100% ready, human will be assisting the robots.

    it's 2016 and it's about time companies start investing in manufacturing machines that have hands with dexterity equal to humans. also, robotics companies need to develop better programming interfaces so that the robots can be taught what to do rather than directly programmed.

    robots are still center stage here and humans are going to be on the sidelines again shortly.

    • by sjbe ( 173966 ) on Monday February 29, 2016 @11:16AM (#51608159)

      it's 2016 and it's about time companies start investing in manufacturing machines that have hands with dexterity equal to humans.

      For specific tasks we have devices that already exceed human dexterity. Sometimes by a lot. The challenge isn't really dexterity as much as programability. We can make devices that hugely exceed human precision for many tasks. Replicating a human hand as an end effector is kind of a pointless and expensive exercise for most tasks. There are much more optimal designs depending on what you are doing. For example having a robotic copy of a human hand holding a welding torch is pointless complication and adds a lot of cost. There are people working on anthro designs but mostly for academic rather than practical purposes. I suspect you'll see it in places but as a general proposition replicating the human body isn't often the best approach to problem solving.

      also, robotics companies need to develop better programming interfaces so that the robots can be taught what to do rather than directly programmed.

      Already done. I was working with VR programming of robots for assembly line work 15 years ago in my day job and there has been progress since then.

    • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

      It's not just dexterity, it's the ability to continually improve and to notice complex issues or inefficiencies.

      Toyota is the master of that, and many other manufacturers have adopted their technique. Staff are empowered to make suggestions and improvements to all processes. There are people employed just to implement suggestions, including building new tools where required.

      Robotic vision systems and AI are just nowhere near complex enough to do that kind of thing, and that is what Mercedes are now acknowle

  • by dhaen ( 892570 ) on Monday February 29, 2016 @10:20AM (#51607825)
    It's almost as if the Germans have just found a source of cheap human labour.
    • by feufeu ( 1109929 )

      You've obviously never been to a Mercedes factory, there's stricly nothing cheap about the way their workers are treated.

      • As long as they're not temps or leased, of course. But they don't really count as human beings, or even workers.

    • by rsborg ( 111459 )

      It's almost as if the Germans have just found a source of cheap human labour.

      Achievement unlocked?

  • Eventually once they figure out how to program in the increased complexity that extreme customizations bring then the humans will once again be replaced by robots. Nothing to see here.
  • PHB: were firing everyone and going with robots. who here knows SCADA
    HR: I uh...yes, i know SCADA.

    six months later...

    PHB: ok robots arent working out as we'd intended so we're selling all of them and sending the programmers packing. Were going to be hiring a substantial number of new associates starting tomorrow...so...do any of you have any personnel or management experience?
    SCADA coder: I used to do our payroll and holiday time scheduling!
    PGB: Holy shit a talking SCADA programmer!
  • ... the cost of reprogramming.
  • The robots cannot handle the pace of change and the complexity of the key customization options available for the company's S-Class saloon at the 101-year-old Sindelfingen plant

    "Hey! We don't serve their kind here.
    What?
    Your droids. They'll have to wait outside. We don't want them here.

  • ... that works everywhere, for everything.

    Humans are astonishingly versatile, but of course have many limitations. Oddly enough many managers don't seem to appreciate this, demanding things from people that they aren't good at and failing to exploit human strengths. So clearly one important factor in the ideal mix between robots and human workers at any point in time is how skillful you are at managing people. If you aren't very good at it, that tends to skew the best mix towards robots.

    • by bmo ( 77928 )

      It seems that the best way to be promoted to management is to be bad at managing people and to be (drinking) buddies with the other people in management who are also bad at managing people.

      --
      BMO

  • A little anecdote. The local carwash with a automatic mechanical washing street went bankrupt because they could not compete with the hand wash car wash. The hand wash was just as expensive for the customer, but their costs were lower and delivered a better result.

    The automatic carwash had to spend quite some money for maintenance, energy and employees and needed more customers to break even. Their equipment had a maximum capacity and thus they could not scale up easily (or scale down) like the hand wash di

    • by Falos ( 2905315 )
      >spent money on maintenance, superfluous employees
      All I hear is a robot voice saying "OPTIMIZING..."

      $5/hr humans are going to look expensive when an unpaid robot can lay the brick, hell, can assemble the fucking wash system itself.

      It's not here now, no, but 99.9% of Earth's descendants are fucked. I might complain about the shit deals my generation got, but I'm glad I dodged the post-labor bullet.
    • "Have an A1 day"
  • The run-of-the-mill low-end Benz still made by robots but the higher priced model has enough profit margin to offset the increased cost of using moist robots.

  • ... out the door said, "I'll be back" [youtube.com]

  • When swapping, 1st noun replaces 2nd.

    Swapping robots for people is hardly news.

  • Sounds like they're taking a page from Toyota's playbook. [bloomberg.com]
  • Germany has good unions!

    To bad that the GOP does not like them in the usa.

  • I'm curious if this was a purely technical decision based on tasks and available automation technology, or if somehow labor politics was involved.

    My understanding (which will quickly be corrected here, I'm sure) is that labor is a pretty high level stakeholder in German industry with more influence than typical American labor unions.

    Is it possible this could have been done to create more jobs or working hours for labor under the guise of automation isn't right for the task?

  • 400,000 vehicles a year from 1,500 tons of steel a day

    If they run 365 days, that's 1368.75 kg of steel per vehicle. Even if they only run 250 days, it's 937.5 kg. Crap, that's massive, even without all the plastic, leather, wiring, batteries, hoses, etc.

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