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BMW announced today a commercial agreement that will bring its first humanoid robot to a BMW production facility in South Carolina

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BMW has announced today a "commercial agreement" that will bring its first humanoid robot to a BMW production facility in South Carolina. The Spartanburg plant is the only BMW facility in the United States. As of 2019, the 8 million-square-foot campus boasted the highest output of any of the German automaker's factories worldwide.

BMW hasn't disclosed how many Figure 01 models it will employ initially. Nor do we know exactly what tasks the robot will be assigned when it starts working. Figure has confirmed with TechCrunch that it will begin with five initial tasks, which will be rolled out one at a time.

While many in the industry use the term "general purpose" to describe these systems, it's important to temper expectations and stress that they will all arrive as single-use or multi-use systems, developing their own set of skills 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 like moving boxes, picking and placing, and pallet loading and unloading - essentially the kind of repetitive tasks factory owners claim they have trouble retaining human workers for. Adcock says Figure aims to ship its first commercial robot within a year, an ambitious timeline even for a company that boasts quick turnaround times.

The first group of applications will be largely determined by Figure's early partners, like BMW. The system, for example, will likely work with sheet metal to start. Adcock adds that the company has signed contracts with additional customers but declined to disclose their names. It's likely Figure will opt to announce each of them individually to keep the news cycle going over the next 12 months.

Unlike some other humanoid robot designers (including Agility), Figure is focused on creating a dexterous, human-like end effector for manipulation. The thinking behind such an effector is the same as what's pushing many toward humanoid form factors in the first place - namely, we've designed our workplaces with us in mind. Adcock hints that Figure 01 will have the job of an initial set of jobs that require a great deal of dexterity.

As for the importance of legs, the executive suggests that their importance for maneuverability during certain tasks is just as important, if not more so, than things like walking up stairs and rugged terrain, which tend to get the lion's share of the attention during these conversations.

Training, meanwhile, will involve a combination of approaches, including reinforcement learning, simulation, and teleoperation to help the robot overcome any difficulties. Figure 01 will learn a great deal on the job, fine-tuning its approach during on-site testing, much like we humans do. As for whether the systems will be added to the BMW line long-term, that's entirely dependent on the robots' ability to meet the automaker's internal production expectations. In the meantime, Figure is effectively renting the systems via RaaS (robotics as a service), a model it intends to maintain for the foreseeable future.