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Robotics: A Growing Impact


Across the U.S., there are more than 232,000 robots in use, according to the Robotic Industries Association (RIA). While the automotive industry remains by far the biggest user of robots, they are increasingly being adapted for use in the life sciences, food and consumer goods industries as well. RIA represents more than 300 robot manufacturers, component suppliers, systems integrators, and end users.

The man considered the Father of Robotics was Joseph Engelberger, who co-founded Unimation Inc. in 1956 with his partner George Devol. They built the first industrial robot, which in 1961 was installed in a General Motors factory.

The U.S. is second to Japan in the use of robotics overall. But as measured by robotics density (robots as related to the number of workers), the U.S. trails a number of other countries, including Germany and South Korea.

Experts say that only about 10% of the U.S. companies that could benefit from robots are using them so far. Many small and mid-size manufacturers, for example, are in various stages of investigating the benefits of robotics. Concurrently, engineers are continually working to make robot programming easier, improve their cooperation with humans, and make them more cost competitive. As this occurs, their use in U.S. factories and distribution warehouses will almost certainly continue to grow.

M.I.T. economists Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson garnered attention in 2011 with their book, Race Against the Machine, suggesting that industrial robotic automation leads to job losses. But there is ample evidence that robotics actually help generate or keep jobs in the U.S.

Consider Marlin Steel Wire Products in Baltimore. Its president, Drew Greenblatt, was able to win a job from a customer in Chicago to produce 160,000 sheet-metal brackets per year, thanks to increased efficiency from robotics and automation. ”They were made in China, now they’re made in Baltimore, using steel from a plant in Indiana and the robot was made in Connecticut,” he explains. Another example is Toppan Photomasks, which located its highly-mechanized ecover facility in Round Rock, Texas. The ecover operation helps install smart-ID technology into U.S. passports

Research by Peter Gorle of Metra Martech in 2011 showed that robots carry out work that would not be economical in a comparatively high-wage economy, and work that would be unsafe for humans. That attribute can help companies in developed economies like the U.S. remain competitive.  Dr. Henrik Christensen of Georgia Institute of Technology goes further, noting that robotics creates new types of jobs that tend to pay better, which more than compensates for any jobs lost due to automation.

Many manufacturing experts strongly believe that robotics will play an extraordinarily helpful role in the reshoring movement. By allowing certain functions to be performed safely and efficiently by machine, they argue, there will be one more reason to keep or move operations to the U.S., rather than in lower-wage nations.

In the meantime, robotics will remain one of the most fascinating fields to observe as the technology advances in the years to come.