Where Robots Are Getting Ready to Run the Show

The Brookings Institution has just published a fascinating map that tells us a good deal about what is happening with American manufacturing today.

Headlined “Where the Robots Are,” the map graphically illustrates that as of 2015, nearly one-third of America’s 233,000+ industrial robots are being put to use in just three states:

  • Michigan: ~12% of all industrial robots working in the United States
  • Ohio: ~9%
  • Indiana: ~8%

It isn’t surprising that these three states correlate with the historic heart of the automotive industry in America.

Not coincidentally, those same states also registered a massive lurch towards the political part of the candidate in the 2016 U.S. presidential election who spoke most vociferously about the loss of American manufacturing jobs.

The Brookings map, which plots industrial robot density per 1,000 workers, shows that robots are being used throughout the country, but that the Great Lakes Region is home to the highest density of them.

Toledo, OH has the honor of being the “Top 100” metro area with the highest distribution of industrial robots: nine per 1,000 workers.  To make it to the top of the list, Toledo’s robot volume jumped from around 700 units in 2010 to nearly 2,400 in 2015, representing an average increase of nearly 30% each year.

For the record, here are the Top 10 metropolitan markets among the 100 largest, ranked in terms of their industrial robot exposure.  They’re mid-continent markets all:

  • Toledo, OH: 9.0 industrial robots per 1,000 workers
  • Detroit, MI: 8.5
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 6.3
  • Louisville, KY: 5.1
  • Nashville, TN: 4.8
  • Youngstown-Warren, OH: 4.5
  • Jackson, MS: 4.3
  • Greenville, SC: 4.2
  • Ogden, UT: 4.2
  • Knoxville, TN: 3.7

In terms of where industrial robots are very low to practically non-existent within the largest American metropolitan markets, look to the coasts:

  • Ft. Myers, FL: 0.2 industrial robots per 1,000 workers
  • Honolulu, HI: 0.2
  • Las Vegas, NV: 0.2
  • Washington, DC: 0.3
  • Jacksonville, FL: 0.4
  • Miami, FL: 0.4
  • Richmond, VA: 0.4
  • New Orleans, LA: 0.5
  • New York, NY: 0.5
  • Orlando, FL: 0.5

When one consider that the automotive industry is the biggest user of industrial robots – the International Federation of Robotics estimates that the industry accounts for nearly 40% of all industrial robots in use worldwide – it’s obvious how the Midwest region could end up being the epicenter of robotic manufacturing activity in the United States.

It should come as no surprise, either, that investments in robots are continuing to grow. The Boston Consulting Group has concluded that a robot typically costs only about one-third as much to “employ” as a human worker who is doing the same job tasks.

In another decade or so, the cost disparity will likely be much greater.

On the other hand, two MIT economists maintain that the impact of industrial robots on the volume of available jobs isn’t nearly as dire as many people might think. According to Daron Acemoglu and Pascual Restrepo:

“Indicators of automation (non-robot IT investment) are positively correlated or neutral with regard to employment. So even if robots displace some jobs in a given commuting zone, other automation (which presumably dwarfs robot automation in the scale of investment) creates many more jobs.”

What do you think? Are Messrs. Acemoglu and Restrepo on point here – or are they off by miles?  Please share your thoughts with other readers.

Are U.S. warehouse jobs destined to go the way of manufacturing employment?

Even as manufacturing jobs have plateaued or fallen in certain communities, one of the employment bright spots has been the rise of distribution centers and super warehouses constructed by Amazon and other mega retailers to accommodate the steady rise of online shopping.

In my own region, the opening of Amazon distribution centers in Maryland and Delaware were met with accolades by local business development officials, who figured that new employment opportunities for entry level workers would soon follow.

And they have … to a degree. But what many people might not have expected was the rapid rise of robotics usage in warehouse operations.

In just the past few years, Amazon has quietly gone about purchasing and introducing more than 30,000 Kiva robots for many of its warehouses, where the equipment has reduced operating expenses by approximately 20%, according to Dave Clark, Amazon’s senior vice president of worldwide operations and customer service.

An analysis by Deutsche Bank estimates that adding robots to a new Amazon warehouse saves approximately $22 million in fulfillment expenses, which is why Amazon is moving ahead with plans to introduce robots in the remaining 100 or so of its distribution centers that are still without them.

Once in place, it’s estimated that Amazon will save an additional $2.5 billion in operating expenses at these 100 facilities.

Of course, robots aren’t exactly inexpensive pieces of equipment. But with the operational savings involved, it’s clear that adding this kind of automation to warehousing is kind of a slam-dunk decision.

Which helps explain another move that Amazon made in 2012. It decided to purchase the company that makes Kiva robots — for a cool $775 million.  And then it did something else equally noteworthy:  it ceased the sale of Kiva robots to anyone outside the Amazon family.

Because Kiva was pretty much the only game in town when it came to robotics designed for warehouse pick-and-ship functions, Amazon’s move put all other warehouse operations at a serious disadvantage.

That in turn created a stampede to develop alternative sources of supply for robots. It’s taken about four years, but today there are credible alternatives to Kiva brand robots now entering the market.  Amazon’s uneven playing field is getting ready to become a lot more level now.

But the other result of this “robotics arms race” is the sudden plenteous availability of new robot equipment, which companies like Macy’s, Target and Wal-Mart are set to exploit.

The people who are slated to be the odd people out are … warehouse workers.

The impact could well be dramatic. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are nearly 860,000 warehouse workers in the United States today, and they earn an average wage of approximately $12 per hour.

Not only is the rise of robot usage threatening these jobs, thanks to the sharp increase of minimum wage rates in areas near to some major urban centers is putting the squeeze on hiring from a wholly different direction. It’s a perfect storm the seems destined to blow a hole in warehouse employment levels in the coming years.

Thinking back to what happened to manufacturing jobs in this country, it’s seems we’ve seen this movie before …