President-elect Donald Trump’s stated focus on protecting, creating, and returning jobs to the U.S., particularly in manufacturing, offers both opportunities and challenges for Association for Advancing Automation’s (A3) stakeholders. As an organization, our role is to support and promote the future of automation, for suppliers and integrators as well as end users.
With that in mind, our input to the incoming administration focuses on three critical elements in how automation can benefit the U.S. economy. These include defining and preparing for the jobs of an automated future, driving U.S. innovation in automation technologies to meet global demands, and supporting entrepreneurship as the engine of American economic growth.
Jobs of the automated future
Many of the manufacturing jobs that left the U.S. in the past several decades are not the same jobs that will — or should be — available to American workers as part of reshoring efforts and manufacturing growth. Repetitive, heavy-lifting jobs that don’t require human decision-making or insight (the 3 “Ds:” dangerous, dull, and dirty) are prime targets for the future of automation both in the U.S. and overseas.
In fact, rapidly rising Chinese labor costs, an aging workforce, and extensive government support have contributed to China’s push to extensively automate its manufacturing operations. As a result, that country has become the largest user of robotics in the world for the past several years.
Similarly, U.S. manufacturers need the advantages of automation in order to compete in global markets. With the resulting improved output, as well as product consistency and quality, automated manufacturers can focus on innovation and design and meet consumer expectations for the latest and greatest products in ever-faster timeframes.
Automation is critical to the ability of U.S. manufacturers to profit, grow, and build jobs. But research continues to show that even current increases in automation are not addressing the significant jobs gap in the U.S.
According to a recent report by the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), the U.S. has installed about 135,000 new industrial robots between 2010 and 2015, principally because of automation in the car industry.
During this same period, the number of employees in the automotive sector increased by 230,000. This matches the conclusions of A3’s own whitepaper, “Robots Fuel the Next Wave of U.S. Productivity and Job Growth,” which noted an increase in U.S. employment from 1996 to 2016 — the same 20-year period that showed consistent and record growth in the installed base of robots.
The new challenge is to prepare the American workforce for the jobs of the future. Those jobs certainly include designing and building new automation technologies, jobs that didn’t exist a few years ago.
Even more urgent is the need to fill the existing and growing need for workers to install, program, operate, and maintain automation equipment, as well as for trained operators to work alongside today’s collaborative robots and other equipment.
According to a recent report by Deloitte, an estimated 2 million of the 3.5 million jobs needed in manufacturing by 2025 could remain vacant. The analysis noted that although interest in STEM careers is at a record high in the U.S., apprenticeship programs fell by 40 percent between 2003 and 2013.
That’s in stark contrast to the situation in other countries. In Germany, for instance, about half of high-school graduates opt for apprenticeships rather than college degrees, with the appeal of almost-certain employment. In fact, while fewer than 5 percent of young Americans train as apprentices, in Germany, the number is over 50 percent.
The incoming administration has an opportunity to address this skills gap — and manufacturing employment — through effective training and retraining programs, as well as continued investments in apprenticeship programs. These must include a continued emphasis on STEM education in K-12 and higher education, targeted certificate programs through technical schools and community colleges, as well as training programs produced by industry leaders.
Automation innovation to meet global demands
Robotics, a key element in automation, was first established in the U.S. by Joseph Engelberger, the “father of robotics,” in the late 1950s. When the technology wasn’t initially embraced by U.S. manufacturers, Engelberger licensed the technology to Japanese companies, helping to usher in overseas robotics industries that continue to dominate the market.
Today, the U.S. has an opportunity to reclaim its leadership in automation innovation and to take advantage of the growing global demand for this technology. Double-digit growth since 2010 is expected to continue in the future of automation, with the IFR forecasting more than 1.4 million new industrial robots installed in factories around the world between 2016 and 2019.
This presents an opportunity for the incoming administration to continue — and even increase — federal support for advanced manufacturing. The current network of institutes under the umbrella of the Manufacturing USA initiative includes public-private partnerships designed to support promising early-stage research, propel new products to market, and secure the U.S.’s future as a leader in innovation and manufacturing.
A new Robots in Manufacturing Environments (RIME) institute is funded through the Department of Defense’s Manufacturing Technology Program. The program is intended to improve U.S. manufacturing competitiveness through advancements in smart collaborative robots, which have the potential to level the manufacturing playing field with competing low-labor-cost economies.
But even the investments made by the outgoing administration pale in comparison with government funding for the future of automation by global competitors, especially in Asia. In China, central planners have promised generous government subsidies to help Chinese companies use and build robots, according to a Financial Times article. The 2014 “Made in China 2025 Initiative” is geared to making China the world’s leader in robots.
The Trump administration has the distinct opportunity to extend the U.S. reputation for innovation that drives world markets and to challenge global competitors in the development and production of new automation products and technologies.
Investments in the future of automation will be critical to that success, as outlined in a one-billionaire-investor-to-another plea by Mark Cuban, who recently called for Trump to invest $100 billion of proposed infrastructure funding to be invested in robotics.
Entrepreneurship is the engine of economic growth
Entrepreneurial businesses continue to drive U.S. economic growth, with more than 4 million net new jobs created by small businesses between 2009 and Q2 2015, according to the Small Business Administration (SBA). This accounted for 67.5 percent of all job growth, and occurred in all sizes of firms, with businesses of more than 50 employees contributing more than half the growth.
Today’s hottest automation technologies — including autonomous mobile robots and collaborative robots that are designed to work side by side with human workers — are especially valuable for small and midsized businesses of all kinds that don’t have huge budgets or specialized personnel. These products are designed to be safe, easy to program and maintain, and affordable, with a fast return on investment — often in less than a year.
The opportunities for collaborative applications for automation will continue along with advances in vision systems and safety technologies.
The U.S. has a global reputation for innovation, and entrepreneurial companies in all facets of automation will continue to power not only that reputation, but also economic growth. According to a recent analysis by The Robot Report, 2016 was the best year ever for venture funding of robotics and automation-related startups, with $1.95 billion in funding. That’s 50 percent more than 2015, which was also a strong year with over $1.32 billion funded.
The companies that received funding crossed multiple application areas, including unmanned aerial systems, agricultural robotics, service robotics for business and personal use, vision systems, autonomous driving systems, mobile robots, and many smaller categories.
As a businessman, the president-elect has the opportunity and the background to continue this push for entrepreneurship. He can help the U.S. take the lead in high-growth markets for automation technologies worldwide. This is a win-win for U.S. manufacturers, which would also benefit from new domestic technologies that would help them grow more quickly, produce more efficiently, meet higher quality, and be more nimble to respond to changing consumer demands.
At A3, we continue to be optimistic about the opportunities for the automation industry, which has weathered multiple administration changes and economic cycles. The Trump administration, with its stated goal of building and returning manufacturing jobs to the U.S., has a clear mandate to support automation’s role in that success.
About the Association for Advancing Automation
The Association for Advancing Automation is the global advocate for the benefits of automation. A3 promotes automation technologies and ideas that transform the way business is done. A3 is the umbrella group for Robotic Industries Association (RIA), AIA (Advancing Vision + Imaging), and the Motion Control & Motor Association (MCMA).
RIA, AIA, and MCMA combined represent over 1,000 automation manufacturers, component suppliers, systems integrators, end users, research groups, and consulting firms from throughout the world that drive automation forward. A3 is the organizer of the Automate Show (April 3-6, 2017, in Chicago). For more information, please visit our websites for A3, the RIA, the AIA, the MCMA, and Automate.
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