November 09, 2016      

During the final weeks of the U.S. presidential race, we examined hints about automation in Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton’s public position papers. Now, let’s take a closer look at how President-elect Trump might affect the U.S. robotics industry.

Made in America

During the campaign, Trump promised to reverse decades of offshore outsourcing of production and services to places like India and Mexico. Through tax policies, trade barriers, and other measures, he could alter the current model, but many manufacturers already say they have difficulty finding affordable and skilled workers.

Reshoring factories and shortening supply chains would definitely increase domestic demand for industrial automation. Small and midsize enterprises would likely turn to collaborative robots and business process automation to work alongside humans for more functions.

Industries that are already heavily automated, such as automotive or aerospace, would face fewer disruptions but higher costs than those that simply sought cheap labor overseas.

If Trump somehow brings mining jobs back to Pennsylvania and West Virginia, would that help or hurt robotics adoption? If spending increases for infrastructure such as roads and bridges, it would stimulate demand for inspection drones and for construction robots.

Business Takeaways:

  • Federal spending will shift under the Trump administration, possibly from agriculture and education to defense.
  • Trade and tax policies will affect where products are made and how services are delivered, so the entire supply chain, from manufacturing to retail, will look to automation.
  • Immigration and labor policy could lead to increased demand for technical expertise and robotics in certain industries.

Investment and trade

U.S. interdependence with Europe and Asia will come under renewed scrutiny, as concerns about
fairness and market access affect trade deals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Reshoring factories and shortening supply chains would definitely increase domestic demand for industrial automation. Small and midsize enterprises would likely turn to collaborative robots and business process automation to work alongside humans for more functions.

As with the U.K. and “Brexit,” the U.S. could renegotiate trade deals to be more favorable, but Trump’s team will have to be careful not to provoke a trade war.

Like Europe, the U.S. has many educational and research institutions that produce talent and spin out startups. Those startups often look to Silicon Valley (no fan of Trump’s) for venture capital, but China is also looking to tap that talent and intellectual property by offering investment support.

Forcing companies to invest within U.S. borders could accelerate China’s efforts toward partnerships in other countries and toward building up its own robotics talent and production base. China could also tighten access to its large and growing markets in retaliation.

Certain industries would do better than others if the international competitive landscape is altered under Trump’s administration. (We’ll be getting comments from industry leaders soon.) Are Americans willing to pay higher prices for cars, clothing, and other manufactured goods?

On the positive side, entrepreneurs can expect tax breaks. Might renegotiated trade deals include provisions for counting robot installations as workers?

U.S. robotics skills

Speaking of the employment pool, Trump’s platform hints at some changes. Plans to close the federal deficit by reducing spending on education and research could force academia to look more toward applied science and increase competition for corporate support.

With college tuition becoming more expensive, perhaps more students will look at trade schools and formerly stigmatized blue-collar — and emerging “gray collar” — jobs.

Gray-collar jobs are somewhere between white-collar office tasks and older factory work and involves operating or supervising machinery (including robots) in industries like manufacturing. If they pay living wages, this category could grow if reshoring increases.

Retraining older works is an ongoing challenge, both in terms of funding and identifying politically viable approaches.

Changes to the H-1B visa for skilled legal immigrants and reductions in illegal immigration would increase demand for U.S. workers and robotics, particularly in agriculture, retail, and hospitality.

Robot-aided security

Republican promises to increase defense spending should help robotics in a variety of areas, including autonomous vehicles, humanoid robot research, and robots for the military and law enforcement.

U.S. robotics spending will be affected by the Trump administration.

The Trump administration will affect U.S. robotics spending, in NASA and elsewhere.

Although the Trump administration might actually bring a thaw in U.S. relations with Russia, there are plenty of other areas where robots and drones could help the armed forces.

Security robots and drones are also likely to be used for tighter border controls. Of course, there are also ethical concerns around the use of autonomous robots in combat and law enforcement.

In Asia, the Philippines has pivoted toward China, and U.S. concerns about North Korea could intensify cooperation with a rearmed Japan and increase the use of unmanned underwater vehicles and drone vessels.

In the Middle East, Trump has said that he wants to withdraw from protracted conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan while also toughening the U.S. stance against ISIL and Iran. This means more aerial drones for surveillance and remote attacks and possibly ground-based robots for troop support.

Conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa have already led to demand for military robots from American and rival manufacturers.

More on International, U.S. Robotics Policies:

Regulatory reform

As we’ve already noted, certain macroeconomic and technological trends are likely to continue, regardless of who won the White House and Congress. Robotic components will become cheaper and more powerful, certain products will be commoditized, and uses for robots will increase as they become more flexible.

As artificial intelligence and machine learning are applied to finance, security, and government functions, will they lead to a wave of new efficiency and profit?

Continuing advances in the Internet of Things, big data, and cloud-based robotics are likely, as is the acceleration of e-commerce, but they’ll require some federal support. Patents, privacy, and safety also require regulatory attention.

Self-driving cars currently have federal guidelines, but automakers want to avoid a patchwork of state laws.

Many nations have devised robotics strategies to 2020, which happens to be the year of the next presidential election (I’m sure we can all wait after bruising campaigns). Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, released an updated U.S. Robotics Roadmap, but will the Trump administration follow it?

In the meantime, the next four years will be crucial, both for politics and U.S. robotics. We’ll be following it closely. What do you think? Let us know!