November 11, 2016      

The effects of the Donald Trump election as U.S. president on Tuesday are already being felt by some robotics companies. During the campaign, Trump said relatively little about science and technology policy. However, his promises to restore jobs in certain industries such as manufacturing and mining, plus tensions with Silicon Valley, have led to worries among robotics leaders.

There is no doubt that Trump’s victory surprised pollsters and political commentators.

What has emerged is a sense of uncertainty within high tech and the international robotics industry that’s similar to — if not quite on the scale of — the so-called Brexit vote.

Chris Anderson, CEO of drone firm 3D Robotics Inc., which has facilities in Mexico and the U.S., woke up to a plunging Mexican peso on Wednesday morning and had to take action to protect his Mexican employees’ wages.

Business takeaways:

  • While it’s too early to judge exactly how the Trump election will affect the global robotics industry, the new president has said he’ll be renegotiating international trade agreements.
  • The role of robotics in manufacturing will change based on the Trump administration’s policies around reshoring, immigration, and education.
  • The fate of the recently released U.S. Robotics Roadmap is uncertain, as are efforts to control robotic weapons.

Robotics Business Review reached out to 40 experts in industry, academia, startups, and the analyst community around the world to find out what they think the Trump election could mean for the robotics industry in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Only seven people were willing and able to respond on the record.

Waiting for cabinet choices

Why so much uncertainty?

Well, besides the initial surprise of the results in contrast to poll predictions, much of the doubt emanates from the Trump organization itself, which did not respond to our request for comment.

As Neal Lane, a senior fellow in science and technology policy at Rice University and a Trump critic, put it: “The problem, of course, is that Donald Trump said many things, even contradictory things, but little about science and technology.”

“Much about a Trump’s administration’s approach to science and technology — at least the policy details — will depend on the people he appoints to high-level positions, including his science and technology advisor in the White House, and to positions in several federal agencies,” explained Lane.

Clarity on manufacturing, trade

On the other hand, President-elect Trump has been consistent and clear about two policy items: returning manufacturing jobs to the U.S. and his intention to renegotiate trade agreements like NAFTA.

Given the deep penetration of robotics in 21st century manufacturing, what does this mean for robotics suppliers and users? Industrial automation can displace, support, and create jobs, but how does the Trump organization see this all playing out?

Is it possible that a Trump administration, operating on a four-year deadline, might come to regard automation as a hindrance to the short-term objective of quickly creating more manufacturing jobs?

One of Trump’s main points during the campaign revolved around bring manufacturing jobs to the U.S. to compete with foreign manufacturing markets, said Kyle Landry, practice lead for the Autonomous Systems 2.0 service at Lux Research Inc. in Boston.

“While I’m worried that there could be initial disdain towards robotics, it should become apparent that incorporation of the technology is an absolute must,” he told Robotics Business Review. “The U.S. isn’t going to compete by just make copies of traditional, brick-and-mortar manufacturing plants; it must look toward applications of technologies associated with Industry 4.0.”

Terms such as “Industry 4.0” and “factory of the future” can be “thrown out as a buzzwords,” Landry added, but the technologies within them are very real, from the implementation of sensing, connectivity, and analytics across the supply chain to the integration of collaborative automation solutions.

“Manufacturing initiatives already exist overseas regarding updating plant floors with these kinds of technologies in order to meet customers’ needs,” he said. “So if Trump is going to bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S., and not just temporarily, robotics has to be a part of the plan.”

[pullquote]Manufacturing initiatives already exist overseas regarding updating plant floors with these kinds of technologies in order to meet customers’ needs. So if Trump is going to bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S., and not just temporarily, robotics has to be a part of the plan.” — Kyle Landry, Lux Research[/pullquote]

“A push for American manufacturing is a push for American robotics,” said Rosanna Myers, CEO of Carbon Robotics in San Francisco. “If we want to restore America as a manufacturing powerhouse, the only option is to advance robotics.”

“Any country adopting robots is fundamentally changing the trade equation — you can produce products where they are consumed, and money goes back into the community,” Myers said. “If U.S. manufacturing becomes a key objective, then investing in advanced robotics will become a national priority.”

Trump election validates re-examination of trade agreements

What about Trump’s promise to rip up existing trade agreements like NAFTA so they can be renegotiated?

The U.S. is a huge country, but from a global perspective, it is “getting smaller and smaller in a world that is getting smaller and smaller,” said Marianne Andersen, CEO of RoboBusiness Europe.

“Trump needs to think about this. It will be beneficial for all of us to work together. The U.S. can benefit from working with Europe for sure — and the other way around,” said Andersen, who expressed concern that the new administration may make it harder for European robotics companies to break into the U.S. market.

“There are ways to get around this, like starting an office or manufacturing in the United States, but I think the U.S. will benefit more from working together with Europe,” she said. “We face similar challenges, and I see no benefit for the U.S. to close its borders and work in isolation. Technology is moving faster than the law these days, which is a challenge we need to solve, preferably on a global basis.”

Worries about training and competitiveness

Noel Sharkey, professor emeritus of artificial intelligence and robotics at the University of Sheffield in the U.K., said he isn’t sure that President-elect Trump has “thought this through.”

The Trump election validates millions of Americans' concerns about stagnant job prospects.

Employment worries were a key part of Donald Trump’s appeal.

“The U.S. is currently leading the field on the development of robotics for automating so many jobs,” he said. “This will lead [to] jobs in manufacturing the robots for now, but it is unlikely that they will make up for the numbers lost.”

Sharkey said believes that these job losses will “leave Mr. Trump in a bit of a quandary. Automation is needed to compete on the international market, but it could lead to massive unemployment.”

The traditional manually intensive manufacturing jobs that left the country will “never come back, due to simple economics,” according to Alfonso Iniguez, founder of Arizona-based Swarm Technology LLC.

“Capitalism is driven by cash flow, which is a reality that cannot be ignored,” he said. “However, nothing precludes the U.S. from creating the next generation of robot-intensive jobs. This new field will require the U.S. to invest in STEM programs at all levels — we need people to build, service, operate, and program those robots.”

Despite the usual “honeymoon” after the Trump election, the new president doesn’t have that much time, given his promise to bring manufacturing jobs back within four years.

Europe is also working to return manufacturing jobs lost to China and other low-wage countries, but there’s a race on, Andersen said.

“China and other Asian countries are not sleeping,” she said. “They will implement robots as well to decrease costs even more. It will take some time, but this is what will happen.”

Moshe Vardi, a computer scientist and automation expert at Rice University in Houston, said he believes that robotic technology could hamper Trump’s plan to add jobs. In a press release this week, he wrote:

Donald Trump was elected president partly on promises that he would put America back to work and create new jobs for millions of chronically unemployed Americans, but decreasing costs for automation and dramatic improvements in artificial intelligence and robotics could make that task more difficult.”

Will Trump consult the robotics roadmap?

The Obama administration released its Roadmap for Robotics last month, but the fate of that document is uncertain.

“I hope and trust that Trump and the White House will listen to the experts who developed the roadmap,” said Andersen. “The roadmap is developed to solve the challenges U.S. has regarding getting production back and solving the aging population issues … so I cannot imagine the White House will not listen to constructive input from experts.”

The document presents a clear strategy to make the U.S. the top robotics manufacturer in the world, said Sharkey, but it’s unclear what a Trump administration will do with it.

“The president-elect may not see the value and may not be prepared to fund the necessary infrastructure while instead pouring cash into more traditional manufacturing jobs and rebuilding the transport infrastructure as he has promised,” Sharkey said. “Only time will tell if he misses this opportunity.”

Robot arms control

How will the Trump election affect the development and regulation of intelligent weapon systems?

Sharkey, who is chair of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control, was cautiously optimistic.

“All that I can do is hope that he somehow sees the sense in our Campaign to Stop Killer Robots at the United Nations,” he said. “I am not sure that a President Trump will have a better view of the humanitarian cost of these weapons than President Obama, but we will try hard to get through.”

More on Global Robotics Policies and the Trump Election:

The Trump election probably won't affect the ongoing adoption of industrial automation.

Industrial automation is expected to continue growing, regardless of politics.

Bullish on robotics

Beyond the Trump election uncertainty, however, the U.S. robotics industry is experiencing massive year-on-year growth. As Lux Research’s Landry pointed out, robotics companies received $395 million in investment in 2014 and more than $1.25 billion in 2015.

“So, at this point, I don’t see there being losers necessarily,” he said. “Trump’s push to bring back manufacturing could see more growth for robotics developed for manufacturing applications, heavy industry applications, and logistics applications. But in this state of growth that’s occurring in robotics, I don’t see any being left behind at this point.”