May 11, 2011      

There’s been a lot of talk in the press lately about a return of manufacturing from China to the North America. Higher wages in China, higher fuel-related transportation costs, and a demand for higher quality are among the chief reasons given. A recent Boston Consulting Group report claimed that “Reinvestment During the next five years could usher in a ‘manufacturing renaissance’ as the U.S. Becomes a Low-Cost country among developed nations.”

Elsewhere, the May 5 issue of Bloomberg’s BusinessWeek weighed in with an article stating that “Higher wages in China and smarter factories in the U.S. may boost American manufacturing.”

Lower-cost industrial robots and their increasing use are liable to be at the forefront of what makes factories in the U.S. smarter. A Wired magazine article on the topic this February, citing stats from the International Federation of Robotics, relayed that “For U.S. manufacturing to make sense, factories must make extensive use of automation. That’s getting easier, given that the cost of robots with comparable capabilities has decreased precipitously in the past two decades.” Specifically, the cost of industrial robots has dropped from $100k to just above $20k since 1990.

In fact, there are strong indications manufacturers are increasingly focusing on robotics as a way to boost productivity as they ready themselves for the global downturn’s demise. Earlier this month, the Robotics Industry Association noted that in Q1 2011, “A total of 4,021 robots valued at $263.5 million were ordered by North American manufacturing companies…, an increase of 31% in units and 27% in dollars.” That jump in orders is especially significant when you factor in the 39% growth in orders which occurred last year, Jeff Burnstein, RIA’s president said in a prepared statement.

There’s every indication that the use of industrial robots will continue to rise, particularly if they too become smarter. Heartland Robotics founder and industrial robot champion Rod Brooks noted in a Technology Review article that a real industrial robotics revolution will commence when robots came equipped with sensors and increased computing power. “What if the robots were smarter and they could go into smaller companies and be easier for ordinary people to use?” he asked.

The likely answer is that robots would do for small manufacturers what easy-to-use Windows and Apple computers accomplished for untold thousands of small North American knowledge-based firms – namely transform them into the world’s most efficient, talented and sought after suppliers of services within the information economy. A revolution indeed.