The United States has always been a pioneer in the development of robots. The first humanoid robot named Elecktro was developed by the Westinghouse Electric Corporation around 1939. We have come a long way since then.
Today, robots are used in modern industrial economies worldwide. They outperform workers in manufacturing and other processes that require speed, accuracy, precision, dexterity, repetition, and consistent maintenance of production quality.
Robotics is a $6 billion U.S. industry representing the confluence of many critical technologies including advanced computing, artificial intelligence, advanced machinery and advanced material sciences. The industry is expected to grow to more than $100 billion in the next two decades. It increasingly affects many aspects of our economy (and our lives) including manufacturing, farming, cleantech, national security, health care, surgery, nanotechnology, military, and construction.
A nagging problem that the industry faces is the issue of robotics replacing people in the workforce. This issue has received considerable attention, particularly as the offshoring of jobs has accelerated over the last decade. The U.S. lost more than 2 million manufacturing jobs between 2001 and 2007 and the trend continues. Today, it is almost axiomatic in corporate America that to remain globally competitive and profitable, we must lower labor costs by moving jobs overseas to low-wage countries. I disagree — there are alternatives, including robotics.
In a recent paper, Owen Hall of Pepperdine University states that —... with the continued advances in robotics technology, the profit motive to offshore jobs demands re-evaluation. Along with lean manufacturing and quality enhancements, the United States can use robotics to level the playing field with foreign competition. The key has always been to work smarter, not harder, and automaton allows this to happen." I agree.
Undoubtedly the issue of replacing workers with robots will be a concern during periods of high unemployment we are currently experiencing. A long-term view changes the work force picture dramatically. In the next 15 years there will be a shortage of American workers with only 40 million workers available to fill the jobs left vacant by 70 million retiring baby boomers.
The Japanese have been dealing with a labor shortage for quite a while and have resorted to robotics as a solution. I think that America should embrace robotics wholeheartedly for two reasons. First, because of the long-term demographic trend described above. Second, we are falling behind many countries in the development of robotics technology and risk becoming a minor player in this vital industry.
Countries such as Japan, Korea, and the European Union (EU) have made large investments in robotics-related research, development, and commercialization. In 2008 alone, the EU committed $500 million to R&D while Korea invested a record $750 million in robotics. Japan continues to be the leader in robotics research.
Just as America has lost its competitive position in solar and wind power, my concern is that we are gradually losing our competitive edge in robotics. Even though we are currently the third largest market for robotics (after Japan and Germany), we meet 90 percent of our robotics needs via imports. This implies that U.S. companies are not capable of meeting our domestic needs much less competing in the global robotics marketplace.
In a recent discussion John Dulchinos, president and CEO of Pleasanton-based Adept Technology, said: "Looking to the future, the real opportunity in robotics is for America to lead the revolution of safe, collaborative robots that can coexist with people in factories, hospitals, restaurants, rehabilitation centers, and homes. The future will include domesticated robots that work side by side and in harmony with people. These robots will be intelligent, able to interact with people and their environment and will pose no safety risk to people. This single change will dramatically impact the cost of robots, the way robots work and the range of applications that can be solved with robotics and will be the foundation of the next generation of robots."
I believe that robotics is an important pathway to strengthening the economy and the creation of new employment opportunities.
Tapan Munroe can be reached at email@example.com.