Manufacturing in America: Where Are the Robots?

MIT’s study reveals a resilient industry in transition even before COVID.

(Image courtesy of Quartz.)

(Image courtesy of Quartz.)

The robot revolution hasn’t been as fast or as imminent as was previously thought. That is the analysis of MIT’s Task Force on the Work of the Future, which recently released a research brief on the state of manufacturing in America (you can download the PDF of the report here).

Manufacturing Has Weathered COVID-19 Better Than Anticipated

While the coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on the global economy, the researchers found that the manufacturing sector has been able to withstand the uncertainty caused by the pandemic better than the retail or service sectors. As a whole, 72.5 percent of manufacturers anticipate that they will retain or even expand their workforce over the next year—although automotive and aerospace companies were hit hard due to sharply lowered demand.

This doesn’t mean business as usual, though. The pandemic has forced many companies to rethink how they do business, even if business has been steady.

“The world is gradually changing in very important ways, and if we just keep going in the direction we’re going, it is going to produce bad outcomes,” said MIT’s economics professor and task force cochair David Autor.

The Robot Revolution Is a Slow One

Analysts have been predicting that COVID-19 will result in an increased demand for labor-saving technologies that will lead to significant manufacturing job losses: a “lights-out” factory of robots that don’t need lighting and can’t spread the coronavirus would be the wave of the future.

Lights-out manufacturing hasn’t taken hold as expected.

Lights-out manufacturing hasn’t taken hold as expected. (Image courtesy of Assembly Magazine.)

But this hasn’t often been the case. Some big manufacturers may be pursuing lights-out factories and other measures to lower their labor costs—but they have the production scale and investment dollars to commit to those projects. However, others are hesitant, claiming that innovation and ideas about improving efficiency often come from workers on the factory floor.

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) aren’t making many investments in robotics either. The reason: robots are inflexible and not easy to program for alternate uses. These companies are mostly low-volume, high-mix producers that need equipment that can be easily customizable for a wide variety of products—and most robots simply aren’t flexible enough for the job. In fact, many of the companies won’t invest in a robot until they get a contract that requires the technology. This is especially true of companies aiming for Defense Department contracts, whose procurement policies have an outsized influence on the technological investments these companies make. On top of that, reprogramming a robot is expensive and requires a skillset that many SMEs don’t have in-house.

When these companies do invest in a robot, they often set it up alongside their older machines—equipment that has often already been modified with add-ons such as new controls or sensors. For example, one metalworking company interviewed had both current CNC machines and World War II-era milling machines working on its factory floor.

Mixing the old and the new: a Cincinnati 3-spindle machine with new MSC/SKF spindles and Fanuc control. (Image courtesy of Today's Machining World.)

Mixing the old and the new: a Cincinnati 3-spindle machine with new MSC/SKF spindles and Fanuc control. (Image courtesy of Today’s Machining World.)

The Return of Vertical Integration?

The coronavirus pandemic has severely disrupted the supply chain around the country and around the world, and many manufacturers found it difficult to get the parts they needed from suppliers—often located in other countries. As a result, the manufacturing sector could see a reversal in the decades-long trend of companies outsourcing jobs and tasks to other suppliers—in favor of vertical integration. “Vertical integration has made things more complex and has allowed the firm to survive,” said one company.

However, such a significant reorganization seems to be limited to large-scale manufacturers, which would be better able to finance and integrate these measures into their operations. This could result in these companies becoming even larger—and taking up a bigger part of the manufacturing industry.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that SMEs will be squeezed out of the market, though. After World War II, the big vertically integrated companies trained their own workers, who sometimes moved to smaller manufacturers, and helped spread new technologies to their suppliers. They also supported the communities where their factories were located.

Vertical integration could therefore have a positive impact on the workforce, helping to create a larger pool of trained workers.

A Resilient Workforce—But There Are Training Bottlenecks

The research found that for SMEs, buying a new robot often came with additional investments in training and skill development. In fact, introducing a new machine frequently led to upskilling of the work force, either through hiring new people to work on the new machines or training existing employees on the new device. One example described how a company bought a new machine—and then bought out another company that already used the equipment to get access to its the skilled workforce.

These companies tend to be skeptical about formalized workforce education programs such as community college courses, preferring on-the-job training.’s Jim Anderton offers some surprising truths about manufacturing drawn from MIT’s study.

A Sector Toughened by Challenges and Ready for Continued Success

The study concluded that American manufacturing survived the 2008-2010 global recession and looks to be meeting the challenges of COVID-19. While the glory days of the post-World War II era are long gone, the manufacturing sector is positioned to make a significant positive impact on the American economy throughout the pandemic—and beyond.

“American manufacturing has been transformed,” said one of the participants. “It’s become highly engineered, highly specialized, and highly customized. I see this across all manufacturing. This is a different country. It’s no longer the mass production of the past.”

Read more about how the coronavirus is affecting industry at Long-Term Effects of COVID-19 in the Construction Industry.