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Carnegie Mellon University held a robotics caucus virtual roundtable last week with leaders from the U.S. robotics industry. The roundtable discussed the future of the industry and how the U.S. can keep up with the pace of the global industry.
The following speakers took part in the roundtable:
- Congressman Mike Doyle, co-founder of the Congressional Robotics Caucus
- Joel Reed, executive director of the Pittsburgh Robotics Network
- Tom Ryden, executive director of MassRobotics
- Andra Keay, managing director of Silicon Valley Robotics
- Jeff Burnstein, president of the Association for Advancing Automation (A3)
- Matt Johnson-Roberson, director of the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University
- Ritch Ramey, the director of strategic partnerships at EduEverthing
The group of U.S. robotics cluster leaders discussed how the clusters have grown since they were founded and their vision for the nationwide robotics alliance moving forward.
“I think we’re at an inflection point in robotics where we’re seeing much of the robotic technology that’s being developed, or has been developed over the last 20 years, translating now and having impacts on people’s day-to-day lives,” Johnson-Roberson said during the roundtable. “I think the narrative around robotics is beginning to change. I think people understand now that robotics are not segregated from human beings but need to really interact with human beings regularly.”
Keeping up with global leaders
While the U.S. has been a leader in robotics, every member of the discussion agreed that to stay competitive, the U.S. had to invest more in its robotics industry. The panel called for more support from federal and state governments, including tax incentives and educational programs for children to start learning about robotics at a younger age.
“We have achieved world thought leadership, and world leadership in the innovation and commercialization of new robotics technologies, and yet we are at risk of falling behind if we do not support what is still relatively new,” Keay said. “Most robotics companies did not exist five to 10 years ago, this is a relatively new and fragile industry.”
Burnstein noted that, in particular, China, Japan and Korea have made great advancements in robotics. Reed pointed to Denmark’s robotics cluster, which is home to leading robotics companies such as Mobile Industrial Robots and Universal Robots, as one of the world’s leading clusters.
“Now it’s highly competitive out there globally. Other governments are investing more heavily than the United States. China, in particular, has emerged as a leader in robotics. Japan has been a leader for decades and they’re continuing to invest heavily,” Burnstein said. “Other countries like Korea do the same thing. In the U.S., we need to match the passion for robotics that these countries are showing at the national level – we certainly have it.”
In December 2021, China unveiled its latest five-year plan for robotics. The document laid out several goals for the Chinese robotics industry to reach before 2025, with an overarching goal of making China a key source of global innovation.
China has been rapidly increasing the number of robots in the country. According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), from 2015 to 2020 China increased the number of robots per 10,000 workers in an industry from 49 units to 187.
China and Denmark tied for the ninth-most automated country, while the U.S. sits at number seven, with 255 units. South Korea, Singapore and Japan sat at the top of the list.
Pushing for faster deployments in U.S.
Burnstein noted that while there are endless opportunities for robots to make our lives better, there are still many challenges for the industry moving forward, including concerns about robots taking away jobs. Burnstein noted that whenever robot sales go up, unemployment goes down, and vice versa, which Keay later echoed.
“I would say that robots don’t take jobs, robots do tasks. No robot is capable of the sophistication of the least educated person,” Keay said. “We are capable of doing things like opening doors and climbing stairs without writing it on our resumes, and yet it is a rare robot that is capable of doing either of those two tasks.”
Another limitation the panel saw for the industry was in putting robots in the hands of small- and medium-size enterprises. Keay emphasized that while larger companies have the funds to invest in expensive technology, smaller operations don’t and could be left behind as automation becomes more common.
A strong supply chain is also necessary to expand robotics adoption, according to Reed. Despite the fact that in a global economy it seems like location matters less, Reed said that concentrating assets in the U.S. not only allows us to have a more stable supply chain, it’ll allow us to better use the skilled workforce in this country.