Automakers, Long the Leaders in Robotics, See Other Industries Catch Up

Shipments to non-automotive companies grew 41 percent. 

by James Dennin

One sign that robots are increasingly capable of human tasks? Companies are buying a lot more them: Some 35,880 robots were shipped to North American companies last year, according to new data from the Association of Advancing Automation, seven percent more than 2017, setting a new record. In particular, non-automotive companies picked up the pace of automation, with shipments growing 41 percent.

Robot purchases picked up in a variety of industries except for, notably, the auto industry, which has traditionally been at the forefront of automated assembly (car companies still account for a little more than half of robotics purchases, according to the AAA’s data). Food and consumer good companies picked up their pace of automation the most, with shipments up 48 percent. Plastics, life sciences, and electronics companies all put more robots to work in 2018 as well.

“While the automotive industry has always led the way in implementing robotics here in North America, we are quite pleased to see other industries continuing to realize the benefits of automation,” said Jeff Burnstein, President of the Association for Advancing Automation, in a statement released with the report.

Robots are simply getting better: The World Economic Forum estimates that robots or automation will be capable of replicating more than half of workplace tasks by 2025, including 28 percent of tasks that involve decision-making, up from about 19 percent today. As 5G networks begin to roll out over the next two years, robots will also benefit from significantly from the extra bandwidth and latency improvements, making them much more dextrous and quick-to-react to their surroundings.

Automation is projected to create a lot more jobs than it eliminates, but there is a catch. 

World Economic Forum 

The job market is particularly strong, with unemployment hitting the lowest level it’s been at in nearly half a century, as the Wall Street Journal reported Friday. That’s finally starting to translate into stiff competition to find even relatively “low-skill” workers to fill jobs, which can drive up the economic incentive to automate, because the savings-per-worker is greater.

As always, the debate about how worried we need to be about this trend rages. As these trends — better, smarter, robots and machines capable of doing more — continue, some have argued that it could create a “barbell” economy, i.e. an economy where jobs are concentrated on low-paying and high-paying extremes instead of there being a large middle class.

The Brookings Institute published this month an alarming paper suggesting that automation’s job displacement will be regionally concentrated. In the future, life will be particularly difficult for people in cities with fewer than 100,000 people and in rural areas. In some regions, almost half of the jobs people have may be susceptible to automation.

Then again, people have always feared that the robots are coming for our jobs. And just because the tech is there, doesn’t mean replacing a person with a cheaper robot is always going to be preferable. As the economist Oren Cass recently pointed out to the New Yorker’s Jill Lepore, just because parents can put their kids on an autonomously driven school buses doesn’t mean they will.

Cultural resistance to robots may provide some measure of comfort in the short term, but, unfortunately, it may only be a matter of time before robots get pretty good at babysitting, too.

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