The US can’t beat China’s robots but it can win by building the machines that make them – Matt Beane

MIT Sloan Ph.D. Student Matt Beane

From Quartz

As a US presidential candidate, Donald Trump made keeping manufacturing jobs in the country a key economic issue. He promised to bring back jobs from China, Mexico, Japan, and elsewhere; he pledged to force companies from Ford to Apple to Nabisco to open or re-open factories on American shores; and he vowed to revive the coal and steelmaking industries. His promise to create industrial jobs was key to his electoral victory.

Still, many were—and remain—deeply skeptical of Trump’s plans. Mark Cuban, internet entrepreneur and frequent thorn in the side of the president, says that bringing back manufacturing will backfire and lead to overall job losses. Instead, he says, the US ought to invest in robotics to compete with China. “We have to win the robotics race,” he says. “We are not even close right now.” (For what it’s worth, Trump’s labor secretary Steven Mnuchin recently disagreed, saying robots aren’t even “on my radar screen.”)

Cuban is on the right track, but the fact is that it’s too late to go head-to-head with China on building robots alone. We can’t compete with China’s robot revolution. But we can complement it.

The US should focus on what it does best: software, sensors, and design. Building the factories and production lines of the future demands the kind of expertise that US-based engineers and system integrators are best positioned to deliver. After all, we built the internet. So let’s build the Internet of Things, starting in the factory.

This starts with accepting that industrial robots—which include everything from the huge, robotic arms used in automotive assembly lines to the tiny, nimble machines that pharmaceutical plants use to package pills—are not likely to be manufactured at scale in the US any time soon. Or maybe ever. Over the past 25 years, the Chinese government has invested billions in this industry. According to the International Federation of Robotics, China now captures 27% of the market and is by far the largest—and fastest growing—producer and consumer of industrial robots.

But the US doesn’t need to build industrial robots. There’s less money in hardware, and besides: It’s not our forte. Instead, we need to channel our resources into what Elon Musk calls “building the machine that builds the machine.”

Read the full post at Quartz.

Matt Beane is a doctoral student at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and Chief human-robot interaction officer at Humatics.

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