WASHINGTON — Robots are playing a bigger role in American manufacturing than ever, and they are spreading rapidly. Yet their impact is playing out differently throughout Ohio.
For example, although Ohio ranks second in the nation for the number of industrial robots in 2015 — 20,415 altogether, according to the Brookings Institution — there are more than three times as many industrial robots on a per-human-worker basis in the Toledo area as in Akron — and as in Cincinnati, Cleveland or Columbus, too.
This has implications for the workforce, for politics and, of course, for the economy. They’re both positive and negative; it depends on how society adapts as the trend marches onward.
Brookings, a Washington think tank, is studying the implications across the country. This week it released a map and study showing where the robots are. It turns out that robots are heavily clustered in Michigan and Northwest Ohio, which is logical.
They’re here. They’re expanding. Get used to it.
These are industrial robots, or robots that perform tasks in factories and industrial settings. Brookings defines them as “automatically controlled, reprogrammable machines” capable of replacing labor in a range of tasks.
The growth rate and their penetration into the workforce in just five years has been phenomenal. Nationally, the number of industrial robots in the workplace grew by 19 percent a year from 2010 to 2015, the Brookings data show. That matches the 19 percent rate in Ohio.
Let’s repeat: That’s 19 percent a year. The raw numbers show the number of industrial robots grew by 143 percent nationally in that short span, and just about the same in Ohio.
This figure does not measure productivity. But experts say once the robots are up and running and workers know how to use them, robots can boost a factory’s productivity, particularly when performing repetitive tasks.
If you’re a company shareholder or appreciate the gains that productivity contribute to the nation’s role in the global economy, this might sound good. If your family or community income depends upon jobs with repetitive tasks that are likely to become automated, this is probably worrisome.
Nationally, they’re clustered.
Brookings plans to examine social and economic effects in coming months, but when looking at where the robots are, it found big clusters in the upper industrial Midwest.
“Robots, it turns out, are congregating densely in some places but are hardly found in others,” said the study, by Mark Muro, a senior fellow and director of Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program. “Specifically, the map makes clear that while industrial robots are by no means everywhere, they are clustered heavily in a short list of Midwestern and Southern manufacturing states, especially the upper Midwest.”
Why these regions?
Cars, Muro says.
“This clustering follows logically from the fact that the auto industry — highly concentrated in the Midwest and upper South — currently employs nearly half of all industrial robots in use,” the study said.
The recent growth occurred for a reason.
Robots have been popular for the last 20 years, but the growth since the last recession has been striking. It’s also been logical.
It followed the government’s auto industry bailout of 2009.
“The crisis and near-death of the auto industry clearly reinforced really intensive efforts to reinvent and boost productivity,” Muro said in a telephone interview. Some of that “was demanded” by the bailout, “essentially demanding better practices and productivity.”
The number of robots is interesting. Other numbers are more telling.
Nationwide, there were nearly 235,000 industrial robots in the United States in 2015. Michigan had the most — 27,632, followed by Ohio’s 20,415.
But density of robots, measured by their number in a state’s workplaces compared with the number of workers, reveals more. Indiana, Kentucky and Alabama, for example, have fewer residents than Ohio, and therefore fewer workers. They also have fewer robots.
But they have more robots on a per capita basis, measured by the number of robots for every 1,000 workers. That suggests robots have played a significant role in their workforce changes and in the states’ economies.
Check out Tennessee. Its factories have almost half as many robots as Ohio’s, and it has a smaller overall population. But on a robot-per-worker basis, Tennessee matches Ohio.
What’s the deal with Akron?
So why does Akron have so few robots compared with living, breathing workers?
We asked a few experts. First, it’s important to remember the strong correlation between the auto industry and robotics. That’s why Toledo, Springfield, Lima, Mansfield and Youngstown rank so high. Half of all industrial robots are in plants making cars and trucks, said Brookings’ Muro.
Akron’s low per-capita number also reflects the kind of industries using — and not using — robots right now. A company is willing to invest in a robot that can save it money on repetitive tasks, or do jobs that don’t require piece-by-piece, project-by-project adjustments.
Robots work well for assembly of cars and trucks. They are good when heavy lifting is involved. But Akron has developed an industrial base that focuses on polymers, coatings, chemicals and lighter materials. Akron workers do research and development and make pieces and parts shipped elsewhere for final assembly. The workers play a role in the supply chain.
These are jobs not necessarily requiring or aided by robotics, said Eric Amis, dean of the University of Akron’s College of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering.
Amis, like others interviewed, said that was his guess, although they all acknowledged they are speculating because they have not looked into it more deeply.
“We don’t have heavy footprints,”said Richard Redabow, executive vice president of the Greater Akron Chamber. By that, he means large industrial plants of 500,000 or 1 million square feet. “We don’t have heavy industrial, but we have specialty manufacturing.”
The I-75 corridor plays a role.
Ryan Ausburger, vice president of the Ohio Manufacturers’ Association, said all this rang true, and he suggested looking at another perspective: a map showing manufacturing density, or the share of manufacturing jobs in every Ohio county. While it doesn’t directly correlate with where the robots are, it adds to the understanding of why the Toledo area ranks so high.
The common denominator, he said, is the Interstate 75 corridor that runs straight up Ohio’s western side, connecting the state to Michigan’s auto industry. I-75, he said, “is a line that supports automaking.”
This leads to President Trump.
So about robots: They do work once performed by people. And workers who are displaced and cannot find replacement jobs tend to get anxious. That may have played out in the 2016 presidential election.
“It is telling that the robot incidence in red states that voted for President Trump in November is more than twice that in the blue states that voted for Hillary Clinton,” Muro says in his paper, citing Brookings’ research using data from the International Federation of Robotics.
“This is not to say robots determined the outcome of the 2016 election,” Muro adds. “However, the red-state robot concentration does suggest that to the extent industrial automation brings difficult labor market transitions and anxiety, it will visit those difficulties most heavily on a particular swath of red-leaning America — specifically, the most robot-exposed locations in the industrial Midwest.”
If you know Ohio, you might shake your head at this, because while it’s true that Trump carried Ohio, Toledo — the metro area where robots have had the biggest impact — still votes Democratic.
But winning elections is all about the margins.
Clinton won Lucas county, whose seat is Toledo, just as Democrats always do. But her margin of victory (she carried Lucas with 56.1 percent of the vote) was lower than any Democrat’s in a presidential election since 1992, according to a post-election analysis by cleveland.com data analysis editor Rich Exner.
What the future holds.
Muro isn’t convinced the march of robots spells doom. “It should not be assumed that a high number” for robot density “is a scary number and negative,” he said.
Such a number can spell efficiency and technological advances in the workplace.
But “there certainly is displacement” and anxiety, he added.
That is bolstered by a research paper in March from MIT economists who concluded “robots may reduce employment and wages.”
That study looked at past losses. Later this year, Brookings hopes to examine the implications for the future. Meanwhile, asked what this all means to a worker in Cleveland, Muro said, “I think it’s a wake-up call.”
Workers, employers, politicians and the government will need to consider how to adapt — and how to help the current workforce as well as displaced workers — as automation spreads, aided by advances in artificial intelligence. This has implications beyond the factory.
“The bottom line,” Muro said, “is that this is a reminder that workers are going to need new skills and a new mindset, because clocking in and doing a routine job is going to be done by robots.”