For high-tech city, Austin ranks fairly low in use of industrial robots

The robots tend to dominate in auto assembly areas, a new study finds, while Central Texas companies use them more for electronics assembly and computer manufacturing. 

Posted August 27th, 2017

Earlier this month at Samsung’s semiconductor plant in North Austin, Vice President of Fab Engineering Michael Raiford was showing a group of state officials a large room where software chips are made when he referenced to the room’s past: The dozens of box-shaped robots gliding around on tracks near the ceiling that were assembling the chips, Raiford said, were doing jobs that in the past were handled by people. 

Industrial robot use has been growing for years throughout the United States.

What isn’t as talked about as much, though, is why certain regions use industrial robots -- and how various industries and regions tend to use them differently.

A report by the nonprofit public policy organization Brookings Institution helps answer those questions by examining the degree of industrial robot use in the U.S. and the trends that might be shaping that use. 

In the Brookings findings, Austin sticks out as an area where industrial robots are being used in an unusual way.

In Austin, the use of robots for industrial purposes grew by 19 percent between 2010 and 2015, according to the Brookings report, which used data from a recent study by economists Daron Acemoglu and Pascual Restrepo. 

Texas as a whole saw a similar growth rate, and both locally and statewide, there were about 1.3 robots being used per human worker. All of these figures put both Austin and Texas in about the middle of the pack in terms of industrial robot use.

The reason both Austin and Texas aren’t higher on the list is because of the ways industrial robots tend to be used here, said Mark Muro, the author of the Institution’s report. 

Throughout the U.S., industrial robots are mainly used in the auto industry to build cars and for other supply chain efforts. 

That  means states like Michigan, Ohio and Indiana -- where the auto industry and other manufacturing industries reign -- have the highest share of industrial robots use.

Among the 100 largest metro areas, Toledo, Ohio had the highest rate of usage. There are nine robots per human worker there, according to the report, and use of the machines grew by 28 percent from 2010 to 2015. 

But Austin and the rest of Texas are not areas where the auto industry dominates, Muro pointed out, and that’s why they are not higher on the list. 

“Texas and Austin are an interesting case because (they are) driven more by electronics assembly and computer manufacturing, as well as in Houston with chemicals and plastics," Muro said. "Each technology has its own geography."

Local high-tech companies like Samsung are the drivers of industrial robot use in the Austin area, Muro said, adding that use of industrial robots saw its sharpest growth after the financial crisis in 2009. 

For areas like the Midwest, where automation has helped replace humans in working-class positions at a fast pace, the effects have led to widespread worries from workers about job security in the nation’s manufacturing industry.

Some industry leaders and economic analysts say the concerns are overblown.

“It's very popular to say robots are going to take over the world, but that's the farthest thing from the truth,” said Austin Technology Council CEO Barbary Brunner. “If you look back, whenever an industry is in innovation, and certain jobs are simplified, that results in the creation of new types of jobs. It's not like robots are (being operated) by themselves. The robotic technology is simplifying the human ability to be precise and efficient.”

The attention from industry leaders, Brunner said, is now mainly geared toward ensuring that workers are being trained for high-level industrial jobs and not focusing on bringing back the low-level manufacturing jobs that have been lost. At Samsung’s Austin operations, for example, 500 workers have been hired at the plant since January, the company said. But their job descriptions vary greatly than ones that would have existed years ago.

"In no industry ever in any part of this country have we gone backwards in terms of our manufacturing capability or labor force," Brunner said. "It's an unproductive conversation."

As the use of artificial intelligence, virtual reality and augmented reality grows, Austin and the rest of Texas should use industrial robots at a pace that’s more even with other parts of the country, Muro predicts. That growth could bode well for Austin, which is already a habitat for semiconductor companies like Samsung and is seeing new AI opportunities come via resources like the new University of Texas Dell Medical School.

“With what we have going here locally,” Brunner said, “we could become a really interesting center of this innovation.”