Forget humans - not even American robots can find work in American factories


Second-hand robots in Shanghai.

Aly Song/Reuters

Workers fix second-hand robots in a factory in Shanghai.

Numerous critics have asserted that President Trump's promises to bring manufacturing jobs back to the US ignore the looming threat of robotic automation.


But the reality may be even further removed from Trump's vision than critics believe.

Across the US, companies of all sizes are turning to robots to mechanize tasks once done by humans. But not even those robots are American-made - the majority of them come from Japan and Europe, the Wall Street Journal recently reported.

Complimentary Tech Event
Transform talent with learning that works
Capability development is critical for businesses who want to push the envelope of innovation.Discover how business leaders are strategizing around building talent capabilities and empowering employee transformation.Know More

"If you want to build new production facilities in the US, a large part of the machinery and technology has to be imported because local alternatives are rarely available," Torsten Gede, a manager at the German investment group Deutsche Beteilgungs AG, told WSJ.

Most labor-economist predictions peg the 2030s as the decade that artificially-intelligent software and heavy-duty robotics will start to make up the majority of the US labor force. Beyond just factory work, which is already becoming rapidly automated, AI is expected to enter telemarketing, customer service, and food-service jobs.


A McKinsey report released in 2015 suggested robotics could replace 45% of jobs right now if companies had the desire.

Last year, the US exported $4.1 billion less in "flexible manufacturing" goods - basically, robots that can do more than one thing - than it imported from Japan, the European Union, and Switzerland.

Both small companies and large corporations have realized the supply of such goods is much greater in outside the US.

Tim Worstall, a senior fellow of the Adam Smith Institute, said recently in Forbes that the dearth of American-made robots isn't necessarily a bad thing. He believes it's irrelevant where the machinery comes from, so long as Americans are the ones benefitting from it.

He offers the thought experiment of needing to flatten a road. A bulldozer would do the job better than hordes of people with sledgehammers, he says, and few people would object if that bulldozer came from "three counties away, three states, or three nations" since the goal is just to get the job done.


The point, in other words, is that automation increases output - and it'd be counter-productive, literally, to favor American human labor over foreign machines for the sake of jobs.

"Who builds the robots is thus a problem of the utmost triviality," Worstall writes. "All we really care about is that we get to use them."

NOW WATCH: Here's how factories make soft pretzels