MFG Advocate …

USA is doin' the robot

By  Penny Brown, MTAdvocacy Manager

It was big news when ABB Robotics opened their latest major facility in Auburn Hills, Mich., last month. The most headline-grabbing element is its standing as one of the first plants in the United States to manufacture large industrial robots. It joins ABB’s other manufacturing operations in Sweden and China, and the company (a member of AMT) says they plan to add 500 employees to the Auburn Hills facility over the next five years.

In an interview with The Detroit News, ABB CEO Ulrich Spiesshofer said, “The U.S. is still the largest economy in the world. It is prospering. It has a great phase ahead of it. The investment in robotics in the U.S. by ABB is a very conscious investment.”

This is one example of a major force in the U.S. economy: direct investment by foreign manufacturers. Much of it is driven by a desire to make products closer to the customer base, thereby mitigating supply chain risk. The United States also has the advantage of stable labor costs and low energy costs.  

Another part of the story is the industry’s growing acceptance of robots working alongside humans on the factory floor, particularly in the Detroit area. The claim that automation threatens jobs simply isn’t supported by facts. Research has shown that countries with the most robot density also have the lowest unemployment rate, something Spiesshofer also mentioned in his interview. “We don’t offer robots to take away jobs; we offer robots to enhance competitiveness.”

Automation of all types is a necessity as a means to increase productivity and compete in an ever-expanding global market. It also increases the pace of innovation as a driver behind many advanced processes within high-tech manufacturing.

For their opening ceremony on May 20, ABB hosted 1,600 guests. Company executives were joined by local and state government officials, as well as U.S. and Swiss ambassadors and U.S. Deputy Secretary of Commerce Bruce Andrews. 

In remarks from the ceremony posted online by the Commerce Department, Andrews said that there is no better time to invest in the United States. “Success in the U.S. market can help drive success globally; our nation is incredibly diverse ... we enjoy a thriving culture of innovation, a strong rule of law, extensive natural resources, and among the most productive workforces in the world.”

Weeks later, just before AMT’s Automation In Manufacturing conference in Detroit, I joined a group of AMT staffers headed out to ABB for a look. Company representatives gave us a presentation of ABB’s business overview, then a facility tour. It was impressive. Presently, the company is bringing over employees from its headquarters in Switzerland to train its new U.S.-based workforce and will be scaling up its operations in Auburn Hills over the next few years.

It’s a good sign indicating that the U.S. manufacturing industry is very much open for business. Congratulations to ABB on your expansion, and congratulations to U.S. manufacturing for gaining a valuable win.