The robot apocalypse is hard to find in America's small and mid-sized factories
Aug 02, 2021 1 min, 47 secs
A worker operates one of the metal cutting machines at Gent Machine Co.'s factory in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S., May 26, 2021.

"In big factories - when you're making the same thing over and over, day after day, robots make total sense," said Gent, who with his brother runs Gent Machine Co, a 55-employee company founded by his great-grandfather, "but not for us.".

Among the 34 companies with 500 employees or fewer in Ohio, Massachusetts and Arizona that the MIT researchers visited in their project, only one had bought robots in large numbers in the last five years - and that was an Ohio company that had been acquired by a Japanese multinational which pumped in money for the new automation.

Most had also bought other types of advanced machinery - such as computer-guided cutting machines and inspection systems.

Robots are just one type of factory automation, which encompasses a wide range of machines used to move and manufacture goods - including conveyor belts and labeling machines.

Nick Pinkston, CEO of Volition, a San Francisco company that makes software used by robotics engineers to automate factories, said smaller firms lack the cash to take risks on new robots.

One barrier for smaller companies is finding the skilled workers needed to run robots.

Those are the type of machines especially needed in smaller operations.

Michael Tamasi, owner of AccuRounds in Avon, Massachusetts, is a small manufacturer who recently bought a robot attached to a computer-controlled cutting machine.

"When you think of robots, you think better, faster, cheaper - but this was kind of the opposite." And he still needed a worker to load and unload the machine.

For a company like Cleveland's Gent, which makes parts for things like refrigerators, auto airbags and hydraulic pumps, the main barrier to getting robots is the cost and uncertainty over whether the investment will pay off, which in turn hinges on the plans and attitudes of customers.

But Gent never got assurances from Tesla that the business would continue for long enough to justify buying the robots it could have used to make the fasteners.

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