Robots Have Quietly Become Ohio’s Booming Workforce

Over the last decade or so, automated labor has grown as a robust presence throughout the state and its impact is starting to be more directly seen and felt, both commercially and politically

This week, the Brookings Institute released a new study looking at the regional locations of industrial robots. Or, in the institute’s phrasing, “'automatically controlled, reprogrammable machines’ capable of replacing labor in a range of tasks.”

Michigan, the traditional home of the automotive industry, is the top state with 12 percent of the nation’s working robots (28,000), while Ohio is in second place with 8.7 percent (20,400 robots). Our neighbors to the west, Indiana, are right behind in third place 8.3 percent (19,400).

A closer look at the Brookings’ study shows where, exactly, in Ohio these robots are most likely to be found. Both Toledo, with nine robots for every 1,000 people, and the Youngstown-Warren-Boardman metro area, with 4.5 robots per 1,000 people, rank in the top 10 of the 100 largest metro areas from the study.

Toledo is, of course, home to a KUKA Robotics facility and long-time automotive plant the Toledo Assembly Complex, which itself is home to the Toledo Jeep plant where the new Jeep Wrangler will soon be produced.

The Youngstown-Warren area is a bit more interesting, though. While that metro area has famously struggled with the shrinking steel manufacturing economy, it’s beginning to see success in more high-tech jobs, like the Youngstown Business Incubator which has a focus on “additive manufacturing” (aka 3D printing).

And it's that sort of development that could help serve a region that, as The Daily Beast notes, is already home to thousands of companies producing “metals, plastics, and polymers” as well as the region’s “biomedical, automotive, and defense industries.”

But this isn’t the only area of robotics that’s made a big impression in Ohio. Gov. Kasich made a big push to set aside a few stretches of highway throughout the state as “Smart Mobility Corridors,” including a stretch near Columbus.

There are also efforts to bring such tests to corridors throughout Northern Ohio, too.

The central Ohio hub, a 35-mile stretch of State Route 33 around Marysville, is being wired with fiber optic cables for data collection. Ohio State and Honda are both nearby, as are the Transportation Research Center and NHTSA Vehicle Research Test Center. And Wind River, a subsidiary of Intel, has already announced a program with OSU, the TRC, and the city of Dublin to test self-driving vehicles on this stretch of road.

As for the larger impact of robot labor, the Brookings study points toward, but stops short of, larger conclusions behind the placement of these industry robots, including economic anxiety around robots taking human jobs and the political impact.

And that political impact is certainly worth paying attention to. That Daily Beast story highlights the disconnect between the growing high-tech industry in Youngstown and the manufacturing plans that President Trump has touted for the area, promising that cracking down on the unbalanced steel trade of other nations will magically revive an industry that many consider long gone from the area.

To see the other side of the impact of robotics, though, look no further than the Carrier plant near Indianapolis. Despite President Trump’s boast of saving jobs at the factory last fall, it was later determined that many of those supposedly saved jobs will be lost to automation at the plant. More robots.

Brookings plans to release another study later this year that more closely examines the disruption to metro areas brought by the changing robotics world. We can only hope that Brookings doesn't hire robot researchers to taint the data.

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