Factories play a central role in President Trump’s parade of American horrors. In his telling, globalization has left our factories “shuttered,” “rusted-out” and “scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation.”
Here’s what you might call an alternative fact: American factories still make a lot of stuff. In 2016, the United States hit a manufacturing record, producing more goods than ever. But you don’t hear much gloating about this because manufacturers made all this stuff without a lot of people. Thanks to automation, we now make 85 percent more goods than we did in 1987, but with only two-thirds the number of workers.
This suggests that while Mr. Trump can browbeat manufacturers into staying in America, he can’t force them to hire many people. Instead, companies will most likely invest in lots and lots of robots.
Industrial robots — which come in many shapes and perform a range of factory jobs, from huge, precisely controlled arms used to build cars to graceful machines that package delicate pastries — were invented in the United States. But in the last few years the Chinese government has spent billions to turn China into the world’s robotic wonderland.
In 2013, China became the world’s largest market for industrial robots, according to the International Federation of Robotics, an industry trade group. Now China is working on another big goal: to become the largest producer of robots used for factories, agriculture and a range of other applications.
Robotics industry experts said that goal could be a decade away, but they see few impediments to China’s eventual dominance.
“If you look at the comparisons in investment between China and the U.S., we’re going to lose,” said Henrik Christensen, director of the Contextual Robotics Institute at the University of California, San Diego. “The investments in China are billions and billions. I’m not seeing that investment in the U.S. And without that investment, we are going to lose. No doubt.”
There’s a way to address this problem, but it’s politically perilous: The United States should invest in robots. Mark Cuban, the internet and sports entrepreneur (and Trump nemesis), recently called on the president to offer $100 billion in funding for robotics. Frank Tobe, the publisher and editor of a trade magazine called The Robot Report, said government investment was imperative.
“We better do something, or we’re going to be behind the gun,” he said. “We should be in the robot business, not just users of foreign robots.”
If we don’t, robot scholars said the president’s plans for a resurgence in manufacturing could backfire. Today, we buy a lot of stuff made in China by Chinese people. Tomorrow, we’ll buy stuff made in America — by Chinese robots.
How China learned to love robots is instructive. For years, China’s chief selling point was cheap labor. But over the last couple of decades, its population has gotten older and richer, and its workers’ wages rose faster than the rate of economic growth. Chinese leaders worried that manufacturers would get priced out. In the same way that America lost manufacturing to China, Chinese manufacturers would lose work to India, Vietnam and other developing Asian economies.
So the Chinese did what the Chinese do: They centrally planned a revival. Over a succession of five-year economic plans, the government pushed a series of manufacturing reforms. One of its central ideas is automation. Local governments have offered billions in subsidies for companies to buy and manufacture robots. The government has been especially interested in building robots that can be installed in China’s car factories, which have been criticized for poor workmanship. Cars built by robots would not just save labor costs; the government also believes they can build better cars. In 2014, Xi Jinping, China’s president, called for a “robot revolution.”