New orders to North American-based robotic companies are up 20 percent from last year and there are currently more than 225,000 robots being used in the United States -- which puts it second only to Japan in robot use.
There seems little question the age of robotics is here and a change could quickly sweep over the $2 trillion U.S. manufacturing industry. More proof was given late this summer, when Boston start-up Rethink Robotics unveiled a humanoid robot named Baxter. The robot is part of a newer generation of smarter, more adaptive industrial robots and costs a mere $22,000 -- which could bring the dream of robot automated manufacturing to smaller businesses.
"Many observers believe that only about 10 percent of the US companies that could benefit from robots have installed any so far, and among those that have the most to gain from robots are small- and medium-sized companies," said Jeff Burnstein, president of the Robotic Industries Association (RIA).
However, some see those gains as losses to employment. In their book, Race Against the Machine, noted Massachusetts Institute of Technology's economists Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee say the rapid advancement in technology and robotics will lead to job loss on the scale of what happened to U.S. agriculture employment in the last century.
Others though believe robots will not replace workers, but rather make them more efficient. Boeing, for example, uses robot-like machines to rivet its wide-body commercial jets automatically -- but even with these machines, the company said it struggles to find enough workers to make its new 787 aircraft. Many experts say robotics technology will be needed to increase productivity and efficiency to keep the U.S. competitive internationally, but will not replace skilled workers.
They also point out that the industry creates jobs. The International Federation of Robotics last year found 150,000 people are employed by robotics manufacturers worldwide.
Also, while the price point on bots like Baxter may be lowering, much is still not readily accessible to most. Speaking last month at The Atlantic's Big Science Summit in San Jose, Calif., Russ Angold, co-founder and CTO of Berkeley, Calif.-based Ekso Bionics said the company's exoskeleton-like wearable robot currently runs about $140,000.
Nevertheless, it does seem like the robotics age has arrived -- and its effects on the economy will soon be felt.
"The strong growth in 2012 continues to reinforce the significant value that robots provide as a productivity tool for major US manufacturing companies ... interest across a wide range of both manufacturing and non-manufacturing companies continues to build and will provide the foundation for long-term industry growth," said John Dulchinos, president and CEO at Adept Technology and chair of RIA's board of directors.