How robots could make US manufacturing competitive again

“Innovation in manufacturing can speed up creation of new products.Furthermore, cost effective manufacturing can enable making products locally closer to the customers and create new jobs,” says the center's director, SK Gupta.
“Innovation in manufacturing can speed up creation of new products.Furthermore, cost effective manufacturing can enable making products locally closer to the customers and create new jobs,” says the center's director, SK Gupta. Ben Bergman/KPCC

Amid a national debate about the future of manufacturing in the United States, USC opened its new Center for Advanced Manufacturing Friday at the Viterbi School of Engineering.

The 6,000 square foot facility will bring together experts in machine learning, augmented and virtual reality, robots, and 3-D and 4-D printing. It will also serve as a local hub for the Defense Department's new institute for robotic manufacturing.

The goal is to develop best practices for advanced manufacturing and to serve as a resource for local companies – especially biomedical and aerospace ones – interested in manufacturing innovation. One priority now is making it easier and quicker to program robots to perform tasks in factories.

When KPCC visited recently, we saw a 3-D printer etching out tiny parts for airplanes, and a robot sorting through biomedical parts. As is typical in modern factories, there were more robots than people working in the center. However, the center's director, SK Gupta, says robotic technology will be key to helping fulfill President Donald Trump's promise to resuscitate American manufacturing.

“Advanced manufacturing certainly will bring jobs back to the U.S.," he said.

Gupta believes automation will make American manufacturers competitive again, since much of the manual labor will be free – performed by robots, working round the clock. 

Workers employed in the factories of the future will have high tech skills and will manage the robotic "workers." Those jobs will also fetch high wages.

Gupta expects these more modern, automated American factories to manufacture more sophisticated, high-tech products, which will in turn bring in higher profits.

“As you create sophisticated products, which are not relying on cheap human labor, that enables manufacturing to take place in countries that don’t compete on their low-human wage," said Gupta.

Still, the robots at USC's center aren’t cheap. They range from $30,000 to $140,000 per model for the most advanced models. That is why this sort of manufacturing only makes economic sense for companies that make very specialized products, such as aerospace parts and biomedical equipment, rather than televisions or t-shirts.

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