If the Robot Apocalypse Happens, Austin's Growing Robotics Industry May Be to Blame

Mar 13, 2017

If the robot takeover happens, Austin may face its share of the blame. At this year’s South by Southwest festival, there are more than 30 panel discussions about robotics, artificial intelligence and automation. That’s not even including vendors, the creative works by filmmakers, and bands and booths that explore the subject.

But beyond the festival, Austin is fostering a growing robotics community. Japanese and German robotics firms are putting down roots to take advantage of the highly trained workforce. They might also be ready to take advantage of a push by President Donald Trump to re-establish manufacturing prominence domestically.

Trump campaigned his way across the country promising jobs, with an emphasis on manufacturing.

At the White House last month, he decried the loss of manufacturing jobs in the U.S., citing a statistic that one-third of them have been lost since the signing of NAFTA.

It's true, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, that manufacturing jobs have been on a long decline – down nearly 40 percent since 1979, off a third since 1997.

SXSW goers gawk at robots, large and small, making their way through the Austin Convention Center.
Credit Jimmy Maas / KUT News

But in reality, things maybe aren’t as dire as you might think. According to the St. Louis Fed, real output of American manufacturers is up almost twice as much as it was 30 years ago.

Things are especially up in Texas.

“For the last seven months, we’ve been on an uptick. We’ve got great opportunities in just about every sector,” said Tony Bennett, president of the Texas Association of Manufacturers. “Texas is the number one exporting state in the United States for manufactured goods. Our state has got a lot going on in the manufacturing world. Nearly 900,000 Texans work in manufacturing, and the average wage is $79,000 a year, so it’s great jobs.”

Big employers like Samsung, Lockheed-Martin, Dow Chemical, Boeing and others provide a nucleus for hundreds of other small contractors to manufacture components needed at the larger plant.

In short, we are making stuff here, but perhaps a better question is what are we referring to?

Most manufacturing jobs in the United States have been lost to technology, not companies moving their plants elsewhere, according to a study from Ball State University.

Employees on an assembly line at the Toyota plant in San Antonio have to yield to machines – literally. Where pathways cross, workers stop as autonomous vehicles, and human-driven ones, deliver parts to the various parts of the line. At auto plants, moving vehicles have the right-of-way.

A worker uses a lift-assist device to install a dashboard at the Toyota Motor Manufacturing Texas plant in San Antonio.
Credit Jimmy Maas / KUT News

Two thousand new, showroom-ready trucks are made here everyday, five days a week and some Saturdays. Every Tundra the company makes and some of its Tacoma trucks come from this plant. None of them could be made without robots.

But it’s not completely automated. Mario Lozoya, director of government relations for Toyota Texas, says it needs people to work with robots.

“We do not want to replace humans with equipment going forward,” he said. “We want to include and empower the people in the communities to grow with us.”

The plant has grown, training much of its 3,200 employees from scratch, but there are still barriers between robots and humans on factory floors.

In Austin, there are a few companies working on ways to reduce those barriers. ARM Automation is sort of the grandfather of the local advanced manufacturing scene. One hundred-year-old Japanese robotics giant Yaskawa bought Agile Planet, the company Chetan Kapoor helped found after attending the University of Texas in 2013 to form Yaskawa Innovation. Kapoor sees a day when working with robots could be as common as a working on a computer.

“That to me is the democratization of robots, where you walk and see people doing work and in between them are it alongside as partner – versus segregated beasts on an assembly line, which is completely devoid of humans.” Kapoor said.

In order to do that, there are things robots will need to be taught, like how to become less rigid when they bump into something – most likely, a human partner. Much of the automation at an auto plant is sectioned off from workers for safety reasons. That’s fine for a two-story-tall robot lifting a truck, but we’re talking about smaller, human-scale robots. They’re easier to deploy on existing assembly lines to help in mundane tasks that often result in repetitive stress injuries for workers.

Two years ago, German robotics company Kuka, a company with roots in the 19th century, opened its innovation office nearby. Andy Chang, director of product marketing, says Austin was a draw given the educated workforce.  He says Kuka is working to bridge the learning gap between workers and robots.

“There are a lot of tasks that only humans can do. We could try to replicate it mechanically, electronically, the sensitivity, the accuracy and all that, but sometimes it requires a lot of sensors and it doesn’t make sense to package things up into a robot,” Chang said. “So, human-machine collaboration is going to be a key topic moving forward.” Chang said the company is also working on teaching robots to do multiple tasks, reconfiguring themselves as needed – much like a human would.

Andy Chang and Chetan Kapoor are both presenting at separate panels, along with dozens of others, this week at South by Southwest.