Could robots be a job creator, instead of job taker, in Southeast Michigan?

When asked about the future of robotics in Southeast Michigan, Dr. Chan-Jin Chung, professor of math and computer science at Lawrence Technological University, first begins with a brief history lesson. 

The first industrial revolution, he says, entailed the mechanization of various processes and a large-scale shift of labor into industry. The second revolution involved advances in technology and mass production. "Detroit led the second industrial revolution," Chung says. "Mass production started in Detroit." 

The third industrial revolution saw the focus of activity move to Silicon Valley and centered around the production of digital technologies like software, computers, and cellphones.

Now, Chung says, we are on the cusp of a fourth revolution. And Detroit may once again have a chance to again take the lead. 

The newest developments in industry involve cyber-physical-systems (CPS), technologies that combine computing power with physical equipment and encompass everything from internet connected refrigerators to autonomous vehicles to industrial robots. Metro Detroit's background in manufacturing and early adoption of robotics, along with various educational initiatives taking place from elementary schools to university graduate programs, could position the region to do well in a world where robotics and related technologies ripple out from the auto industry into an ever-expanding number of uses.

Chung acknowledges that locally, relationships between humans and robots could be better. "I've found that the word robotics has some negative meaning for people in Detroit," he says. "Factory robot arms took their jobs. However, now we are approaching a new era." 

It's understandable why those in labor might be skeptical of robots. A recent report by the Brookings Institution shows that they've had an outsize impact in rust-belts states, especially Michigan, which has coincided with a decline in manufacturing jobs. Toledo, Detroit, and Grand Rapids specifically have the highest number of robots per-thousand workers, largely related to their use in automobile manufacturing where they have been relatively easy to incorporate into mass production doing things like painting, welding, and lifting heavy materials.

For many, even in labor circles, the use of robots in the vehicle sector is being treated as something of a fait accompli. In a recent editorial in The Detroit News, United Auto Workers president Gary Jones says he is far more concerned about creating jobs in the production of electric vehicles and keeping them in the country than with arguing what has already happened in auto production. "We believe the US must be a producer and exporter of advanced vehicles," Jones writes, "not jobs."

Robot prototype on display at a recent U-M robotics event
So, what will it take to create a corridor for robotics or cyber-physical-systems in Southeast Michigan, similar to what's in Silicon Valley? According to Jessy Grizzle, robotics expert and professor of engineering at the University of Michigan, it requires a combination of education, industry, and local talent. 

"Look at what happened in Silicon Valley. Why did they settle there?" Grizzle says. "It's because they had fantastic universities around them on which to draw talent. And then once they had a density of these companies, it made it very easy to attract new employees because if it didn't work out at one company there's another job available."

Grizzle points out the number of universities in the region with engineering and computer science programs including Michigan State, Wayne State, Lawrence Tech, and University of Michigan-Dearborn, as well as the number of companies working with these technologies.

The new Ford Motor Company Robotics Building at the University of Michigan is one example of the kind of investment advocates are looking for. Estimated to cost $75 million dollars, it's funded in part by the Ford Motor Company who will have a hundred engineers working in the building, and bring together people working in the field of robotics from a number of disparate departments and industries.

Jessy Grizzle
These investments are augmented by a regional talent base that predates the robot era. "There's just something about the DNA here in Michigan that is attractive to roboticists," says Damen Provost, managing director of the Robotics Institute at the University of Michigan.

Provost and others also point to the talent pipeline that now begins in grade school with students competing in robotics competitions. "The state of Michigan has more of these teams than any other state in the country," Provost says. 

In 1999, Chung started his own competition, called Robofest, which involves teams from all over the world competing with fully autonomous (i.e. not remote-controlled) robots. 

According to Chung, these competitions help students develop a number of skills in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) fields including physics, programming, and others. He also points out the way competitions encourage the development of "soft skills" like teamwork, writing, and giving presentations.

Robofest in progress - courtesy Dr. Chan-Jin Chung
But he believes Michigan can do much more, citing countries like Iceland and the United Kingdom where children are taught to code starting in kindergarten. "Computer science is like a language," Chung says. "If you learn it later, it's harder."

There is also a need for education at the technical level, whether this takes place in a high-school, community college, university or with an employer. Jeannine Kunz works with the SME (Society of Manufacturing Engineers) running their Tooling U-SME program, which teams up with manufacturers and educational institutions to provide roughly 45,000 workers with robotics training. 

According to Kunz, 10 years ago the average maintenance technician needed to know about 500 pages worth of material written at the eighth-grade level. Today, that person would need to know 5,000 pages written at an undergraduate or higher level. To prepare these types of workers, serious investments will be needed.

Kunz also mentions that many companies have begun pre-screening for soft skills in the last few years, suggesting that even in technological jobs, the ability to communicate and work with teams of people is being prioritized. Indeed, since robotics is a cross-disciplinary endeavor bringing together engineers, computer scientists, and mathematicians, teamwork can be exceedingly important. In this future, intangible skills like problem solving and creativity could become even more useful. 

"As the complexity goes up, it's going to be really hard to get the machines that 'smart,'" Grizzle says. "We'll still use the native intelligence of us organic beings." 

Furthermore, engineers and programmers often end up going into jobs in management and sales later in their careers to pursue higher wages — jobs that are perhaps informed by their earlier work, but emphasize those soft skills like communications, decision making, and managing teams. 

There are many open questions about what robotics and other emergent technologies will mean for the future of work. Regardless of how this plays out in the national and global job market, Southeast Michigan seems well positioned to take advantage of new developments as technologies from things like autonomous vehicles are adapted for use in smaller and more versatile robots that could be used in a number of different industries. 

"We're seeing a sea change in the capability of the machines," Grizzle says. "All the new trends in robotics are for mobile robots and they have to be safe enough to operate around people and amongst other robots."

If we take the continued development of these technologies as a given, then the future of the region could depend not just on how well robots collaborate with us, but on how well we collaborate with them.

The article is part of a series, supported by the Michigan Science Center, exploring key regional issues in science over the next five years. Read more articles from this series and others from our collaboration with the Michigan Science Center here

Photos, except where mentioned, by Doug Coombe
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Read more articles by Brian Allnutt.

Brian Allnutt is a Detroit-based writer and a co-owner of Detroit Farm and Garden.