,A worker operates one of the metal cutting machines at Gent Machine Co.'s factory in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S., May 26, 2021. REUTERS/Timothy Aeppel
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CLEVELAND (Reuters) - When researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology visited Rich Gent's machine shop here to see how automation was spreading to America's small and medium-sized factories, they expected to find robots.
They did not.
"In big factories - when you're making the same thing over and over, day after day, robots make total sense," said Gent, who with his brother runs Gent Machine Co, a 55-employee company founded by his great-grandfather, "but not for us."
Even as some analysts warn that robots are about to displace millions of blue-collar jobs in the U.S. industrial heartland, the reality at smaller operations like Gent is far different.
Among the 34 companies with 500 employees or fewer in Ohio, Massachusetts and Arizona that the MIT researchers visited in their project, only one had bought robots in large numbers in the last five years - and that was an Ohio company that had been acquired by a Japanese multinational which pumped in money for the new automation.
In all the other Ohio plants they studied, they found only a single robot purchased in the last five years. In Massachusetts they found a company that had bought two, while in Arizona they found three companies that had added a handful.
Anna Waldman-Brown, a PhD student who worked on the report with MIT Professor Suzanne Berger, said she was "surprised" by the lack of the machines.
"We had a roboticist on our research team, because we expected to find robots," she said. Instead, at one company, she said managers showed them a computer they had recently installed in a corner of the factory - which allowed workers to note their daily production figures on a spreadsheet, rather than jot down that information in paper notebooks.
"The bulk of the machines we saw were from before the 1990s," she said, adding that many had installed new computer controllers to upgrade the older machines - a common practice in these tight-fisted operations. Most had also bought other types of advanced machinery - such as computer-guided cutting machines and inspection systems. But not robots.
Robots are just one type of factory automation, which encompasses a wide range of machines used to move and manufacture goods - including conveyor belts and labeling machines.
Nick Pinkston, CEO of Volition, a San Francisco company that makes software used by robotics engineers to automate factories, said smaller firms lack the cash to take risks on new robots. "They think of capital payback periods of as little as three months, or six - and it all depends on the contract" with the consumer who is ordering parts to be made by the machine.
This is bad news for the U.S. economy. Automation is a key to boosting productivity, which keeps U.S. operations competitive. Since 2005, U.S. labor productivity has grown at an average annual rate of only 1.3% - below the post-World War 2 trend of well over 2% - and the average has dipped even more since 2010.