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Industrial robots in the US are being deployed exactly where you’d expect

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They’re concentrated in the Midwest and upper South, and are mostly used in the auto industry

Nissan Reveals New North-American Bound Vehicles Photo by Junko Kimura/Getty Images

More than half of America’s industrial robot population is concentrated in just 10 states in the Midwest and South. This is according to a new report, published by the Brookings Institute, which maps the distribution of these machines in the US. The report defines industrial robots as “automatically controlled, reprogrammable machines,” and estimate that the US is home to 233,305 of them — engaged in tasks from welding cars to processing poultry.

The report uses data from a study published earlier this year by economists Daron Acemoglu and Pascual Restrepo. That study concluded that for every new robot added to the workforce, between 3 and 5.6 jobs are lost in the surrounding area. (The Brookings Institute disputes this analysis, and claims that these local losses don’t necessarily translate into national statistics.)

Industrial robots in the US are mainly used in the Midwest and upper South
Image: Brookings Institute

As part of the institute’s focus on the local impact of automation, this week’s report shows that the use of industrial robots is geographically concentrated. Michigan has the most (nearly 28,000; about 12 percent of the country’s total), followed by Ohio (20,400), and Indiana (19,400). Not surprisingly, auto manufacturing hub Detroit is the top robot user in terms of metropolitan areas, with more than 15,000 robots installed — more than three times any other metro areas. By comparison, the entire West of the country accounts for just 13 percent of the industrial robot population.

“For good and ill, then, this is where the industrial robots are and aren’t,” writes the Brookings Institute’s Mark Muro in a blog post. “Long to short, their incidence reflects the nature and geography of the nation’s highly automated advanced manufacturing sector.”

Muro notes that as the spread of industrial robots is geographically concentrated, so too is the fear of their impact. He points out that historically Republican states have more than double the number of robots per workers than Democrat states — 2.5 robots per 1,000 workers compared to 1.1 robot per 1,000 workers.

Comparison of robots per thousand workers in red states and blue states.
Image: Brookings

“This is not to say robots determined the outcome of the 2016 election,” writes Muro. “However, the red-state robot concentration does suggest that to the extent industrial automation brings difficult labor market transitions and anxiety, it will visit those difficulties most heavily on a particular swath of red-leaning America — specifically, the most robot-exposed locations in the industrial Midwest.”

President Trump campaigned heavily in red states, and repeatedly promised to bring back manufacturing jobs. Economists have pointed out that restoring the lost jobs in this industry would be a momentous task, as, thanks to increased productivity, creating even half of the 6.4 million manufacturing jobs lost since 1980 would mean increasing the manufacturing output of the US by 26 percent — equivalent to opening 100 of Tesla’s planned “gigafactories.”