Manufacturing Fuels Growth of Robotics in Central Pennsylvania

Testing Robot at Pennsylvania Precision Cast Parts

By Kim Hart
Axios

Oct 11, 2017, YORK, Pa. — For decades, Rust Belt cities have been seen as decaying manufacturing centers struggling to reinvent themselves. Now, central Pennsylvania — comprised of the smaller cities of York, Lancaster and Harrisburg — is trying to leverage its long history of manufacturing as the foundation for a vibrant robotics hub.

Why it matters: President Trump made dwindling manufacturing jobs a big theme of the presidential election, blaming globalization for the losses. Now many fear that artificial intelligence-infused technologies and robots will kill even more legacy jobs. Some small and mid-sized cities are looking to use their mechanical backgrounds to their advantage.

Why we care: I visited these three cities as part of the “Rise of the Rest” tour led by Steve Case’s firm Revolution, which aims to draw attention to the cities between the coasts that don’t have the same access to capital and reputation for innovation as Silicon Valley, New York or Boston. Pennsylvania got about 1% of the nation’s venture capital last year, a number Case would like to see increase.

By the numbers: Today there are around 12 million manufacturing jobs nationwide, compared to 17 million manufacturing jobs in 2000, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. In the York area, 20% of the labor force works in manufacturing — twice the Pennsylvania and national average.

Factory history: The area has a long heritage of factories that crank out both sweets and pretzels. It’s known as the “Snack Capital” — it’s home to Hershey, Utz, York Peppermint Patties and Snyder’s of Hanover. And it’s a big producer of machinery, with Harley Davidson, BAE (which makes tanks) and Voith (which makes hydro turbines) all located here.

Pivot to robotics: A skilled workforce that knows how to work with their hands and tinker with machines is a great fit for building robots, says John McElligott, CEO of York Exponential, which is working on deploying “collaborative robots” (or “cobots”). He believes robots will work alongside humans rather than displace them completely.

The problem: Not enough workers — because people just aren’t enthusiastic about going into manufacturing. “There’s not a skills gap in manufacturing, there’s an interest gap,” McElligott said.

So he set out to nudge the next generation of workers in that direction by opening The Fortress, a robotics and artificial intelligence center in York that also houses a coding and robotics bootcamp.
He expects a “silver wave” of retiring baby boomer manufacturing workers — and their machinery expertise will be needed to train the next generation of robot-builders. Continue reading Manufacturing Fuels Growth of Robotics in Central Pennsylvania