From Ferris wheels, video game consoles, and chocolate chip cookies to radiocarbon dating, GPS, and personal computers, the United States is the birthplace of a vast array of inventions. As part of its long legacy of innovation, it’s changed the way we work with the creation of the assembly line, the universal product code (UPC), and 3D printing.
But for American manufacturing to remain at the helm of innovation, it may need to accelerate its adoption of automation.
“There’s a lot of data to show that countries that adopt more automation actually end up having more jobs available for their people and higher paying jobs,” says Saman Farid, CEO of Formic Technologies, a company working to make robotic automation accessible to small and mid-sized U.S. businesses by deploying automation for a low hourly rate and zero capital investment.
“Humans are fantastic at problem-solving, at dexterity, at being creative, and at highly skilled tasks and decision making,” he says, explaining that giving factory robots the rote tasks that need to be done in a factory allows workers to upskill. “Whenever mechanization comes in, people take on more advanced and creative work.”
In the latest episode of the Thomas Industry Podcast, Farid speaks with Thomas and Xometry Vice President of Platform Growth and Engagement Cathy Ma about the compelling need to accelerate the rate of automation adoption, not just for competitiveness, but for American security.
How the U.S. Compares with Global Competitors
“Right now, there are countries in Europe and Asia that have adopted much more automation than the U.S. has. Last year, China installed something like 250,000 robots, and they now account for half of the world’s robots. The U.S. is a 6th of that, if not less,” says Farid.
He explains that a U.S. manufacturer is competing against a foreign manufacturer that now has more robotics and a significantly lower labor cost. If you want to produce in America, your main advantage is not having to pay international shipping costs.
“We think that we can match, if not exceed, the kind of productivity of a Chinese factory here in the U.S. through technological innovation,” says Farid, “and that innovation is in the form of drastically better automation, used at a much greater scale.”
After all, the first industrial robots were invented in the United States.
The Future Is Automated
Farid reveals an eye-opening statistic: “Most factories in America only operate between 2,000 to 3,000 hours per year, out of a possible 8,700 production hours. That means every machine in that factory, every air conditioner, every forklift, every CNC machine, every square foot of space sits idle 75% of the time.”
As a result, factories aren’t hitting their production targets, and are burdened by a lot of idle overhead.
“We see a future where American manufacturers are globally competitive, not just for the U.S. market, but for export as well,” says Farid. “There’s no reason why American manufacturing can’t produce really high-quality, low-cost products. We’re on the path to get there, but one of the big missing ingredients is robots.”
Of course, simply telling American manufacturers to implement automation is like telling someone struggling to pay bills to just get rich ー it’s not constructive if they don’t have the means. And that’s where Formic’s Pay-For-Productivity Robots-as-a-Service (RaaS) business model helps democratize automation, making it a realistic possibility for many businesses that otherwise would not know how to even begin their journey into automation.
With about 100 different certified integrator partners across the United States, Formic can solve a wide variety of automation issues. The company offers free consultations, where their experts go into factories and point out opportunities for optimizing through automation. If a client decides to move forward, there are no upfront costs and no need to learn how to oversee the robot. Rather, they can get their own customized robots for a low hourly rate, and Formic’s team will do the work of designing, setting up, monitoring, and maintaining the robots.
“When we come in and help them automate, they suddenly increase their output, increase their capacity, and their cost basis is generally the same,” says Farid.
Formic customers achieve an average 42% OpEx savings. They can use these cost- and time-savings to invest in prototyping more innovative products and services.
Automation Protects the American Supply Chain
One thing many people may not realize is that automation can help safeguard our supply chain, allowing for the continuation of American innovation. For example, some U.S. Defense contractors have hired Formic robots and produced parts critical to national defense and infrastructure security.
Farid explains why automation is critical to national security: “Every piece of equipment that goes either for civilian or defensive uses is made somewhere. You’d be surprised to find out, if you peel back enough layers of that onion, that a lot of that production is happening outside of the U.S.”
“Whether it’s for me to get toothpaste tomorrow morning, whether it’s for an automotive manufacturer to get parts for their engine, or whether it’s for an aerospace and defense manufacturer to get components for their aircraft, you need people at every stage of that supply chain to have security,” he continues. “That means every nut and bolt, every screw, and every little metal part or plastic part needs to get made in a place where the U.S. has control and certainty over it.”
He continues: “By bringing automation to the U.S. and increasing the amount of automation in American factories, we’re creating a much more defensible supply chain.”
Farid explains that he’s not just speaking of war but also of issues like global pandemics, which, as we saw with COVID-19, can drastically disrupt factories and shipping. As he notes, it created shortages in toilet paper, as well as semiconductors, which are integral to the military, healthcare, and communications.