The robot apocalypse is hard to find in America’s small and mid-sized factories

The robot apocalypse is hard to find in America’s small and mid-sized factories
A worker operates one of the metal cutting machines at Gent Machine Co.’s factory in Cleveland. (Reuters)
Short Url
Updated 02 August 2021

The robot apocalypse is hard to find in America’s small and mid-sized factories

The robot apocalypse is hard to find in America’s small and mid-sized factories
  • Only one of 34 companies visited by MIT researchers had spent heavily on robotics
  • Bulk of machines were from before the 1990s

CLEVELAND: 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 US 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 US economy. Automation is a key to boosting productivity, which keeps US operations competitive. Since 2005, US labor productivity has grown at an average annual rate of only 1.3 percent — below the post-World War 2 trend of well over 2 percent — and the average has dipped even more since 2010.
Researchers have found that larger firms are more productive on average and pay higher wages than their smaller counterparts, a divergence attributed at least in part to the ability of industry giants to invest heavily in cutting-edge technologies.
Yet small and medium-sized manufacturers remain a backbone of US industry, often churning out parts needed to keep assembly lines rolling at big manufacturers. If they fall behind on technology, it could weigh on the entire sector. These small and medium-sized manufacturers are also a key source of relatively good jobs — accounting for 43 percent of all manufacturing workers.

LIMITATIONS OF ROBOTS
One barrier for smaller companies is finding the skilled workers needed to run robots. “There’s a lot of amazing software that’s making robots easier to program and repurpose — but not nearly enough people to do that work,” said Ryan Kelly, who heads a group that promotes new technology to manufacturers inside the Association for Manufacturing Technology.
To be sure, robots are spreading to more corners of the industrial economy, just not as quickly as the MIT researchers and many others expected. Last year, for the first time, most of the robots ordered by companies in North America were not destined for automotive factories — a shift partly attributed to the development of cheaper and more flexible machines. Those are the type of machines especially needed in smaller operations.
And it seems certain robots will take over more jobs as they become more capable and affordable. One example: their rapid spread in e-commerce warehouses in recent years.
Carmakers and other big companies still buy most robots, said Jeff Burnstein, president of the Association for Advancing Automation, a trade group in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “But there’s a lot more in small and medium-size companies than ever before.”
Michael Tamasi, owner of AccuRounds in Avon, Massachusetts, is a small manufacturer who recently bought a robot attached to a computer-controlled cutting machine.
“We’re getting another machine delivered in September — and hope to attach a robot arm to that one to load and unload it,” he said. But there are some tasks where the technology remains too rigid or simply not capable of getting the job done.
For instance, Tamasi recently looked at buying a robot to polish metal parts. But the complexity of the shape made it impossible. “And it was kind of slow,” he said. “When you think of robots, you think better, faster, cheaper — but this was kind of the opposite.” And he still needed a worker to load and unload the machine.
For a company like Cleveland’s Gent, which makes parts for things like refrigerators, auto airbags and hydraulic pumps, the main barrier to getting robots is the cost and uncertainty over whether the investment will pay off, which in turn hinges on the plans and attitudes of customers.
And big customers can be fickle. Eight years ago, Gent landed a contract to supply fasteners used to put together battery packs for Tesla Inc. — and the electric-car maker soon became its largest customer. But Gent never got assurances from Tesla that the business would continue for long enough to justify buying the robots it could have used to make the fasteners.
“If we’d known Tesla would go on that long, we definitely would have automated our assembly process,” said Gent, who said they looked at automating the line twice over the years.
But he does not regret his caution. Earlier this year, Tesla notified Gent that it was pulling the business. “We’re not bitter,” said Gent. “It’s just how it works.”
Gent does spend heavily on new equipment, relative to its small size — about $500,000 a year from 2011 to 2019. One purchase was a $1.6 million computer-controlled cutting machine that cut the cycle time to make the Tesla parts down from 38 seconds to 7 seconds — a major gain in productivity that flowed straight to Gent’s bottom line.
“We found another part to make on the machine,” said Gent.


Good COVID care added to KSA’s investment attraction, says Sedco chief

Good COVID care added to KSA’s investment attraction, says Sedco chief
Updated 20 September 2021

Good COVID care added to KSA’s investment attraction, says Sedco chief

Good COVID care added to KSA’s investment attraction, says Sedco chief
  • Saudi Arabia is shifting toward cleaner energy, even though oil will continue to be an important component of our economy, says Abu Aker

DUBAI: Sedco Capital, one of Saudi Arabia’s leading investment groups, takes a global stance as it expands outside its Jeddah base.

Samer Abu Aker, Sedco chief executive officer, told Arab News: “In terms of regional exposure, we are actually global in the sense that we invest in Asia, in Europe, in the Middle East and America.”

“Our strategy is split between developed markets, emerging markets, passive strategies, active strategies in different asset classes — listed equities, private markets, direct investment into companies and in real estate as well,” he added.

Sedco, founded in 1976, has offices across the world, in Dubai, London and Luxembourg, giving it a view across global publicly listed and private asset sectors.

After two decades in financial services, Abu Aker joined the company in 2011 after Sedco was relaunched as a standalone asset management group.

The current Sedco focus is more on developed markets, with the US a favorite as American asset classes have responded well to pandemic stimulus packages that curtailed its recession.

The US government provided almost $6 trillion in coronavirus relief, while the Federal Reserve slashed its overnight benchmark overnight interest rate to near zero and is pump money into the economy through monthly bond purchases.

Last year, Sedco invested in what Abu Aker calls “jewel” real estate assets in Pennsylvania Avenue, home to the White House, in the heart of Washington DC.

The (coronavirus disease) pandemic presented opportunities, he said.

The money manager said: “Definitely it has shifted the position of our portfolios over the course of the last 18 months.

“For example, while we have maintained a strategic asset allocation based on our views on different economies and the different markets, with the pandemic coming into play we have seen the more active role of the US government both on the monetary side but also the robust fiscal spending that they have that they have put in place.”

Sedco is also actively involved in other big markets, in China and in Europe, for example, to take advantage of economic recovery as vaccines are rolled out round the world.

“As the global cycle marches on through the latter part of the year, led by developed countries, chances are that investors’ preferences might change as the worst news is priced in and valuations become more appealing,” he said.

The firm said in its August monthly bulletin that pressure on the supply of goods caused by pandemic bottlenecks “should eventually subside in the second half of 2022 as economic mobility in the US and Europe eventually decouples from the spread of the delta variant.”

But the firm adds that it does not expect core prices in these markets to quickly return to “pre-pandemic levels as a result of more fundamental forces at play,” such as wage growth.

Investors have cast a close eye on China’s crackdown on the tech sector and other industries this year, which has seen billions in fines handed out after antimonopoly investigations.

This regulatory campaign from Beijing has wiped as much as $1.5 trillion from Chinese stocks.

But Abu Aker said: “While we still retain a cautious exposure on emerging markets as a whole, we are closely watching China as it is our belief that the authorities don’t mean to cross the line of losing foreign investors’ trust. Overall, we see positive prospects in Asia.”

But Sedco remains a Saudi Arabia-based firm, and investment in the Kingdom will always be a big focus. He thinks the government measures taken during the pandemic have made it a more attractive place to invest.

The Kingdom’s second-quarter economic data showed growth of 1.1 percent quarter-on-quarter. The oil sector grew by 2.5 percent quarter-on-quarter on the back of the unwinding of the 1 million billion barrels per day voluntary output cut that lasted from February to April.

Abu Aker said: “If you would speak to any of the managers and investment companies in Saudi Arabia you will hear nothing but positive surprises from the actions and the role that the government has played.”

“We’ve never felt that there’s any lack of liquidity within the banks. They are still rich in cash, and the central bank has supported them with all the liquidity they need to support the economy, both on the government side and in the private sector.”

He added: “We have seen a good rebound as well on the residential real estate side, and this is mainly driven by structural reforms where the government has been promoting Saudi home ownership and of course mortgages.”

Other government policies will also affect investment sentiment in coming years. The move to encourage multinational companies to have their regional headquarters in Riyadh is a positive one, Abu Aker said.

“I don’t think those multinational companies should have waited for such an announcement to come out from the Saudi government for them to actually make the move. I think today if we look at the Saudi market, it is the largest market not only in the GCC but it is also one of the largest markets in the Middle East,” he said.

Sedco also believes that the $3.2 billion Shareek initiative, launched in March, to stimulate greater private sector investment in Vision 2030 projects will pay dividends.

The chief executive said: “I think it’s one more step toward engaging the government more with the private sector and increasing the ties between the government and the private sector.”

“It’s going to avail more financing, more grants to corporates and to the private sector to allow them to capture some of the opportunities they could not get funding for through the normal channels.”

The core of Sedco’s investment philosophy lies in the complementarity between Shariah principles and the current enthusiasm for ESG — ethical, social and governance — investment practice.

“We have run our own internal analysis and research, and the interesting finding that we came up with is that there’s a lot of commonalities between the Shariah guidelines and ESG — environmental, social and governance — or ethical investing.”

Shariah and ethical guidelines overlapped 90 percent of the time, he said, making “one unified investment philosophy” that helps set Sedco’s investment strategy.

“We don’t just talk the talk, we also walk the walk,” Abu Aker said.

The Sedco investment philosophy is not just governed by Shariah’s conventional stance of refusing to invest in sectors, such as tobacco, alcohol or gambling, that are frowned upon under Islam, but also by a wider commitment to prudent, ethical financial principles.

The firm signed up to the UN Principles for Responsible Investment charter six years ago, the first Saudi firm to do so.

Abu Aker sees no conflict in being a Saudi institution, based in an economy that is still mainly driven by oil revenues, and espousing ESG standards when some in the global financial industry are steering away from hydrocarbon assets on ethical grounds.

He said: “Saudi Arabia is shifting toward cleaner energy, even though oil will continue to be an important component of our economy.”

“But we understand that the future is more toward alternative and cleaner energy. Right now, it’s a transitional period, and it will take some time, but it’s heading in the right direction.”


Cryptocurrencies slide as market selloff deepens

Cryptocurrencies slide as market selloff deepens
Updated 20 September 2021

Cryptocurrencies slide as market selloff deepens

Cryptocurrencies slide as market selloff deepens
  • Digital currencies gaining popularity among Indians in smaller cities

RIYADH: Prices of cryptocurrencies plunged on Monday as concerns over the spillover risk to the global economy from Chinese property group Evergrande’s troubles rippled over to wider markets.

Bitcoin tumbled 7.33 percent to $43,804 at 4:29 p.m. Riyadh time. Its rival Ether, the coin linked to the Ethereum blockchain network, fell 8.74 percent to $3,050.45, according to data from CoinDesk.

The loss in the value of cryptocurrencies comes at a time when institutional interest in the space has surged and some investment banks have ramped up their forecasts for cryptocurrencies in the coming months.

“Their fate seems a little tied to equities at the moment, and the price action is incredibly similar too,” said John Marley, CEO of forexxtra, a London-based FX consultancy. 

Ether price

Nikolaos Panigirtzoglou, managing director of JPMorgan said that the fair value of Ether is much lower than its current price.

According to a set of measurements based on the network’s activity, it calculated the value of the digital coin at $1,500, 55 percent below its market price.

One of the reasons cited was that Ethereum was not unique anymore, and it faced stiff competition from other chains such as Solana and Avalanche.

“We look at the hash rate and the number of unique addresses to try to understand the value for Ethereum. We’re struggling to go above $1,500. There is a question mark here. The current price is expressing an exponential increase in usage and traffic that might not materialize,” he stated.

 

Lawsuit

In the midst of an ongoing lawsuit with the US Securities and Exchange Commission, Ripple's legal team said they have no plans to settle with the SEC.

They are confident that SEC President Gary Gensler will be convinced that pursuing the case is to pick winners and losers in the crypto space based on innovation.

"Ripple’s legal team told Fox Business they have no plans to settle with SEC over lawsuit on XRP, confident they can show Gary Gensler in pursuing the case is picking winners and losers in the crypto business to the detriment of innovation,” Charles Gasparino tweeted.

 

Indians embrace crypto

Indian citizens are embracing cryptocurrencies to invest and earn extra money after the pandemic, according to reports from the regional media.

But what is even more interesting is that this growth has been greater in smaller cities, where interest in cryptocurrency is at its peak.

The profile of these participants was also interesting, as they are highly educated and open to diversifying their investment portfolios and not only focus on Bitcoin.

 A local exchange, Wazirx, has reported astonishing levels of new customers coming from these small towns, classified as Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities.

“Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities have driven almost 55 percent of the total user signups on Wazirx in 2021, thereby overtaking Tier 1 cities, which demonstrated a signup growth of 2,375 percent,” Wazirx CEO Nischal Shetty was quoted as saying in local media reports.


Saudi top 10 banks see robust growth in financing and deposits

Saudi top 10 banks see robust growth in financing and deposits
Updated 20 September 2021

Saudi top 10 banks see robust growth in financing and deposits

Saudi top 10 banks see robust growth in financing and deposits

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia's top 10 banks saw robust quarter-on-quarter growth in financing and deposits in the second quarter of 2021, Zawya reported, citing management consulting firm Alvarez & Marsal (A&M)'s KSA Banking Pulse.

Core operating income increased by 8.4 percent, compared to 1.2 percent in the first quarter of the year, in what is considered the fourth increase in a row, while loans and advances (L&A) increased by 13.1 percent and deposits by 12.6 percent.

L&A and deposit growth were primarily supported by the merger of National Commercial Bank and SAMBA to form Saudi National Bank (SNB), according to the report.

Operating expenses rose by 13.7 percent quarter-on-quarter and impairments jumped by 81.6 percent, affecting the second quarter's overall operating efficiency for the banking sector. This affected net profit for the top ten banks in the Kingdom.

Aggregate net income decreased over the same period by 8.1 percent to SR11 billion ($2.93 billion), while the fall in net profit was partially offset by a 11.1 percent increase in net interest income.

The top 10 banks in the report are SNB, Al Rajhi Bank, Riyad Bank , Saudi British Bank, Banque Saudi Fransi, Arab National Bank, Alinma Bank, Bank Albilad, Saudi Investment Bank and Bank Aljazira.


Blossoming Saudi fragrance market to hit over $3.8bn by 2030

Blossoming Saudi fragrance market to hit over $3.8bn by 2030
Updated 20 September 2021

Blossoming Saudi fragrance market to hit over $3.8bn by 2030

Blossoming Saudi fragrance market to hit over $3.8bn by 2030

DUBAI: The Saudi fragrance market is poised to reach $3.8 billion by 2030, according to a market report, with an annual growth rate of 8.2 percent from last year.

India-based P&S Intelligence said a growing trend in grooming and personal care will drive this performance of the Kingdom’s perfume sector, which in 2020 was valued at $1.74 billion.

The predicted growth follows a challenging year for industry, as manufacturing plants were shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The report said luxury product bifurcation will witness the fastest growth in the sector, as more consumers opt for high-end brands.

The parfum category, which uses the highest concentration of essential oils, took most of the market share in the past.

Demand for natural and organic perfumes will also increase, the report said, amid increasing brand consciousness among consumers.


Innovation zone aims to transform Cairo’s Bab al-Azab 

Innovation zone aims to transform Cairo’s Bab al-Azab 
Updated 20 September 2021

Innovation zone aims to transform Cairo’s Bab al-Azab 

Innovation zone aims to transform Cairo’s Bab al-Azab 

RIYADH: Egypt's Sovereign Fund plans to transform the historic Bab al-Azab area in Cairo’s Salah Al-Din Al-Ayoubi Citadel into the first integrated innovation zone in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

The fund signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Bidayat Investment company, under which the company will explore opportunities for cooperation in developing Bab Al-Azab and turning it into an innovation center to embrace Egyptian youth creators, founding partner Rachid Mohamed Rachid told Asharq Business.

The center also aims at embracing startup owners in fields such as engineering design, furniture manufacturing, jewelery, fashion, as well as films, he said.

Bidayat Investment Group has already established innovation centers in several international markets, such as Italy, France and Turkey.