Smart Manufacturing vs. Robots: Why America’s Manufacturers May Have a Bigger Image Problem than They Thought

When asked to describe the impact on the economy of modernizing factories with advanced technology and automation, nearly two-thirds of Americans told pollsters that it either made no difference or actually hurt the economy, according to a report by The Wall Street Journal Economics Bureau Chief, Timothy Aeppel. The percentage who thought it was bad—37 percent of the total—rose with lower household income and among those with lower education. But even among the well-educated and better-off, there was a surprising degree of rage against the machines. 31 percent of those with incomes over $100,000 said modernizing factories hurt the economy, while a quarter of college graduates felt that way.

The report was based on a survey initiated by Rockwell Automation, a Milwaukee-based maker of factory automation equipment, on behalf of an industry group called Smart Manufacturing Coalition, which was formed last fall to among other things encourage government support for the development of advanced factory technology. John Bernaden, a Rockwell spokesman and vice chairman of the coalition told the Journal that the results were shockingly bad. For example, one question showed that 14 percent of respondents thought modernized factories were actually bad for them as individual consumers, while 45 percent said it made no difference. The survey was conducted by Princeton, NJ-based ORC International, which surveyed 1,009 adults.

Rockwell conducted a series of six consumer focus groups across the U.S. which focused on whether knowing that products were made with advanced technology would influence buying behavior. In these sessions, participants were presented with various phrases such as : “Made Smart,” and were told that “smart” stood for “smart, machines, automation, robot, and technology.”

Bernaden recalls that “when we got to ‘robots’ it was like a lightening rod. People said, ‘I don’t want products made by robots, because that’s replacing blue-collar jobs.’” And yet people’s appetite for today’s automobiles, which depend a great deal on robotics, does not seem to suffer as a result. Indeed, most consumers are likely unaware of how deeply robotics and factory automation are involved in the everyday products they consume. Human hands don’t even touch a Hershey’s Kiss, or a can of Coca-Cola.

Bernaden told the Journal that the experience underscored the need for more public education about the benefits of automation. After all factories, even highly automated ones, don’t run themselves as they require large numbers of skilled workers to keep machines and equipment running smoothly, not to mention truck drivers hauling materials and finished goods.

Meet Keith Nosbusch, CEO Rockwell Automation

Meet Keith Nosbusch and other Smart Manufacturing leaders on May 21-22 by joining us at the Smart Manufacturing Summit, where mid-market manufacturing CEOs connect with top-performing peers and learn best practices. This extraordinary event brings together the thinkers and doers who are writing American manufacturing’s comeback story. Don’t miss this unique opportunity to bring fresh thinking to the opportunities and threats facing your business.

Our full lineup of speakers:
Alan Mulally, CEO, Ford Motor Company
Farooq Kathwari, President, Chairman, & CEO Ethan Allen Interiors
Dr. George Calvert, Chief Supply Chain and R&D Officer, Amway
Dave Bozeman, VP of Integrated Manufacturing Operations Division, Caterpillar
Keith Nosbusch, Chairman & CEO, Rockwell Automation
Stephanie Streeter, Director & CEO, Libbey
John Fleming, Global Head of Manufacturing at Ford
Jim Jarrell, President, Linamar
Jason Blessing, CEO, Plex Systems.
Cristian Pedersen, General Manager, Microsoft Dynamics
Doug Farren, Associate Director, National Center for the Middle Market

To find out more about how the Smart Manufacturing Summit can help you improve your business and expand your network, please visit Smart Manufacturing Summit.

Chief Executive: Chief Executive magazine (published since 1977) is the definitive source that CEOs turn to for insight and ideas that help increase their effectiveness and grow their business. Chief Executive Group also produces e-newsletters and online content at and manages Chief Executive Network and other executive peer groups, as well as conferences and roundtables that enable top corporate officers to discuss key subjects and share their experiences within a community of peers. Chief Executive facilitates the annual “CEO of the Year,” a prestigious honor bestowed upon an outstanding corporate leader, nominated and selected by a group of peers, and is known throughout the U.S. and elsewhere for its annual ranking of Best & Worst States for Business. Visit for more information.
Related Post