Strange bedfellows: Demand for robots could be boon for labor

As COVID-19 lingers, demand for autonomous mobile robots is increasing.
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

It seems counterintuitive, but robots may be a growing bright spot for American manufacturing. The latest example is an announcement by a leading autonomous delivery company that it will create two new facilities in southern Nevada as it moves to scale production of its latest autonomous delivery vehicle.

Overall, the market for autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) and autonomous ground vehicles (AGVs) is forecasted to generate over $10bn by 2023 according to Interact Analysis, and that prediction relies on data from before the COVID-19 pandemic. Delivery robots in particular are quickly coming of age as COVID-19 lingers and touchless fulfillment becomes the norm. Sidestepping municipal red tape, enterprising companies like Starship Technologies have launched pilot programs in controlled access spaces, such as college campuses.

Nuro, among the leading players in autonomous delivery vehicle development, has been focused on proofing its technology across the southwest and just announced a $40 million investment to develop its two newest facilities -- an end-of-line manufacturing facility and world-class closed-course test track. The company has already partnered with some of the country's biggest brands.

"This is a significant moment for Nuro. Building on our tremendous momentum -- including strategic partnerships with industry leaders such as Domino's, Kroger, and FedEx and operations in three states -- we are now able to invest in the infrastructure to build tens of thousands of robots," said Jiajun Zhu, Nuro co-founder and CEO. "We greatly appreciate the state's leadership in working with us to finalize this partnership. The decision to place these facilities in Southern Nevada was an easy one."

For generations, automation and labor interests have had a shaky relationship. It's an odd twist, then, that the American robotics sector may be giving rise to a new manufacturing opportunity, one that has every reason to stay onshore. Incentivized via its Made in China 2030 program, has seen tremendous growth in its robotics manufacturing sector, with a forecasted growth of over 26% CAGR in the next couple years. But as American robotics developers look to make a case to local governments to let robots loose on city streets, where they will end up right at customer's doorsteps, there's every incentive to keep the technology, from development to manufacturing, onshore. Lingering supply chain issues have only emphasized this point.

Nuro's new production facility -- the industry's first end-of-line manufacturing facility in America with the capacity to manufacture tens of thousands of delivery vehicles -- will enable the company to meet the demand for its third-generation autonomous vehicles with current and future partners. Totaling over 125 000 square feet of space and over 80 acres of property development, the new commercial facility will allow Nuro to quickly manufacture its electric delivery AVs in the coming years with help from BYD North America.

"It's one thing to introduce new jobs to the state -- and it's another thing to introduce high-quality careers to our community," said Governor Steve Sisolak. "We're pleased to welcome Nuro to Southern Nevada and are especially excited for the careers they'll be offering that will have long-term benefits for our community."

Nevada is a fitting home for the facility. The state enacted its first-in-the-nation autonomous vehicle legislation in 2011, becoming a leader in promoting the safe deployment of the technology.

"Investing in the technological advancement of autonomous vehicles will allow us to better address the pressing issue of safety on Nevada's roads," said Senator Jacky Rosen. "I remain enthusiastic about these efforts in Nevada, which will provide benefits to our communities."

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