Lynx robot with Amazon Alexa on display in Las Vegas
Lynx robot with Amazon Alexa on display in Las Vegas Rick Wilking/Reuters

The robotics industry is powered by high-tech centers as well as manufacturing hubs—with a distinct “Robot Belt” in the Midwest.

Robots, it seems, are everywhere these days. They clean our floors, mow our lawns, make many of our industrial products, and are even being trained to give hugs and serve as pets. As robots increasingly become a part of our daily lives, a growing chorus of commentators warns that they may take away our jobs and further damage the once great Rust Belt cities that once powered the American economy and served as the backbone of the middle class.

But which cities and regions will house the robot revolution? Will the rise of robotics correct or reinforce America’s growing spatial inequality?

A new paper published in the journal Regional Studies dives into the geography of the robotic revolution to identify America’s leading robot metros. The study, by Nancey Leigh and Benjamin Kraft, uses both Census data and data from industry sources such as the International Federation of Robotics and the Robotics Industry Association to identify and map America’s leading centers in the robotics industry.

Leading robotics regions

The table below lists the 30 leading robotics regions in the United States, ranked in order of the numbers of robotics industry firms or establishments they house.  

Establishment and employment counts for robotics regions (Leigh and Kraft / Taylor & Francis)

Detroit tops the list, a tribute to its long legacy as a world-leading automotive hub—robots have long been used in automotive production. Indeed, its 66 establishments make Detroit a substantially bigger hub then Chicago, which has 42 robotics establishments. Next in line is Boston, a center for robotics research and technology around MIT, followed by Los Angeles and New York.

All in all, half of the top 30 robotic regions are Rust Belt metros. In addition, the study points out that some additional smaller metros—such as Akron, Ohio; Iowa City, Iowa; and Fort Collins, Colorado—have high concentrations of robotics employment for their size, even though they do not rank among the top 30.   

Robotics clusters

The map below charts the America’s broad robot geography, mapping the location quotients (or LQs) for robotics industries for U.S. metros. An LQ is basically a simple ratio that compares a metro’s share of something—in this case, a metro’s share of robotics-related industries—to the national average. An LQ of 1 means that a metro’s share is the same as the national average; an LQ lower than 1 means that the concentration is less than the national average; and an LQ higher than 1 means that it is more than the national average.

Robotics-related LQs for core-based statistical areas (CBSAs) in the U.S. (Leigh and Kraft / Taylor & Francis)

By this measure, there is a distinct Robot Belt around the Great Lakes, running across the great mega-region that runs from Chicago through Detroit and Cleveland and over to Pittsburgh. This dense Midwest cluster of robotics reflects the fact that robotics-related industries tend to co-locate with manufacturing-based industries, such as auto manufacturing and machinery manufacturing, that use their products, according the study.

There are also robotics industry clusters across the New York-Boston-Washington Corridor on the East Coast; on the West Coast, in and around Seattle, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Los Angeles; and scattered throughout the Sunbelt.

The two types of clusters

America’s robot geography breaks down into two distinctive types of clusters, according to the study. One set of places specializes in the design and development of robots. These robotic supplier regions include established high-tech centers like Boston and San Jose; superstar cities like New York and Los Angeles; and specialized Rust Belt centers like Grand Rapids (with its large office furniture cluster), Pittsburgh, Columbus, and Birmingham.

Supplier-integrator ratios for CBSAs with at least 600 robotics-related employees (Leigh and Kraft / Taylor & Francis)

The other set of places are robotic system integrators, which focus on designing and implementing robotic systems. The leading metros for integrators include Kansas City, Iowa City, Milwaukee, Seattle, Cleveland, Houston, Detroit, and Chicago—many of them old Rust Belt manufacturing hubs.

Today’s robotics industry is dominated by integrators, which employ more people and sell more technology than suppliers by a margin of about two to one. But as new and even more automated and easy-to-use robotics technology is developed in leading tech hubs, there may be a real risk to integrator clusters and regions. If that happens, the current, more dispersed robot geography may evolve into the increasingly familiar winner-take-all pattern that increasingly defines America’s economic geography.

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