Her interest in robotics started with the comics. “I read a lot of Batman and Iron Man as a kid” in Egypt, said Nour Hussein. “Seeing the high-tech stuff being used by superheroes was fantastic for teenaged me, and I wanted to create technology.”
Hussein eventually came to the engineering school at the University of Pennsylvania in West Philadelphia, where four-blade drones called quadcopters zip down the halls of the GRASP aerial robotics lab on 33rd Street.
In 2019, Hussein took her new master’s degree and joined the Autonomy and Mapping team building flying robots for Exyn Technologies, a fast-growing firm on Washington Avenue, within walking distance of her South Philly home.
“My dad often joked that I broke more computers as a kid than he knew what to do with,” said Hussein, now 24. “I wanted to take them apart and put them back together. Now, at Exyn, I am getting good at putting them back together.”
Exyn’s staff has been doubled in the last year to 50 people, and expects to be doubled again this year, with orders from government agencies and major mining companies mapping underground metals that can be used in smartphones and vehicle batteries, said Nader Elm, 52, Exyn’s cofounder and CEO.
Exyn is one of at least a dozen companies working in robotics in Southeastern Pennsylvania. They are adding jobs and turning ideas from robotics professors and industrial users into high and low altitude drones, ground and underwater robots, self-driving vehicles, and speedy production lines that analyze vast data streams.
Robot makers say their biggest challenge is a shortage of skilled labor. “Robots are not taking jobs away but making them,” maintained the Pittsburgh-based Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute. More employers complain that robotics jobs are harder to fill than positions in science, cybersecurity, data analysis or management, according to a February survey of more than 400 small and midsized manufacturers by the nonprofit Manufacturing Institute.
How can workers get jobs in robotics? First, stay awake in math class, or work in places where you learn to use math. The robotics institute said people who finish trade school, an apprenticeship or two-year college program in robotics and similar fields can expect to pick from technician jobs averaging $62,000 a year. There are open positions throughout the United States.
Specialists with on-the-job experience can approach $100,000, and engineers with bachelor’s or advanced degrees make more. Executives at some companies, including Berwyn-based TE Connectivity, a multinational company that makes robotics sensors, said there’s such a shortage of reliable workers that they’ll assign motivated applicants to the company’s own apprenticeship programs.
In interviews, robot industrialists stressed that they want to hire more local folks, and build more plants here. But that’s a challenge: This onetime manufacturing center lost many of its old advantages as factories fled years ago. So Exyn has had to recruit engineers from around the world: “We have folks from Europe, from North America and Latin America, and from Africa - Egypt and Mozambique,” said CEO Elm, who is British.
Can the region regain its make-it-here energy and become a robotics center? The industry has clustered around premier robotics schools: Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.; MIT in Cambridge, Mass.; and Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, said Suzy Teele, spokeswoman for Pittsburgh-based Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing. It counts in its ranks 1,100 robotics makers and support companies around the U.S.
The Pittsburgh area, where Carnegie Mellon professors wrote key software favored by robot builders, has 75 robotics makers, some now working for Ford, GM, Hyundai and other auto giants, and four that employ at least 500 each, Teele said. “Philadelphia has not been that high on our list” until now, she said.
Philadelphia needs a piece of this action to stay competitive: “These trends are all coming together,” said Charles Robins, managing director at Fairmount Partners, a Philadelphia investment bank that focuses on tech start-ups. These key trends include sensors that see beyond human senses, alternative-reality and virtual-reality vision, artificial intelligence and the new 5G communications networks.
Robins laments that local colleges aren’t focused on preparing more students for this work.
A major shift in policy under Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden has increased pressure to build U.S. robotics: The U.S. military, a major buyer, has signaled that it is no longer willing to rely so heavily on parts made in China, which is both the nation’s strategic rival and the world’s manufacturing center.
That’s a blow for DJI, the China-based company that makes two-thirds of drones sold to U.S. buyers, and sponsors research at Penn (at least two of its top engineers are Penn grads). “The U.S. government has decided if a company is doing any work connected to the Department of Defense, it cannot work with DJI,” said Vijay Kumar, dean of Penn’s engineering school and a former head of its GRASP aerial robotics lab.
It’s expensive to create substitutes for cheap, reliable China-made parts, but makers are adapting, Kumar added. He’s more worried about the shortage of top engineers, which he blames on weak STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and exclusionary immigration policies.
“If you really want to fuel the U.S. economy, encourage our graduates to stop leaving the country and starting businesses in England and India,” Kumar said. “And do a lot more in terms of getting local kids involved with STEMs — all hands on deck, Black and white, Hispanic and Asian. And women are still just 35% of engineering programs nationally. "
“It’s urgent. We need to create these jobs in manufacturing,” said Tony Lowman, provost at Rowan University in Glassboro and former dean of its engineering school, which has more than doubled in size since 2012 and now enrolls 2,000 undergraduates — more than Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science — plus 800 graduate students.
Rowan has become a pipeline to such companies as Lockheed Martin, a highly automated military and aerospace manufacturer that employs 8,000 in the area and hired 90 Rowan engineering students just last year. “And there are small shops, within a 20-mile drive of this campus, who have a need for automation and design schools” that are also hiring, Lowman added.
Many robotics and automation jobs don’t require years-long college study. Drexel University this month is starting a city-funded “Manufacturing Career Accelerator Program,” offering a free Chromebook laptop and seven weeks of “boot camp” training for adult career changers to work in factories, featuring automation and robotics.
“We need to bring more Black and brown women, who may have lost jobs in restaurants and hotels due to COVID, to know these better-paying jobs are out there, and they can earn good money and have a career in manufacturing,” said Kena Sears-Brown, director of workplace initiatives and professional education at Drexel’s Goodwin College.
Promising wages that start at $15 an hour, the program requires a high school diploma or equivalent, “access to a reliable car,” a drug screening, and a criminal-background check.
Why the car? Start-ups may hire engineers close to colleges, but factories often locate in suburbs or smaller cities. Exyn has contracted production work on its packed circuit boards to Worldwide Electronics, based in Reading, which also counts multinationals such as Broadcom, Emerson and Qualcomm as clients.
Worldwide is close to the site of AT&T Bell Labs’ former Reading Works, which closed in 2003 — part of a wave of U.S. manufacturing shutdowns that Penn dean Kumar traces to China’s entry into the Word Trade Organization in 2001, opening that nation’s low-cost factories to foreign contracts.
In eastern Pennsylvania, so much factory work vanished that local trade schools stopped teaching soldering and circuit-board printing. “Now we have to train our own,” said Worldwide chief executive Marty Krynock. Some of his senior staff started at AT&T; he also recruits East European immigrants from nearby churches.
Krynock said it was unrealistic to expect that mass production would regain its swagger. “My labor rate [including all costs] is $50 an hour. In China it’s probably $2 an hour.” But prospects are looking up for specialized, small-batch firms, he said.
Worldwide also makes circuit boards for Rajant Corp., a 19-year-old Malvern firm whose radio-based systems link NFL coaches on football fields and direct autonomous mining vehicles at U.S., Russian and South American mines. “The market is exploding. It’s similar to where Internet technology was 20 years ago,” says Rajant CEO Robert Schena. The company has added 50 workers in the last three years to a staff that now totals 145.
Schena, a Temple grad with a Wharton MBA, brags that he has engineers and salespeople from two dozen colleges, from Bucks County Community College to Cal State. He’s found that college brands are unimportant: “We hire self-starters. Doers. They build stuff in their basement, they build puzzles, you can’t stop them, they are not bound by the clock, they figure everything out like it’s a quest.”
On a visit to the University of Delaware, he asked a professor which student he would assign to a weekend project. The dean’s choice, graduate student Dave Grund, became Rajant’s 5G high-frequency network expert. Schena asked the same question at West Chester University and picked up Dave Acker to help upgrade Rajant’s Linux-based operating system.
But when he needed to expand production, Schena built his new factory in Kentucky, close to Morehead State University, one of just five in the U.S. with a space-engineering program that fit Rajant’s needs.
“Pennsylvania used to be at the heart of electronics production,” but taxes and anti-growth attitudes have sent makers elsewhere, Schena says. He still loves the Philly area — he’s a director of the state-funded Ben Franklin Technology Program, which makes loans and grants to area start-ups — but found that such states as Kentucky and Arizona (where Rajant has its warehouse) welcome blue-collar jobs with open arms, while Pennsylvania towns expect far more. A recent example: Tredyffrin Township obliged Rajant to retroactively install $20,000 worth of drainage around a patio he built for charitable fund-raisers — “enough to pay for 10 summer interns,” he said.
It’s not hard to find workers just in the U.S., but also in China, Germany and most places. Young people have to be convinced to consider factory jobs these days, said Benny Leppert, Harrisburg-based vice president for manufacturing at TE , which employs 80,000 worldwide, including 12,000 engineers. TE makes parts and assemblies for electric cars and many other products.
But Leppert is hopeful: While digital controls flummoxed earlier generations, “young people raised with a smartphone in their pockets,” and at home in computer gaming, have a natural feel for “software and controls, and that’s worked out really well for us,” Leppert said.
Trained at apprenticeships at such plants as TE’s six locations in the Harrisburg area, “these young people can literally build automations — robots — and operate them, maintain them, and extract digital information out of them” more easily than some elders, because they are “digital natives.”
“Anyone who wants a job,” can use a smartphone, and wants to do the work, including some overtime, could earn as much as $100,000 a year, with training and experience, Leppert added, though it varies from plant to plant. “All industries are doing more automation. That doesn’t mean there aren’t jobs. It means the jobs are different.”
The Future of Work is produced with support from the William Penn Foundation and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Editorial content is created independently of the project’s donors.