I Like Robots Too, But They’re Only Part of the Pittsburgh Story

by on February 6, 2014
Photo by by Mark Peterson / Redux

Photo by by Mark Peterson / Redux

Written by Jim Futrell, vice president of market research and analysis, Allegheny Conference on Community Development.

I love the great press we’re getting this week from POLITCO magazine. The Robots That Saved Pittsburgh highlights a region “that has developed into one of the country’s most vibrant tech centers, a hotbed of innovation that can no longer be ignored by the industry’s titans.” The piece is accompanied by a terrific photo essay of several key robotic spinoffs from Carnegie Mellon University, as well as a second gallery that capture the Pittsburgh region in all its gritty winter beauty.

I have to point out, however, that robotics is a relatively small part of our economy – probably employing no more than 5,000 people. Yet this recognition by a serious journalistic outfit reflects a deeper truth: the Pittsburgh region has capitalized on the unique way that advanced manufacturing, technology and innovation can elevate a place.

There are other such convergences of our key sectors that are allowing Pittsburgh to have a big impact. A lot of it can be seen in energy — think Aquatech, Holtec, Hammill and the number of IT companies that support financial services and healthcare applications. With a company like Aesynt (formerly McKesson Automated Healthcare) or Aethon, you hit the trifecta for converging sectors: IT, advanced manufacturing and healthcare.

It’s innovation that’s driving the 10-county economy, as well as R&D that goes back decades. The boost in energy-sector jobs that we’ve seen in the past five years (35 percent growth — or 12,000 jobs — compared to an overall employment increase of just 1.5 percent) can be traced back to investment starting in 1970s. The National Energy Technology Laboratory, a federal entity based in South Park for more than a century, did the research into deep, horizontal drilling techniques that have made today’s shale gas boom possible.

So while robots are cool, the real wow is in the way that technological innovation plus the region’s historic industrial strengths have created advances that would no doubt turn the head of the Jetson’s Rosie.Rosie the Robot / Copyright Hanna-Barbera