Detroit boosters have long said that if we can just get outsiders to actually visit the city, we can sell them on relocating here.
For the latest proof point of that, consider the Automate robotics convention, the nation’s leading trade show for industrial automation. For many years held at McCormick Place in Chicago, the show will move to Detroit starting in 2021.
That means more than 20,000 exhibitors and buyers of robots for use in many different industrial fields will spend four days in May 2021 in and around the soon-to-be-renamed Cobo Center. And the Ann Arbor-based Association for Advancing Automation, which represents the robotics and automation technology industry and which hosts Automate every other year, has already committed to hold the 2023 and 2025 shows in Detroit as well.
The decision to leave McCormick Place — arguably the nation’s premier convention center — for Detroit followed a site visit by some initially skeptical organizers.
“The main driver of it is that our show has been growing so quickly that it outgrew our location in Chicago,” said Jeff Burnstein, president of the association. “That’s a good thing that we are growing quickly. But it meant that we had to make some choices about the show. Do we remain in Chicago? Do we look at other cities?
“We talked to several cities and we concluded Detroit was the best choice.”
It was not an easy call for many on the association’s board.
“We had to overcome this initial hurdle when we were proposing that we look at Detroit from people who hadn’t been to Detroit in decades, hadn’t experienced what’s going on there now,” Burnstein said. Working with the Metro Detroit Convention and Visitors Bureau, the association brought in its 40-member board for a look at the city in mid-2018.
Staying at the Westin Book Cadillac, the board members booked a bus tour of new developments, saw Detroit jewels like Eastern Market and the Guardian Building, jogged on the RiverWalk. They walked around downtown at night.
They also heard from Matt Cullen, chairman of the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy and CEO of businessman Dan Gilbert’s Rock Ventures, who talked about developments yet to come.
“That was the thing that really turned it around for Detroit in winning this show,” Burnstein said. “Once they got to experience it, they realized to a person, ‘This place is great! We didn’t know that!’ And they’re really excited about it.
“And it wasn’t just the out-of-towners who were blown away,” Burnstein said. “There were people who were based in the Detroit area who said, ‘We haven’t been downtown in a long time.’ They loved it, too. And that’s really what won it.”
History of the show
In a way, the 2021 show will mark a homecoming for Automate. The robotics show first opened in Detroit around 1980, back when automakers were putting the first industrial robots to work in assembly plants. But the show left Detroit in 1999 as the city deteriorated and other cities made better offers.
Much has changed since then, including the robotics industry itself. No longer strictly automotive in nature, robots and other forms of automation technology now play key roles in many fields including medical, logistics, food and electronics. In 2018, sales to non-automotive users roughly equaled those sold to auto plants for the first time.
An important reason for that is the rise of collaborative robots — those that can work side by side with humans. When robots were first introduced in auto plants two generations ago, they had to be isolated for fear of damage to workers or the tech itself. Today’s more sophisticated technology allows much greater interaction with people.
Partly as a result of that, the market for robots has shifted in recent years from about two-thirds automotive applications and the rest general industry to about half and half today.
Spreading the benefits
Robert Huschka, director of education for the association and a former editor of the Detroit Free Press, said the benefits of Automate could last well beyond the week of the show.
“Detroit has always been the historic home, the birthplace of the manufacturing industry and this show is the next evolution of manufacturing,” he said. “It’s going to bring some really big players into the city, the Googles, the Intels, Microsoft, Procter & Gamble. Giant OEMs will be brought in to Detroit.
“These are companies that are looking for business partners, for places to do business. So even beyond the economic impact, there’s an opportunity for Detroit to showcase itself as the tech innovation hub that we all believe it’s becoming.”