The robots are coming for UK manufacturing

There was a time when robots were simply the stuff of science fiction – entities that veered towards the terrifying and would take over the world. While it appears that we haven't all entirely moved on from that attitude, robots have now become an accepted part of the world we live in – bringing great benefits with them.

In the manufacturing and engineering sector, robots are enabling automation – thereby increasing productivity, efficiency and driving down costs. Despite this, the UK invests less in robots than other big players in Europe. According to the 2015 IFR World Robotics report, there are only 31 robots for every 10,000 employees in non-automotive sectors in the UK, compared to 161 in Germany, 142 in Sweden, 117 in Italy, 74 in Spain and 71 in France.

However, it is becoming increasingly clear that this will need to change, in order for UK manufacturing and engineering to grow and prosper.

So, the robots are coming – but what does it mean?

The current state of UK manufacturing

The UK faces a number of challenges in its manufacturing and engineering sector: a skills gap, low productivity, and now Brexit, to name a few.

In March 2016, EEF published its report: "An up-skill battle". It found that the proportion of vacancies considered hard to fill in manufacturing stands at 35 per cent. Furthermore, the available candidates do not often possess the necessary skills – with only 5 per cent of Key Stage 4 school leavers going on to do an apprenticeship and a low uptake of STEM subjects across the board.

Additionally, the report found that productivity in the UK compares poorly internationally, with 49 per cent of manufacturers agreeing with the statement that "the productivity of UK manufacturing lags behind that of other major developed economies".

These are a complex set of problems and there is no one, clear-cut solution. However, robots can play a role in improving the situation. While they cannot replace human skill and creativity, they can enable manufacturers to increase their output while still relying on their current workforce.

In its Annual Manufacturing Report 2016, The Manufacturer states: "Productivity is a continuing concern for the country as a whole. The UK does not wish to and cannot compete as a low-skill, low-wage economy, which means that automation has to take over the lower added-value functions, as well as those activities that are dirty, difficult or dangerous and those that are mind-numbingly repetitive as well."

The rise of the robots

Manufacturers making cars, planes and trains in the transport sector, where robots are already widely used, now produce 56 per cent more per hour than in 2009, according to The Economist. But what about the wider manufacturing and engineering sector?

According to a 2015 report by Barclays, "Future-proofing UK Manufacturing", 58 per cent of British manufacturers say their business has invested in automation equipment, compared to 66 per cent in Germany. And a further 13 per cent say they have considered such investment. The report goes on to say: "Our economic analysis suggests that even a moderate increase of £1.24bn in automation investment could raise the overall value added by the manufacturing sector to the UK economy by £60.5bn over the next decade, compared to anticipated business as usual investment levels."

Clearly, the statistics show that the rise of the robots is a good thing. Nevertheless, for many people, there’s still the niggling worry that automation will result in mass job losses. So what's the verdict?

As we have already established, robots can be used to supplement the current workforce, often taking over monotonous and dangerous jobs. Even for those employees working in lower-skilled positions, the introduction of robots doesn’t automatically mean that their positions will become defunct. For instance, collaborative robots (cobots) can work directly alongside humans in a shared workspace, to increase output.

Cobots are described by The Financial Times as "a lighter weight, mobile plug and play generation" of robot. Some look remarkably human-like with a face and two arms, and can be programmed and reprogrammed according to the task at hand. Unlike traditional robots, they can sit next to a human worker – on a bench without the need for safety cages, and can be moved around the factory floor with ease. At present, they account for less than 5 per cent of the 240,000 industrial robots sold globally in 2015. But the value they bring may see that change in the coming decades.

Robots are becoming a permanent part of the landscape in today's manufacturing and engineering sector, delivering many advantages in the process. The sector faces many challenges and the current economic and political uncertainties are set to ensure that this situation will continue in the coming years.

Against this backdrop, automation can enable manufacturers to work smarter, increasing their productivity even if their workforces remain the same. Furthermore, robots can help to make the factory floor a safer and more pleasant environment, by taking over the least desirable and most dangerous tasks. 

While robots still elicit unease, more and more manufacturers are learning to embrace them, so we can only wait to see what the future holds.

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Written by John Mayes

John is a business consultant with an extensive career spanning over 30 years. During this time Chris has set up, led, and acquired highly successful component distribution and EMS companies including Paragon Electronics and JJS Manufacturing.