Time to rethink our automation technology11 February 2013

Observers of manufacturing can't have failed to notice that, since the 2008 crash, industry has been leaping up the agenda in government circles, as the urgency of its call to rebalance the economy takes hold.

Look at the Technology Strategy Board's (TSB) 'Catapult' technology and innovation centres – only unveiled late in 2010 by David Cameron but already seeing "great progress", according to TSB chief executive Iain Gray. All seven will be in business this year, he promises, adding that £1bn of investment is on its way to help progress.

Consider also the funding currently being lavished on UTCs (University Technical Colleges), aimed at breathing new life into engineering and science skills. And, at the commercial level, note the incentive in the form of ECAs (Enhanced Capital Allowances), designed to encourage industry uptake of more efficient, high-tech plant.

As we go to press, another £1m has been set aside, with Universities and Science Minister David Willetts launching a competition for projects to develop robotics and autonomous systems technology – albeit not directly related to cell-based manufacturing (page 6).

All laudable stuff, but is industry taking much notice? Intellect, the UK technology trade association that represents firms ranging from systems integrators to electronic components manufacturers, believes not. CEO Julian David makes the point that the UK seriously lags Japan, Germany and the US, certainly in its uptake of robots – in fact, by a full order of magnitude.

Unveiling Intellect's 'Automate Britain' campaign, in London last month, he insisted that industry needs to understand that automation and robotics are not only critical to the UK government's goal of rebuilding manufacturing, but also to this country reinventing itself as a high-tech exporting nation.

"Our campaign is about championing the UK as a good place for technology, in terms of inward investment," he said. "But it's also about technology being good for UK plc and UK people." Exactly so.

Speaking at the campaign launch, Brian Holiday, divisional director of Siemens Industry Automation, pointed to the marketing success of 'Intel inside' for PCs. "We need buyers to understand, similarly, that virtually everything they touch has a PLC inside," he insisted.

For Holiday and for others, given the trend of rapidly increasing sophistication and plummeting costs, the real danger is that UK firms might continue to under-invest and fall further behind.

"Germany is a high-wage economy, but it scores well in productivity, because companies are investing in technology, despite the downturn," he observed. And it is not alone.

For Britain to succeed, we need to wake up now and rethink our attitudes on technology.

Brian Tinham BSc CEng MInstMC FSOE FIPlantE FIRTE

Related Companies
Innovate UK
Intellect Enterprises Ltd
Siemens Industry Ltd

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