The World Robotics Report 2020 from the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) paints a sorry picture for UK investment in automation. Not only does the country lag far behind markets such as China, Japan, the US, Germany and Italy, it also trails Poland and the Czech Republic, for example. Covering the 2019 trading period, the report states: “Robotics in the UK remains on a low level – new installations slowed by 16%. The newly installed 2,000 units in the UK are about 10 times less than the shipments in Germany (20,500 units), about five times less than in Italy (11,100 units) and about three times less than in France (6,700 units).”
According to Mike Wilson, chief automation officer at the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC), an independent research and technology organisation, there is “some lack of understanding in the UK surrounding what automation can do, its risks and how much it costs.” Wilson also suggests there is a mind-set issue to overcome.
“The UK seems very proud of keeping its older machines running, whereas in Germany they are proud of buying new ones,” he says. “This lack of capital investment at machine level subsequently affects the implementation of more advanced technologies, like robotics.”
Wilson calls for a national awareness campaign to dispel the myths and misconceptions that surround automation, such as high cost and complexity, and the notion that robots take jobs. “Robots do not take jobs, they simply automate tasks, most of which are dirty, dangerous, demanding or mundane,” he states. “Automation creates more interesting, higher-paid jobs that make better use of human skills.”
With Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic, automation uptake has seen the emergence of two somewhat unlikely drivers.
“Brexit saw the value of the pound decline, affecting workers in UK from Eastern Europe, who were also nervous about what Brexit might mean,” says Wilson. “With so many returning home, there is a noticeable effect on labour availability, which is prompting more to look at automation. Incremental rises in the minimum wage could also be making automation more attractive.”
With the pandemic and the fact that robots cannot catch or spread viruses, there exists another favourable prompt for investment, with Wilson insisting that automation can deliver long-term resilience for factories.
“I believe that either this year or next we’re going to see a positive shift in attitudes towards automation,” he states.
That might take some doing. At Liverpool-based system integrator CNC Robotics, which specialises in automated machining, managing director Philippa Glover says the UK has historically not had a strong focus on supporting manufacturers to consider new technologies.
“We could do with more capital investment incentives; even things like scrappage schemes for industrial equipment would help,” she says. “We know that robotic capabilities lead to growth and more jobs; we’ve seen it ourselves with our own case studies.”
Against a backdrop of Brexit and the pandemic, CNC Robotics grew significantly last year.
“Customers are starting to look at automation to help ensure they have the right set-up for their business moving forward. Automation is not as costly as many think,” says Glover. “In addition, we currently have clients using CBILS (Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme) to fund robot-based assets and strengthen their operations.”
As well as machine-tending, CNC Robotics is also working with many clients on the growing trend of using robot arms (mounted with a cutting tool) to produce components directly, in place of a machine tool.
“Moving forward, as we emerge from the pandemic, I think there will be more demand for innovative automated solutions,” says Glover. “Manufacturers should already be looking at how best to safeguard their business and build resilience.”
Another specialist in this area is Mills CNC, an established supplier of machine tools and robotics with a dedicated automation department. Heath Redman, the company’s operations director, says: “Historically, many viewed automation as expensive and difficult to implement, and only suitable for larger companies. Today, however, thought patterns are changing and, with advancement in lower cost solutions, I can see early signs of a shift in mindset.”
The company has seen a distinct upturn in robot enquiries during the pandemic. In fact, Mills dispatched nearly six times more quotations in 2020, with customers scrutinising their production needs and working out the most cost-effective way to automate. “Interestingly, this is not limited to large corporations, but is a balance of owner-operator businesses, SMEs and large corporates,” he says. “We’ve also found that more customers are reexamining their activities in China with the thought of using automation to manufacture in the UK.”
OEM Kawasaki Robotics (UK) has also seen an uptick in interest, as sales manager Ian Hensman points out: “The effect of factors such as Brexit mean we’re already receiving around 50% more enquiries. If you add the pandemic into the mix, and the fact that no social distancing is required for robots, we clearly have another market driver. Even if the pandemic is suppressed in the coming months, there will be a sense of needing to safeguard operations. There will also be a general economic uptick when restrictions lift. I think come quarter three or quarter four 2021, things will start to look a lot different.”
Hensman says that UK manufacturers prepared to change their school of thought and adopt automation enjoy almost instantaneous payback in many applications, with labour redeployed to more value-added roles where there is the potential to upskill.
“I remember overseeing a robot installation in Ireland when, at the time, no one in the plant would speak to me, as they assumed the robots would take their jobs,” he says. “However, when I went back 12 months later I was everyone’s best friend, simply because of the positive effect on operations.”
Tom Bouchier, managing director of FANUC UK, also has a view about the misconceptions surrounding robots: “The mainstream media is full of stories about robots taking jobs, but there are no job losses, only task changes. We need to educate all levels of business, from owners to apprentices, about the benefits of automation: the quick ROI, and how it makes jobs easier and upskills the existing workforce. Education is the only way forward.”
As for the current situation, Bouchier says the combined effects of the pandemic and Brexit has not put off some potential customers from thinking big. “At least 70-80% of the enquiries we receive request the full package: robot, machine, control.”
Despite the challenging market conditions at present, optimism clearly prevails. “Whenever I talk to manufacturers, they all seem raring to go in terms of investment plans; it’s just a case of when to press the button,” concludes Bouchier. “I actually think the next two to three years could be UK manufacturing’s best since Victorian times, if we get it right.”
A benchmark to evaluate UK robot integrators’ technical knowledge and safety practices is the
RIA/BARA Robot Integrators’ Certification Scheme. MTA has lead responsibility for auditing them.
More information: www.is.gd/aluwed