When compared with other developed economies, the U.K. manufacturing sector has typically underinvested in robotics and other forms of automation. Although there is still some way to go, there are growing signs that British industry may not be lagging behind to the extent that many observers believe. One cause for optimism is a recent survey of over 700 middle managers and above at British and German manufacturers.
The Barclays Bank PLC report “Future-Proofing U.K. Manufacturing” concluded that the U.K. manufacturing sector is making good progress in adopting automation and robotics. Barclays also found that over half (58 percent) of U.K.-based manufacturers have invested in automation compared with 66 percent in Germany.
The picture was even more encouraging in Scotland, where 72 percent of manufacturers surveyed said they had invested in automation and robotics.
“This is very much in line with what I am typically seeing on factory floors across the U.K.,” said report author Mike Rigby, head of manufacturing at Barclays. “However, there is catching up to do. The U.K. is starting from a lower base level of investment, with less penetration across the various manufacturing sub-sectors and down to smaller companies.”
Given that automation is such a major topic of discussion and strategic thinking for many U.K. manufacturers, Rigby explained that the key objectives of the report were to examine underinvestment in innovation and automation, consider why it exists, and “signpost practical solutions” in promoting future investment.
Changing job perceptions
As robotic technologies continue to evolve, Dave Atkinson, head of manufacturing and small and midsize enterprise banking at Lloyds Bank Commercial Banking, was encouraged to know that more businesses of all sizes are considering adopting some degree of automation.
That said, he also pointed to a 2013 British Automation and Robot Association (BARA) study that found there are only 27 robotic units per 10,000 manufacturing employees within the U.K., compared with 137 in Germany, 113 in Italy, and 59 in France. Atkinson argued that it’s “clear that the U.K. still has a way to go to educate management teams about the advantages of automation.”
“It remains the case that work needs to be done in demonstrating the impact on productivity and profitability that automation can have, which ultimately can play a pivotal role in influencing cases for investment,” he said.
“One of the key challenges we face is the perception that turning to automation will inevitably lead to job losses,” Atkinson said. “Our experience of working with customers has shown that the growth generated by investing in robotics and automation can, in fact, create opportunities for firms to expand their workforce rather than reducing it.”
Progress is being made in U.K. manufacturing, particularly in the automotive sector, pointed out Mike Wilson, general industry sales and marketing manager at ABB Robotics UK and Ireland. He said this is “largely in line” with automation practices elsewhere. Wilson acknowledged that the U.K.’s major competitors are still installing robot systems at a faster rate in other industries — inevitably leading to relatively lower levels of productivity for Great Britain. The reasons for such moribund performance vary, according to Wilson. He highlighted a number of common themes, including “generally lower levels of capital investment” and incorrect perceptions of the cost and complexity of robotic systems, as well as “shorter-term requirements for return on investment.”
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“The main challenge is lack of awareness of the benefits of automation, together with lack of experience and expertise within companies to identify opportunities and take them through to a successful project,” Wilson said.
“It is often easier to employ people than to invest in the time and expense to develop an automated solution. The shortage of engineers is increasingly becoming a problem,” he said. “However, we do spend time trying to convert business leaders as to the benefits and show the way they can approach the application of automation.”