November 17, 2016      

In spite of its long-term position as one of the world’s largest economies, the U.K. has historically struggled to keep pace with the global competition in key sectors such as robotics and autonomous systems (RAS). So, how has the country performed in recent years? And what are the future prospects for British robotics?

When compared with many other industrialized countries, it is clear that the U.K. lags behind in terms of its productivity in key technological sectors, including RAS.

For example, a cross-country comparison of automation, labour productivity, and employment carried out by Copenhagen Business School concluded that, based purely on the level of robotics used, Great Britain has the largest manufacturing productivity gap amongst developed nations.

Business takeaways:

  • The U.K. has actually experienced a declining robot density over the past few years compared with other developed nations.
  • Uncertainty around the so-called Brexit has slowed investment and adoption, and countries have different mixes of industrial automation.
  • However, U.K. manufacturing and research could still lead to a stronger position for British robotics if certain opportunities are exploited.

If the average British company raised its performance to that of the highest-performing national average, there would be a 22 percent productivity increase across the nation, said Phil Smith, CEO at Cisco UK & Ireland, in a recent interview.

Cisco has invested $1 billion in expanding its operations and investing in U.K. startups and infrastructure.

Moreover, the recent “Robots at Work” study carried out by Uppsala University and the London School of Economics (LSE), found that, as of 1993, the U.K. ranked eighth out of 17 developed countries in terms of “robot density” — robot stock per human hour worked.

By 2007, British robot density had dropped to a lowly twelfth out of 17. Things have not improved since then.

A February 2016 report by the International Federation of Robotics revealed that, as of 2014, the U.K. lagged behind most rich countries in the number of robots per employee.

Adoption patterns for British robotics

Guy Michaels talks about British robotics

The U.K. has a low robot density, but there are still market opportunities, says LSE’s Guy Michaels.

In spite of the gloomy outlook, Guy Michaels, an associate professor at the LSE — and co-author of the “Robots at Work” study — stresses the situation might not be as bad as it might appear on the surface.

He noted that some of the differences in adoption patterns across countries is the result of differences in their mix of production. Automotive manufacturers and, to a lesser extent, the chemicals and metal industries use industrial automation most intensively.

Thus, the big car-producing nations, such as South Korea, Germany, and Japan tend to demonstrate higher rates of robotics adoption.

“The U.K.’s car industry has succeeded in recent years, and this may be in part due to its adoption of robots,” said Michaels.

So, what can be done to ensure that the British robotics sector keeps pace with global competition moving forward? For Michaels, the key point to remember is that countries can succeed with different industrial strategies.

More on British Robotics:

Opportunity knocks

The U.K.’s low robot density when compared with that of most other developed countries is “not great news,” but there is still a “range of opportunities going forward,” he said.

The U.K. is a leader in unmanned systems for logistics, infrastructure inspection, and undersea exploration, and it could still develop expertise in business process automation and healthcare.

“Firms should keep abreast of new developments and opportunities in robot use — in factories, for example, collaborative robots — warehouses, medical, and domestic applications, as well as technologies for automating non-physical work,” Michaels said.

The U.K. must also build on its robotics research strengths to remedy a growing skills gap and focus on commercialization, found a seminar held by the Council for Science and Technology.

With the British government too preoccupied to provide leadership — by its own admission — it will fall to the commercial sector to promote and adopt British robotics.

“Hopefully the current economic climate and uncertainty surrounding ‘Brexit’ will not dampen investments for too long, because increasing productivity is an important goal,” Michaels added.

Since 2011, more than three quarters (83 percent) of U.K. manufacturers have installed at least one type of automation in their production processes — chiefly motivated by increased efficiency requirements, according to Hennik Research’s Annual Manufacturing Report.

The report also found that the U.K. manufacturing sector is very upbeat about the future, as Industry 4.0 transforms the landscape. Converging technologies such as sensors, autonomy, and 3D printing are beginning to help them achieve increased efficiency, lower costs, and much more rapid market fulfillment.