November 06, 2017      

Based on the success of the first UK Robotics Week last year, multiple events have emerged in the past several months to serve the British RAS community. Robotics and autonomous systems are among the priorities in the British government’s “Eight Great Technologies” document.

Since 2013, the U.K. has planned to build its global economic leadership by accelerating commercialization in British RAS, advanced materials, agricultural science, big data, energy storage, regenerative medicine, satellites, and synthetic biology.

The ninth-largest manufacturing country in the world, the U.K. is slightly above the global average for robotics density, with 71 robots per 10,000 employees. Germany has 300 robots per 10,000 workers, and Sweden is also ahead with 200 robots per 10,000 people.

This past summer, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s (EPSRC) UK-RAS Network put on UK Robotics Week 2017 at Imperial College London (shown above). It focused on academic research, commercial applications, and the social benefits of automation.

Last month, the Robotics and Automation exhibition focused on British RAS in manufacturing and logistics, as did the Financial Times‘ Future of Manufacturing Summit. Next February, the IntraLogisteX event will also focus on logistics.

Business Takeaways:

  • Last year’s UK Robotics Week was the first of several events promoting the British RAS industry. The conferences have focused on collaboration between educational institutions and industry, specific applications of robotics and autonomous systems, and on commercializing the technology.
  • The U.K. needs to do more to maintain its economic and technological lead, agreed experts at these events.
  • In addition to manufacturing and logistics, areas of interest to British RAS events include surgical robots, systems for deep-sea and space exploration, and robots to help take care of the ill and elderly.
  • Improvements in machine vision, environmental friendliness, and robots for small and midsize enterprises are helping to drive British RAS adoption.

UK Robotics Week serves multiple purposes

The U.K. needs to demonstrate British RAS leadership, said Prof. Guang-Zhong Yang, director of the Hamlyn Centre for Robotic Surgery at Imperial College London and chair of the UK-RAS Network.

Guang-Zhong Yang, director of the Hamlyn Centre for Robotic Surgery at Imperial College London and chair of the UK-RAS Network

The British RAS industry benefits from research partnerships but needs to do more to grow, says Guang-Zhong Yang, chair of the UK-RAS Network.

UK Robotics Week 2017 was intended to engage the country’s schools, colleges, and universities in “developing the digital skills needed to drive the UK’s future economy,” he said. “It also acts as a forum for discussion of technological, commercial, legal, ethical, and social aspects of robotics.”

This year’s event included Robot Challenges for academic-industrial collaborations surgical robotics, unmanned systems in extreme environments, infrastructure resilience, and social care robots.

The weeklong jamboree culminated in a “Robotics Showcase” event, featuring demonstrations from the finalists of the Robot Challenges, as well as lectures and a network forum.

Government recognition is ‘timely’

For Yang, initiatives like Robotics Week are important because they demonstrate the strengths of British RAS and bring together international partners, students, and the general public to “proactively engage with and raise awareness of current research, particularly in transport, healthcare, manufacturing, unmanned systems, and the core foundations of RAS.”

Although the global robotics market is rapidly expanding, Yang warned that the U.K. is trailing behind Japan, Germany, the U.S., and many other nations in its adoption of industrial automation. This is in “stark contrast” to the strength of the U.K.’s automotive and aerospace industries, he said.

The government’s recognition of the importance of British RAS to future economic growth is “timely,” according to Yang. Worldwide, autonomous applications for aerospace, marine, and hostile environments are “increasing rapidly,” he added.

Robotics, autonomous systems, and artificial intelligence can reduce both costs and risks. For instance, in healthcare, medical robotics for surgery, targeted therapy, smart prosthesis, and assistive technologies will more than double in the next decade, say industry estimates.

Since the U.K. has a declining manufacturing base, British RAS research “is, however, faced with significant challenges,” Yang said.

“Events such as UK Robotics Week are essential to our strategy, and we hope it will be turned into a flagship international event that can draw the entire world to what we do here in the U.K.,” he added.

British RAS in manufacturing and logistics

Last month, the exhibitors at the Robotics and Automation conference in Milton Keynes, U.K., included some global robotics players such as ABB Robotics, KUKA, and Austrian robotic welding specialist Fronius International GmbH.

British RAS providers such as Fast Automation aid with packaging.

It also featured a wide range of home-grown British companies, such as Northern Ireland-based packaging automation firm Fast Technologies, Southampton-based robotics systems integrator ICS, and West Yorkshire-based materials handling suppler Stockrail International Ltd.

The British RAS exhibition was billed as an opportunity for attendees to “discover how the latest robotics, automation, and future technologies can improve efficiency, reduce costs, and give competitive advantage.”

Sessions covered topics such as “Removing the Barriers of Traditional Automation,” “The Path to Commercially Optimised Robotics,” and “How Digital Automation and Dynamic Work Optimisation Can Dramatically Reduce Labour Costs.”

Materials handling and supply chain automation were the focus of sessions by ABB, DHL, and BoWE SYSTEC GmbH.

“In such a complex industry, the best way for end users to find and assess the best suppliers for their individual needs is to meet and discuss their unique requirements face to face,” noted Nairn Foster, sales director for exhibitions at event organizer Akabo Media.

Many parties to logistics events

Earlier in October, an array of delegates from the global manufacturing and robotics sector also gathered at The Financial Times (FT) Future of Manufacturing Summit.

British RAS exhibitors at recent event

In his keynote address on “Responsible Leadership in the Age of Automation,” Masanori Koguchi, chief financial officer at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, considered how to build effective manufacturing strategies and supply chains with additive technologies.

In a later panel, Koguchi joined speakers from Innovate UK, GKN Aerospace, and the European Factories of the Future Research Association. They discussed how midsize manufacturers are planning ahead for robotics.

Looking ahead, the IntraLogisteX conference promises to focus innovations in the intralogistics sector, including those related to warehouse automation, materials handling, picking and sorting, IT and software, storage, packaging, and infrastructure and services.

Exhibitors are expected to include Oxfordshire-based Knapp U.K. Ltd., which has expertise in the e-commerce, retail, fashion, food, pharmaceuticals, and manufacturing sectors. Also present will be Robotics & Drives, a leading Irish RAS company offering solutions in the medical device, pharmaceutical, automotive, food and beverage, plastics, and consumer goods sectors.

International exhibitors include Japanese materials handling specialist Daifuku Co., Netherlands-based sorting logistics outfit Distrisort, and EK Automation, a leading German automated guided vehicle (AGV) supplier.

More on Global, British RAS:

Room for British RAS growth

To maintain its global position, Yang argued that the U.K. must “act strategically and synergistically” and leverage its strengths in robot vision, machine intelligence, control, verification, and software and embedded systems. The British RAS industry must also “develop new processes such as structronics for reliable, lightweight, low-cost integrated sensors and structures using rapid manufacturing,” he said.

UK Robotics Week 2017 badge

“Thus far, there is a major shift in the use of robots for manufacturing from big companies to small and medium-sized enterprises to enable burst manufacturing for one-off products,” Yang said. “There is also a significant demand on new RAS platforms for green manufacturing that focuses on the recycling of all the components and subsystems used throughout the manufacturing process to reduce waste.”

Yang also pointed out that the use of robotics for space, environmental, and deep-sea exploration “continues to grow.” Improved functionality and sophistication of search-and-rescue features by unmanned systems, augmented by intelligent surveillance and chemical, biological, radioactive, nuclear, and explosive threat countermeasures have also enabled a “rapid uptake” of RAS technologies in homeland security, law enforcement, and defense, he said.

In addition, “U.K. universities and research organizations have a strong track record in the development and practical deployment of unmanned maritime systems,” Yang said. “With over 90% of the information, people, goods, and services that sustain and create opportunities for regional economic prosperity flowing across the maritime domain, in addition to its impact on global environment, this is clearly a strategic area of focus for the UK RAS community.”