UK productivity has not really improved since the financial crisis of 2008, and to be competitive, this must be addressed. Increased capital investment in the latest manufacturing technologies, including robot automation, is required. But Mike Wilson, Chairman of BARA, the British Automation & Robot Association, believes that while this presents a challenge, there are reasons to be optimistic as we now have the best conditions to enable the successful adoption of robot automation.
Robots are not the answer to all problems, but there are many applications where robots could be deployed to improve productivity, provide consistent quality, and undertake arduous, mundane, or dangerous tasks. It is not about replacing jobs but providing the UK workforce with the tools it needs to be productive. Competitive businesses grow and employ more people, often with better jobs.
As things stand today, according to the International Federation of Robotics, the UK has fallen to 24th in the world, based on the number of robot installations per 10,000 workers, which is eroding our ability to compete in world markets. The main issues that have impeded uptake in the UK relate to economic justification, perceptions of risk and lack of skills.
The rising minimum wage, coupled with labour shortages as a result of Brexit, are driving increased interest. The pandemic has also had a major impact with the challenges of dealing with social distancing and problems with extended supply chains. Manufacturing must improve its resilience, and automation has a role to play in achieving this.
The cost of finance is currently very low, which improves the economics of capital investment. The Government’s recent announcements of an extension of the Annual Investment Allowance and the Super-Deduction allowance for plant and machinery investments make the financial challenges easier. There are also leasing options available which, when set up correctly, can result in a financial return from the day the robot automation starts work.
Perceptions of risk have been a major barrier, but these are being removed. Firstly, the financial cost is more controlled, and secondly, because more businesses are exploiting the benefits of automation, more companies have benefited. This positive drive feeds itself and leads to a more positive perception of automation investment risks and costs.
While the UK certainly needs to do more to climb the proverbial ladder, we do not need to develop new solutions; we can apply what is already in use elsewhere. The increased availability of collaborative robots also provides many opportunities as they are generally easier to apply and use than traditional industrial robots. They can also be quickly and easily redeployed to other applications. This reduces the risk of any investment and makes it easier for businesses new to automation to acquire the skills they require.
It is important to recognise there is a learning curve associated with the adoption of robot automation. This is not just the operation of the system once it is installed and commissioned, but also the informed procurement of the solution in the first place. It is important to select the most appropriate application as a starting point, which is probably not the most complex operation within the manufacturing process. It is often better to start with a simple operation. It is then imperative that a User Requirements Specification is developed to detail what is needed and the parameters against which it will need to operate. Finally, it is important to select the most appropriate supplier.
These steps can seem daunting to companies new to automation, particularly when there are many equipment vendors and system integrators offering solutions. It is often better to engage independent support, particularly for new users, to help work through these procurement steps and ensure the right foundations are in place for a successful project. This support is available and can be accessed via BARA (www.bara.org.uk).
In summary, we have the best conditions for increased adoption of robot automation. We have automation solutions, finance, independent support and an increasing realisation that automation is required. We should look forward optimistically to a renaissance of UK manufacturing driven by robot automation.