Mike Wilson, Chairman of BARA, the British Automation and Robotics Association, believes that UK manufacturing can learn from the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic and has the potential to become more resilient in the future.
The full impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on UK manufacturing will probably not be known for several years to come. However, the closedowns, travel restrictions and general uncertainty happening across the world has certainly highlighted issues in the way our manufacturing sector currently operates. Complex and long-distance supply chains have been stressed or broken by the impact of the virus in different countries. Also, our dependence on manual operations has made it difficult to maintain productive capability, given the restrictions on travel and social distancing requirements, never mind the general nervousness of employees in attending work.
These current issues have added to challenges already being faced within UK manufacturing. There is a growing trend towards mass customisation, which requires local, agile manufacturing to truly meets the needs of a consumer wanting to specify exactly what they want and expecting prompt delivery as well. The increased cost of transport and the environmental concerns regarding carbon footprints were also adding to the drive towards reshoring of manufacturing.
One of the implications of Brexit was to reduce the availability of so-called “low-cost labour” for our manufacturing operations. The UK has become a much less attractive place for Eastern European workers, and there was an increasing trend of workers returning to their home countries. Current Government policy is to restrict immigration and therefore it is unlikely we will be able to bring in workers from other countries, even if they wish to come.
The recent impact of the coronavirus, with factory shutdowns, disruption of transport infrastructure and labour availability issues, has highlighted the fragility of our increasingly complex supply chains. In addition, the dependence on manual-based processes in the UK has reduced the capability to flex our production capacity given the current labour shortages.
Perhaps now is the time to consider a different approach to manufacturing in the UK. The application of automation and robotics technologies provides the opportunity to build a highly productive manufacturing sector that is resilient in the face of future global challenges. One key benefit from the much greater application of robot automation is to provide the opportunity to utilise our workforces much more efficiently and productively. Use the skills and attributes of our staff to add value to the products and not in performing mundane, repetitive or dirty and demanding tasks. This reduced dependence of labour then provides greater flexibility of capacity and resilience in times of labour shortages. If a factory is largely automated, it is much easier to scale production by varying operating times.
As most people know, we currently use fewer robots than our main competitors worldwide. One benefit of this starting position is we do not need to develop new solutions or technologies. The answers are already in place, proven and are available. We do need to adapt these solutions to our local needs, but that should not be a challenge.
Over recent times much of our industrial policy has been driven by the market with government taking a hands-off approach to our industrial strategy. This started to change with the Made Smarter initiative on Industry 4.0, but the issues surrounding Brexit have delayed progress. More recently significant government support has been promised to support UK companies during the coronavirus pandemic. This may not herald a period of much stronger government intervention, but it could start a partnership between government and industry – true cooperation for the benefit of both the economy and the people of this country.
The increased use of robot automation should not be seen as a threat to jobs. This about building a strong manufacturing sector which is truly competitive on a global basis and therefore provides stable employment in roles which are both interesting and challenging. If we achieve this objective, we will build a future manufacturing sector which provides a strong contribution to the UK economy and well-paid employment for generations to come.