Andrew Mason, a council member at the British Automation & Robot Association (BARA), looks at the advantages robot technology can bring to a business and explores why now is a good time to invest.
The last two years have proven to be a challenging period for UK industry with the disruption from the COVID pandemic and the changing labour market resulting from Brexit. Within a short time, many manufacturers went from struggling to find enough skilled workers one day to closing production lines the next, while others needed to suddenly ramp up production to meet the demands for critical goods and services. The lesson is to expect the unexpected and prepare for flexibility to meet disruption. By its very nature, the unexpected cannot be predicted, so preparation for flexibility is a key skill required to combat the possibility of sudden change. We need to retain enough resources, key skills and flexibility to adapt when the unexpected happens.
For many, the change to working from home and embracing online meetings was relatively easy to adapt to and now has the potential to become a new normal. However, for manufacturers and distribution businesses, home working is not feasible. These businesses needed to introduce safe distancing in the workplace, rotating shift patterns and increased operating hours to keep up with demands. Currently, this is also combined with the uncertainty of the unavailability of workers for isolation periods. Consequently, a recent survey has found that one in three UK manufacturers are looking to embrace more automation to help cope with short- and longer-term reductions in labour availability.
Are collaborative robots the answer?
The last ten years have seen the rise of the collaborative robot, or cobot, which has allowed many organisations to take the first steps into the automation of their factories. Designed to work alongside humans and be flexible and fast to deploy, many companies can implement cobots in a wide range of applications, including pick and place, sanding, end of line palletising and assembly tasks.
While cobots offer the attraction of fast deployment and an accelerated ROI, the increase in popularity has also increased the demand for accessories such as feeding systems and also traditional automation solutions. Cobots have given companies using automation for the first time the confidence to consider more traditional automation lines, where they need higher speed, greater accuracy, and duty cycles offered by six-axis, SCARA and cartesian robot solutions. Usually requiring implementation from a specialist integration company, these systems are evolving too, with easier and more user-friendly software to give flexible solutions such as modular workstations and linear transport systems, which support automated and manual working combinations.
Is it a good time to invest?
The most recent budget in March 2021 saw the introduction of the new 130% super-deduction for plant and machinery expenditure incurred by companies. This provides complete first-year tax relief and an extra deduction of 30% of the original investment. This equates to a tax value of nearly 25p in every £1.
Some sectors are still struggling, but the economy will bounce back, and with it, demand will increase. With low interest-rate finance and leasing options, it is now more affordable to get started with automation. With the need for UK industry to meet increased demand alongside reduced labour availability, the growing industrial automation options available must make now an excellent time to invest in technology, and people, for higher productivity and the resultant profit, which can, of course, support further investment.
Where to head for advice
For organisations looking to invest in automation, industry trade organisations such as BARA and the PPMA, alongside the network of robot suppliers, provide a rich source of information, webinars and training to assist with first and further steps into the automation world.