The need to adopt automation is becoming urgent, with many companies now seeking to understand how best to progress. But many organisations are unsure where to start, and this is holding back the UK Manufacturing sector. There is help available, though. Mike Wilson
Chief Automation Officer at the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) explains how his organisation can provide independent advice and support to help these companies execute successful projects and achieve performance improvements for their businesses.
There are many reasons why companies should be considering the application of robots and automation. One of the most important being to ensure the labour force is utilised effectively and safely. To be truly competitive today, we need to give our workforces the tools to be productive. That means automating the dirty, dangerous, demanding and dull tasks, using our workforces where their skills and attributes add value.
The UK is out of step with the rest of the world with regard to the uptake of automation. The International Federation of Robotics calculates robot density data, which is the number of robots per 10,000 employees. This highlights that the UK has a robot density of 89, below the world average of 113. Other countries such as Germany at 346, the US at 228, Italy at 212, Spain at 191 and France at 177 are significantly ahead.
Although we have the 9th largest manufacturing sector, we only rank 24th for robot adoption. This lack of automation is having a major impact on our productivity. The UK ‘output per hour worked’ grew by an average of 0.2% per annum between 2008 and 2017, compared with France at 0.6%, Germany at 0.8% and the US at 1% per year.
So why have we been slow to invest? The reasons will be different for each business, but there are some common themes. A lack of understanding of what automation is, and what it can achieve, is common. There is often a perception that automation is not for us, either because it is too complicated, will not meet our needs, is too risky or too expensive. The easier route is to employ so-called ‘low-cost’ labour. Automation, particularly robotics, is new to many businesses who have an understandable fear of engaging with automation vendors and not trusting the vendors to provide appropriate advice rather than trying to sell what they have.
The Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) is perfectly placed to assist in this area. The organisation can provide guidance on the most appropriate applications to automate. It can also assist with the development of user requirement specifications, preparation of the business case and supplier selection to ensure businesses receive the solutions they need. All of its advice is vendor agnostic and not driven by the need to achieve a sale. The centre has comprehensive knowledge of the 50 robot vendors and over 250 system integrators operating in the UK, which allows it to recommend the most appropriate delivery partners for your business.
As a first step, the MTC typically undertakes a line walk of a company’s operations to identify the best way forward. In its team, the organisation has extensive years of experience across a range of technologies including automation and robotics as well as digitalisation and additive manufacturing and brings skills and experience in business transformation and technology implementation. Therefore, it can look at the big picture to identify the optimum route forward for a business, which may not always be automation.
There is certainly growing interest in automation with major challenges such as Brexit and the COVID pandemic accelerating the need for UK businesses to upgrade their manufacturing facilities. However, many companies have little experience of automation, and since these are often not small investments, there is an understandable caution. That is where the MTC can help.