It’s no secret that the UK is behind many of its European counterparts when it comes to UK manufacturing and productivity. Tom Bouchier, Managing Director at FANUC UK, discusses what the UK needs to change to compete with other nations.
Image caption: Tom Bouchier – Managing Director FANUC UK
A report on robot density, published earlier this year by the International Federation of Robots (IFR), has highlighted the extent to the UK’s lack of industrial robots while McKinsey & Company has reiterated the benefits of automation to the economy in a recent discussion paper titled Notes from the AI frontier: Modeling the impact of AI on the world economy. Both these reports demonstrate that the UK needs to offer a solution sooner rather than later if it is to maintain a competitive edge, but how can industrial robots play a key role in UK manufacturing?
Debunking the myths
As explained in the paper from McKinsey, Artificial Intelligence (AI) can play a crucial role in improving the global economy and is an opportunity that the UK must grasp. McKinsey suggests that there is likely to be a performance gap between companies that adopt AI tools and non-adopters, meaning benefits will be disproportional.
According to the IFR, there are just 71 industrial robots per 10,000 workers in the UK. That positions the UK behind 14 other European countries and, alarmingly, makes us the only G7 country with a robot density below the world’s average (74 units). In contrast, Germany – Europe’s most automated country – has 309 units while the Czech Republic, the closest European country to the UK, has 101 units per 10,000 workers.
It’s clear that change is needed. One possible reason for the UK’s low performance could be linked to the stigma attached to the use of robotics and unemployment. If the UK is to catch up with the rest of the world, it’s going to need to adopt more automation in its manufacturing facilities and therefore shift this viewpoint.
At FANUC, we have found that the use of industrial robots goes hand-in-hand with upskilling, which can lead to an increased productivity rate. This helps remove the perceived threat to unemployment and also addresses the widely-reported skills gap, both of which are concerns shown by both the Government and industry.
Is automation the affordable solution?
Given the findings from both reports, it has become clear the UK needs to increase automation through manufacturing. In addition to the impact on employment, the costs associated with industrial robotics is also quite often a sticking point for UK manufacturers.
When discussing industrial robotics, affordability and pricing are more-often-than-not going to be the first question asked by manufacturers. However, industrial robots aren’t as expensive as first thought and, on many occasions, are paid off in as little as 18 months.
Thanks to their ability to be reprogrammed, industrial robotics offer a long-lasting solution that goes beyond their first use. And if more people are upskilled and become trained in programming, there are even more benefits that manufacturers can, and should, be taking advantage of.
What does the UK need to do next?
It’s clear that manufacturing is a going to be a key asset for the UK if it is to maintain a competitive edge after Brexit. The UK cannot become a service industry, and change is required before it slips further behind its global counterparts. Therefore, a culture change in the views and perception of automation and robotic technology is needed.
The stigma attached to industrial robotics needs to be removed: it’s essentially a tool manufacturers can use to help increase efficiency. The opportunity for upskilling is one that should be grasped and will eventually help address the skills gap, alleviating concerns people have towards the use of robots.
Ultimately, technology is always improving, and we need to ensure we aren’t caught falling further behind. Positively positioning automation will not only benefit manufacturers’ capabilities, but it will also close the gap between the UK and the leading nations.