Speaking to a room of editors and fellow industry bosses in central London, Mike Wilson of the British Automation and Robot Association (Bara) told manufacturers to “work smarter not harder” by investing in robotics. UK companies face a “very challenging environment”, he said, with uncertainty surrounding the industry because of issues like Brexit and rising costs.
The UK is the ninth-largest manufacturing nation in the world, said Wilson, with the sector making 11% of GDP and 45% of exports. However, he said countries embracing more automation – such as Germany and France – are leaving the UK behind.
“We have got great competition from overseas and that will increase, that is not going away,” he said. “One of the biggest challenges is our productivity. We are employing lots of people but we’re not being as productive as our major competitors. We have got rising energy costs, rising raw material costs and also a skills shortage which is on the horizon. Unless we address this we are going to have a big problem.”
One solution to the issues will be more automation, he said. Compared to other countries, the UK has been slow to embrace the process. According to the International Federation of Robotics, in 2015 the German automotive industry had 1,147 robots per 10,000 employees, compared to just 606 in the UK.
“Unless we do something about investing in equipment to ensure we are productive and competitive, our manufacturing industry is going to suffer,” said Wilson.
"Manufacturers need to look to long term"
Companies should primarily invest in robots for menial tasks, said Wilson, such as loading and unloading from pallets. He claimed robots will not force people out of employment, but will instead open up more skilled and diverse roles. He referred to Jaguar Land Rover, which has introduced several thousand robots in recent years but has also employed thousands more people.
“The jobs that are created are generally better jobs than the jobs being replaced,” he said. “Robots are typically used for modern-day, arduous, repetitive tasks, jobs that people really shouldn’t be doing in today’s world. Jobs that are being created are more about maintenance, programming, operational – more about better jobs, more skills, better pay.”
Despite uncertainty surrounding the industry because of issues such as the general election and the Brexit negotiations, Wilson said it is clear that manufacturers can be more productive and profitable by embracing the flexible way of working offered by automation.
A 2015 Barclays study found an increase of £1.24 billion in automation investment could raise the overall value added by the manufacturing sector to the UK economy by £60.5 billion over a decade. If the UK became as automated as its G7 competitors it could boost productivity by 22%, said Wilson.
Manufacturers need to look to the long term, he said. “There is a quote from Henry Ford: ‘If you need a machine and don’t buy it, then ultimately you will find that you have paid for it but don’t have it.’”