This week’s poll: obstacles to automation

With UK industry facing growing challenges recruiting the skills it has traditionally relied upon, the need to automate has never been more pressing.  

It’s fair to say that broadcaster Andrew Neil isn’t best known for his views on the UK manufacturing sector. But he certainly hit a nerve when he used his keynote slot at Make UK’s annual conference to call on manufacturing business to raise wages and invest in automation.

Indeed, industry’s growing struggles to recruit skilled workers, coupled with an anticipated shortfall in the number of low skilled workers coming to the UK, is leading to a renewed focus on the importance of investing in automation technology.

UK automation poll
Robots at work in JLR’s Halewood plant. Image: JLR

It was a point echoed again this week (2nd March, 2020) by Kuka Managing Director and chairman of the British Automation and Robot Association (BARA) Mike Wilson, who, speaking at an event in London, warned that against the backdrop of Brexit, it’s now more important than ever that UK engineering businesses embrace the latest manufacturing technologies.

“We are already seeing labour shortages within our manufacturing facilities because all of these workers we’ve brought in are starting to go back to their own countries, partly because of the environment over here, but partly because the economies in their own countries are improving,” said Wilson.

“The government’s latest draft immigration policy is going to make it difficult, if not impossible to bring in replacements for those workers,” he added, “so it’s important that we use automation to do the mundane repetitive tasks so we can utilise our workforce on the tasks that add value.”

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To achieve this, the sector faces something of an uphill struggle. Automation levels are, said Wilson, embarrassingly low. Of the 422,000 robots installed globally in 2018, the UK accounted for just 2425. This compares to 154,000 installations in China, the world’s biggest user of industrial robots. Meanwhile, the UK’s robot density – a measure of the number of robots per 10 thousand workers – is just 91, compared to 338 for Germany.

Wilson was joined at this week’s event by his opposite number at German trade association VDMA, Patrick Schwarzkopf, who argued that that alarmist headlines about robots stealing jobs haven’t helped UK industry’s case. “It’s important to do a reality check,” he said. “We see all of these alarmist headlines….but the reality is very, very different. The problem is that robots are not installed and it could be a problem for jobs and workers in the future and the competitiveness of the UK.”

Schwarzkopf added that all of the statistics suggest that investment in robotics actually increases the number of jobs, quoting figures from the German automotive sector demonstrating a correlation between increased deployments and increased number of jobs, as well as figures demonstrating that the countries with the highest robot densities have lowest unemployment levels.  “If you look at the facts there’s really nothing that suggests that a higher level of use of robots would lead to more unemployment.”

Wilson added that this is borne out in the sectors where the UK has invested in robots, such as automotive. “I would argue that JLR, for example, has put in thousands of robots over the last few years. If they hadn’t put those robots in the UK, they’d have built their car factories somewhere else and none of those jobs would be in the UK.”

Whilst automotive is something of a UK outlier for automation, there are a number of factors behind the relatively low deployment in other sectors, said Wilson.  Many manufacturers have, he said,  tended to favour low skilled labour over investment in technology, perceiving robots as a risky, high-cost investment. He also pointed to a somewhat damaging UK industry culture of taking pride in keeping old equipment running for as long as possible.

“We’re very proud of keeping old machines running, in Germany they’re very proud that they’ve bought new ones,” said Wilson. “We keep old machinery going and should be buying new equipment.”

Clearly, investment in robotics and automation is going to be essential if UK manufacturers are to grow and compete in the years ahead. Indeed, the government-led Made Smarter study estimated that robotics and automation, if deployed correctly, will be worth over £180 billion to the UK economy. Overcoming the ingrained reluctance to invest in technology will be key to delivering this values.

In this week’s poll we’re asking what you think is the biggest factor holding back the UK? As always, we welcome your comments on this hot topic below the line.

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