Made in the UK: Automation and the industrial renaissance

The UK continues to lag global competitors on investment in automation and robotics. But there are glimmers of hope for a turnaround.

“But even its cheerleaders admit it also has some weaknesses and one is underinvestment in new technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI).”

There was further evidence of this recently as Make UK, industry body for the sector, released a new report: Manufacturing and Automation Report 2023. It suggests that most manufacturers in the UK fear the country is a serious risk of falling behind international competitors in the race to embrace AI and other cutting-edge technologies.

But beyond headlines repeating a familiar refrain, the Make UK report paints a more nuanced picture, with positive signs that the right sort of investment is finally underway.

Verity Davidge, director of policy at Make UK claims that adoption of AI, automation and other “game-changing technologies” is accelerating, although she agrees more is needed.

Some 76% of respondents to the survey reported investment in automation, and 59% had plans to increase automation expenditure this year compared with last. And 30% of companies reported plans to automate up to half of processes in the next two years. And yet, the UK remains behind global competitors.

Make UK cites a 2022 report by the International Federation of Robotics that found “robot density” in the UK stood at 101 units per 10,000 workers, well below the global average of 126 units and markedly lower than any other G7 nation.

In need of a long-term plan

Robert Harrison heads up the Automation Systems Group at Warwick Manufacturing Group and runs the Digital Technologies Directorate. He says there is unequivocal evidence the UK remains short on investment. “If you take investment in robotics, we’re not even on the graph,” he says. “The level of investment in automation is woefully low. We need stability to encourage longer-term investment and to build up the requisite skills.”

Mike Wilson, chief automation officer at the Manufacturing Technology Centre, is another who sees reasons for optimism on the uptake of automation in the UK. He says technological advances, the ongoing skills shortage and the cost equation of people versus technology have all shifted to help push automation onto the agenda for more firms, including SMEs.

“They take up less space, so you can put them in places that would be harder for an industrial robot. And they’re generally easier to program and easier to set up. Because they’re easier to program, you have less need for a systems integrator. The systems tend to be less complex, maybe just a robot and a gripper, loading and unloading a machine tool. You don’t need everything else around it.”

Automation is not a job stealer

The key point with collaborative robots is that they enable robots to work alongside people. Mike says that there is no longer any point having people just picking something up and moving it somewhere else or loading it into a machine. “If that’s all they’re doing, then let’s automate those tasks and use people where we need particular skills.”

He cites the example of weight balancing for punnets of strawberries. On the shop shelf punnets must be a minimum weight, but the seller wants it as little over minimum as possible, because otherwise they’re giving away free strawberries.

“We've been able to automate that using robots and vision with clever machine learning capability. One of the important things is the question if you're going to take a strawberry out, which one to take out. Even more difficult when you add one back, is where you put it. You’ve got to find a gap in the punnet. You can’t squash it in because you’ll damage the fruit.”

The perfect combination of mind and machine

Robert Harrison says that a combination of too few people and higher wage inflation is helping more businesses accept the case for automation. “People are becoming more expensive and automation’s becoming cheaper,” he explains. “Looking beyond robots to camera technology and visual in-process inspection, the price is reducing dramatically. You’ve got tech going down in price and labour going up.”

But just because you can afford to automate a process doesn’t mean you should. He says firms need to be clear why they’re investing and sees too many examples where new systems are installed but not properly utilised. “Firms adopt new automated equipment as an ad-hoc thing and it becomes something that’s sitting in the corner, unused because they’re not able to maintain and operate the equipment.”

Mike concurs and suggests being crystal clear on not only why something is automated but also to consider which tasks to start on. “People will often try and automate the hardest thing in their factory, because it’s their biggest challenge. But because it's the biggest challenge, it’s probably the hardest thing to automate and therefore the biggest risk.”

Instead, he suggests, businesses should start with something simple and work up from there.

“There are lots of industry bodies and specialists who are there to help businesses start out with automation,” says Lombard’s Tom Smith. “It’s essential that businesses consider automation, but equally that their first experience is a positive one.”

Where we are now, and where the UK needs to be

For those keen on jargon, automation was in theory the focus of the third industrial revolution – the first two having been steam and then electricity. As we’re now allegedly deep into the fourth such revolution, with articles and speeches already appearing on the fifth and sixth, isn’t it a bit late to be talking about the arrival of automation?

Mike Wilson is a sceptical of such terminology. “There’s been an awful lot of hype about all this,” he says. “It’s put a lot of people off. A lot of the time we’re talking about technologies and things people are doing anyway. Certainly the UK is behind in terms of the adoption of automation, that’s true. And people perceive that as being the third wave. But I try to avoid labels and focus on doing the right things for now. Maybe it wasn’t right for us 10 years ago, but it is now, and therefore we should be pushing hard to increase our adoption of automation.”

Automation and robotics tips from our experts

In November 2023, NatWest hosted a webinar on the topic of automation and robotics, featuring a number of industry leaders who shared advice and insight. Here is what they said:

Mike Wilson, Chief Automation Officer, Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC): Engage your workforce in the process early on and don't be afraid. It is a challenge, but there are people here to help.

Søren Peters, CEO, HowToRobot: Don’t start automating the most complicated things; pick something simple that everyone is comfortable with. And let the market help you understand what is complicated and what is not.

Troy Barratt, Managing Director, Contracts Engineering: Engage with an impartial partner and reiterate the point that robots don’t replace jobs, they fill vacancies.


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