Robot fears exacerbating UK productivity crisis

9 February 2016
By Tereza Pultarova
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This two-handed human-sized robot assembly worker hopes to tackle UK productivity crisis

This two-handed human-sized robot assembly worker hopes to tackle UK productivity crisis

The UK needs to overcome its fear of robots if it wants to address the productivity crisis in the manufacturing sector and not lose out to its competitors, according to robotics manufacturer ABB.

The Swiss-based firm believes that automation presents a major opportunity, which the UK is yet to fully explore.

ABB recently launched its new human-sized collaborative robot YuMi into the UK market, hoping to shift the UK’s lukewarm attitudes to automation.

“We face the challenge in the UK that we have a lower productivity than most of our major competitors and unless we address that, then ultimately our manufacturing industry will decline,” said Mike Wilson, general industry sales manager at ABB Robotics.

“We have a choice really going forward: we can either make people work harder and longer or we can apply latest technologies that work smarter.”

The productivity of the UK manufacturing sector has grown by only 0.6 per cent each year between 2010 and 2015, whereas France has seen a growth of two per cent and the US an impressive nine per cent. The answer to the productivity puzzle, ABB Robotics believes, is simple – robots.

The UK’s car makers, which have invested heavily in robotic technology, have seen their productivity grow well beyond the UK average and are now producing 11.5 vehicles per employee per year, compared to 9.3 in 2009.

“The International Federation of Robotics measures what’s called robot density, which is the number of robots per 10,000 employees and if you look outside the automotive [sector] then we are at a very low number. We’ve got 31 robots per 10,000 employees, compared with places like Germany where they have more like 160 robots per 10,000 employees,” Wilson said. “We are a long way behind most of our major industrial competitors.”

The blossoming UK automotive industry, for comparison, uses 734 robots per 10,000 employees.

According to a study by the Copenhagen Business School, if the UK achieved the same levels of automation in each of its industrial sectors as the most automated countries, it would see its productivity increase by a staggering 22 per cent.

Wilson believes that contrary to some beliefs, robotics do not threaten job security, but quite the contrary.

“There have been various studies done that have illustrated that the use of robots does not contribute to any increase in unemployment and in fact triggers a positive increase in the long term on employment,” he said. “What happens usually is that the more mundane repetitive jobs go, but many more interesting and better-paid jobs are created instead.”

Moreover, robots could also make up for the high labour cost in the UK and allow companies to keep their manufacturing facilities in Britain, instead of moving to cheaper countries.

ABB Robotics’ YuMi robot targets British SME’s that have traditionally been reluctant to adopt the technology. With its two muscular arms, the strangely cute headless robot has been put on display assembling Lego cars all on its own during a launch event at the company’s UK base in Milton Keynes.

The firm says YuMi is the first truly collaborative robot that has been designed to work alongside people and is inherently safe. With its two precise hands, the robot can be easily trained to do almost anything from packaging toys and building kits to assembling electronic devices. 

“YuMi has the skills of an assembly line worker,” Wilson described. “Because it has two hands, it can do jobs that people would traditionally do. Human workers can interact with it and share their jobs between the robot and the people, so that the people are doing the more dexterous tasks, the tasks where their skills add value to the product, and the robot is doing the repetitive tasks.”

Out of 87,000 British SMEs, only 5,000 currently employ robots. ABB believes the number could grow to 10-20,000.

“A lot of industries believe that robots are not appropriate for them," Wilson said. "They have a perception that they are expensive, difficult to use, don’t have the skills they need, but none of that is true any more. People need to start looking again at robots so that they can understand what the benefits could be and how could they go about it improving their productivity."

ABB estimates that by 2025 the share of tasks performed by robots will rise from the current global average of 10 per cent to 25 per cent across all manufacturing industries, allowing a 30 per cent increase in productivity.

Despite the promises, there are concerns about the growing popularity of robots. A study released during the World Economic Forum in Davos this year suggested the rise of robotics and artificial intelligence technologies will cause approximately five million people around the world to lose their jobs by the end of this decade. The study estimates that although two million jobs will be created as a result of the proliferation of robots, more than seven million will be lost.

A survey of industry leaders carried out during the annual event came to the conclusion that the spread of robotics and intelligent computers will exacerbate social inequality across the globe, affecting a much wider range of jobs including those deemed previously safe, such as administrative roles and entry-level journalism.

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