Intuitive Surgical's da Vinci Xi robot. [Credit: Hamlyn Centre for Robotic Surgery, Imperial College London]

Industry focus: Robotics

We take a look at the robotics sector: what are the best routes into this industry and the most sought-after skills.

Industry snapshot

Robotics and autonomous systems (RAS) are already impacting all sectors of industry from automotive and transport to healthcare and manufacturing. It is estimated that the global market for service and industrial robots will be worth US$59.5bn by 2020.

When discussing the robotics sector, it’s more common to talk about how many jobs it will eradicate than generate. Last year a report by Deloitte and Oxford Martin School academics Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne hit the headlines with its claim that around 35 percent of UK jobs would be lost to automation in the next 20 years.

While robotics is all about using machines to do human tasks, someone, of course, has to create the robots. The International Federation of Robotics (IFR) reckons that for the one million industrial robots currently in operation, three million jobs have been created to build, operate and maintain them and these will mainly be highly skilled engineering and technical professionals. An IFR study entitled Positive Impact of Industrial Robots on Employment, conducted by Metra Martech, predicts than more than two million jobs will be created in the next eight years because of the use of robotics in industry. In terms of robot sales, automotive remains the biggest sector in many countries but according to figures released in 2014 by the IFR, chemical, rubber and plastics and food continue to increase as does the electrical and electronics industry.

What’s happening in the robotics sector?

The UK Government believes robotics and autonomous systems have huge growth potential for the UK as one of its ‘Eight Great Technologies’, which is good news of the sector in terms of initiatives and targeted activities.

June saw the launch of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) UK Robotics and Autonomous Systems Network (UK-RAS Network), which aims to encourage academia and industry to collaborate and hopefully accelerate the development and adoption of robotics and autonomous systems. The IET and the Royal Academy of Engineering are among the partners supporting the launch.

Meanwhile, as part of a bigger initiative to map the UK’s ‘knowledge landscape’, the Council for Science and Technology (CST) explored the strengths, weaknesses and future of the RAS industry. Acknowledged strengths lie in the country’s strong customer base for robotics, R&D, the existence of high quality robotics clusters and good communication between academia, government and industry, but there are also weaknesses. The CST says these include gaps in funding structures and poor supply chains. It is thought the latter is in part because the UK has fewer SMEs in this sector compared to other countries and inadequate understanding by researchers of the challenges faced by the industry.

Although there is work to be done in the UK, this is an exciting time to join the global robotics industry. Arturo Baroncelli, president of the IFR, says that global demand for robots reached more than 200,000 units for the first time in 2014, 27 per cent more than in 2013. And according to the Robotics Industries Association (RIA) in the US, robot orders and shipments in North America also broke new records last year: a total of 27,685 robots valued at $1.6bn were ordered from North American companies during 2014.

What skills will be required and what opportunities will exist?

Ensuring the UK has the right skills mix is a major focus for the CST, which reports that many companies have to hire engineers from overseas countries such as India, Canada, the US and elsewhere in the EU.

Richard Heaton, lead consultant for robotics and autonomous systems at Jonathan Lee Recruitment, a long-established recruitment agency in the sector, agrees that skills shortages do exist but has seen an increase in good candidates since the beginning of the year. Popular roles at the moment include mechanical and electrical design engineers and controls engineers.

“People with mechatronic experience and a background of software integration are in demand,” he says.

His message to young and/or graduate engineers is to try to get some work experience directly in the sector.

“Engineers in the sector like people who’ve worked with the product and know how to integrate systems,” he says. “So someone who has already gone through a good apprenticeship programme or has a relevant degree but has also taken a year out to work in the business will be much more in demand than those purely with academic or research experience. It also says something about their personality and attitude.”

With real-world experience in mind, when CST introduced the mapping programme it made the point that universities need to teach the new ideas as soon as they emerge and that more input from industry is also needed. Heaton reminds UK talent that they will continue to face opposition from overseas candidates.

“We’re seeing a lot of active people from other European countries such as Italy and Romania,” he says. “There are some very good engineers from these countries so we are utilising that resource when necessary but obviously it’s good to find talent in the UK and we are seeing more of this.”

Who are my potential employers and what are the best routes into the industry?

No one will pretend that there are countless routes into the industry and obviously such a specialist area favours those with experience at the moment. Nevertheless, this is a sector that is also hungry to recruit the next generation of engineering and software talent who are going to help shape the robotics industry over the next ten and 20 years and you might be surprised at some of the opportunities that exist on the job boards.

At the time of writing, one organisation was screaming out for physics graduates (if the two exclamation marks after the job posting was anything to go by) while another was keen to recruit research academics.

Potential employers includes SME engineering consultancies right up to major manufacturers in areas such as automotive, electronics/electrical and healthcare spread across the UK but career paths are also likely to lead to overseas opportunities for those who want them. Check out the member section of the British Automation and Robot Association and other industry websites to find out more about companies specialising in this field.

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