ocado automated factory

Robotics: manufacturing the future

Industrial robotics systems have the potential to transform the UK manufacturing industry. How can we encourage industry bodies to make the necessary investments to reap these benefits?

The use of robotics in manufacturing dates back to the early 1960s when the first robots where installed in car plants. Since then they have become commonplace in some industries, taking on roles that could previously only be carried out by human workers.

In the UK, the use of robotics in manufacturing is dominated by the automotive industry, which has realised that to achieve the levels of consistency and productivity required, robotic body assembly and painting are a necessity. The automotive supply chain has heavily invested in robotics to support the demands of the automotive original equipment manufacturers (OEMs).

Beyond this there has been limited uptake, a fact borne out by the International Federation of Robotics statistics on robot densities. Where countries such as Japan (213 per 10,000 manufacturing employees), Germany (170) and Sweden (154) have embraced robotics, the UK lags far behind with only 33 robots per 10,000 employees. Although not the complete answer, it’s not surprising that those countries that are investing heavily in robotics and automation are also among the most productive nations globally.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom; the UK does use robotics across a wide range of manufacturing industries and applications. This diversity of use is a great strength that the UK can use to draw on and share experiences between industries. For example, robots are becoming more prevalent in some of the nation’s other major manufacturing industries, including food and drink, pharmaceuticals, aerospace and construction, using the technologies and techniques pioneered by the automotive industry. But while this diversity is a strength, the number of installations is still small. Indeed, the latest statistics from the British Automation and Robotics Association shows very little growth outside of the cyclic automotive industry. Worryingly, the latest data shows a decline in sales over the last 24 months across all industries.

So why has the automotive industry dominated the uptake of robotics and why have other nations invested more heavily and faster than in the UK? Simply put, this industry and these nations have realised that through robotics and automation there are significant benefits that can be achieved in the areas of productivity, consistency, speed and making life better for workers.

As robots never tire, the rate at which they work never alters. This means that, while traditionally output tends to drop away towards the end of the working day as workers become tired, robots carry on producing at the same rate consistently. They also never falter in producing the same part to the same level of consistency every time. While once this was true only of a process with constant inputs, robotics are developing, and through the use of advanced machine vision systems and algorithms, robots can now adapt to the variability of the input conditions of raw materials.

For certain applications, a robot is simply faster than a human being. For example, in a high-volume manufacturing environment such as the electronics or consumer industry, products are manufactured in their hundreds if not thousands per hour. In this environment, the ability for a human being to keep up with the pace of production is almost impossible. However, an appropriately applied robot could carry out these operations at the pace required without tiring.

One of the most valid reasons for using robotics in manufacturing operations is to help operators to carry out their tasks in a safe and efficient manner. Traditionally, robots have been applied to applications that are both dirty and dangerous for humans to carry out. Examples include the pouring of molten metals in a foundry and the handling of hazardous materials. Today, robots are also found carrying out low-value tasks that an operator would perceive as repetitive and dull. Applying robotic systems to such situations allows human workers to carry out higher-value-added tasks that are cleaner, safer and more interesting.

Despite the benefits, there are many reasons why UK manufacturers have been reluctant to invest in robotics and automation.

Traditional models of investment in the UK have relied on securing loans from banks or other institutions. These bodies generally require a guaranteed and relatively short return on investment. However, given that a robotic system should continue operating for many years, the return generated should be viewed in a longer time-frame and not in the narrow confines that have been previously applied.

Further to this, a key barrier for many organisations is the level of flexibility their manufacturing facility needs to accommodate rapid changes in products and mass customisation, and traditionally this has been a challenge for providers of robotic systems. However, as technology has developed this is no longer the case. With the use of off-line programming, quick-change tool systems, sensing systems (often based on machine vision) and reconfigurable software architectures, adaptability can be easily built into robotic systems.

Another aspect that is holding back adoption of robotic systems is a lack of available skills. Unfortunately, this is a wider problem that affects more than just the robotics industry, but finding technicians, engineers and managers who have the skills to conceptualise, specify, purchase, install and manage robotic systems is often off-putting for organisations. As these engineers are scarce, they are in high demand and can be highly mobile. The situation is complicated further by a scarcity of training and education courses available to develop or re-train engineers. With such a lack of skilled engineers, it is hardly surprising that there is not the capacity or knowledge either within organisations or in the supply chain to develop, install and manage robotics systems appropriately and effectively.

The final reason why the UK currently lags behind its competitors in the uptake of robotics can be characterised by an unwillingness to take risk. In this instance, risk can manifest itself in a number of different ways: the risk of failing to implement the technology correctly, a risk that the robots will not pay back in time, a risk to operator safety or even a risk to existing jobs.

Over the last couple of years there have been numerous articles in the media highlighting the potential impact of robotics on jobs. These have led to predictions of anything up to 40 per cent of all jobs being put at risk from robotics and the subsequent scaremongering that this creates.

In reality, it’s highly unlikely that this will be the case. Yes, in the short term the introduction of robotics in a manufacturing plant will displace some jobs, but there is growing evidence to show that in the long term this trend is reversed by a significant margin. For example, the introduction of robotics to a major German car plant’s body shop in the 1970s did reduce the number of people directly employed, but in the following decades, employment in the wider factory and local supply chain significantly increased as the robots allowed for faster throughput and consistency, creating more demand for the vehicles being made.

Further, recent studies carried out by London School of Economics and others have shown that the introduction of robotics is analogous to that of the steam engine or information technology. There is a displacement of some jobs in the short term but the creation of more – often more highly skilled and higher paid – jobs in the long run. Given this, the question is not how many jobs will be replaced by robotics but rather, how many new ones will be created as a result?

So how do we encourage UK industry to invest in robotics and automation to reap these benefits? Perhaps the first step is as simple as demonstrating that these benefits are truly benefits. It’s an inconvenient truth that there are a significant number of failed robot installations and these failures often put companies off investing. It should be stressed that many such examples are often due to poor definition of requirements or failures in project management rather than the performance of the equipment. It is up to the UK robotics community as a whole to develop and publicise success stories and for organisations such as the High Value Manufacturing Catapult to provide real-world demonstrations of successful applications either through physical installations or using the extensive range of digital and virtual reality tools available.

Through the creation of these success stories and their wider dissemination, the beneficial effects of robotics should become more widely understood and accepted and so create a body of end users eager to reap the potential rewards. Creating a space where end users can collaborate with the robot suppliers, systems integrators and research organisations allows the creation of a pre-competitive community. This community could approach funding bodies to address the historic lack of investment in underlying research and development and support for companies looking to invest in robotics. This investment should then be focused on three key areas: creating skills capacity, developing the next generation of integrated systems and creating breakthrough technologies.

From a skills perspective, the UK already has a chronic shortage of engineers and this is acutely felt within the robotics and automation industry. Capacity needs to be built at all levels from specific apprenticeships in robotics, graduate and doctoral courses and on into professional development and upskilling of existing engineers into ‘robotics engineers’. Creating these skills will allow the UK to integrate and create the next generation or robotic systems and technologies. It’s likely that these technologies will enhance human-robotic interaction potential, provide robotic systems with greater flexibility and in some instances allow for artificial intelligence algorithms to perceive changes in the robot’s working environment and act accordingly. In other words, allowing robots to ‘sense and think’ rather than just ‘do’. These breakthroughs and the integration of technologies will only come from a sustained investment in both the underlying research carried out by academia and the translation of these technologies into industrial reality carried out by organisations such as the High Value Manufacturing Catapult.

The Boston Consulting Group performed a study in 2015 which predicted that greater cost effectiveness and ease of application and use would lead to robots taking an increasing share of tasks within manufacturing, growing from 10 per cent currently to 25 per cent by 2025. They also predicted this would provide a boost to manufacturing productivity of 30 per cent. We need to take advantage of the benefits robots can bring to our manufacturing operations, by addressing the issues discussed above, to ensure we enhance our competitiveness and UK manufacturing strengthens its position in the global market place.

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles