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Mike Wilson, BARA

‘The UK is a long way behind in terms of productivity’: Mike Wilson, BARA

Image credit: Nick Smith

Chairman of the British Automation and Robot Association (BARA) Mike Wilson discusses the ‘underperforming’ state of the UK’s manufacturing robot industry. He says without an increased commitment to automation, it will find itself with bigger problems on its plate than Brexit.

“The UK is a long way behind in terms of productivity,” says Mike Wilson of the British Automation and Robot Association (BARA). “The increased use of robotics is an important element of addressing that shortfall.” Wilson is the chairman of BARA, an organisation that represents “the supply chain for robot and automation products into the UK”. Its membership consists largely of robot suppliers, systems integrators and component suppliers. BARA also engages with the academic community “principally in the industrial robot sector. Our main interests are manufacturing robots for manufacturing, as opposed to humanoid robots or robots in medicine.” 

BARA is also the sector’s voice, with the specific objective of generating interest within the manufacturing sector for the use of the robotic and automation technology. Wilson, who has been with BARA for 25 years, is a fixture in conference halls, industry events or on television, discussing the state of the market with specific reference to UK plc.

Traditionally a slow adopter of robotics in manufacturing, the UK “isn’t using this technology today in the same way as our major competitors overseas”. The International Federation of Robotics collates global robot-use statistics, particularly a metric called ‘robot density’, which is the number of robots per 10,000 workers. “If you look at the UK comparison with our competitors in Europe, particularly outside the automotive sector, Germany has got 191 robots per 10,000, while the UK has only 42,” putting Britain just below the world average. 

While this is partly explained by the UK not having as many big businesses as some competitor countries, “in general in the UK, organisations have felt that they have needed flexibility that comes from people, rather than using automation or robotics”. 

Wilson is not entirely convinced by this rationale, first because he thinks robotics is equally flexible. Yet more importantly he thinks “it is our low productivity – 20 per cent below some of our competitors – that presents a long-term challenge. Unless we are more productive, we will find it increasingly difficult to compete with overseas businesses. Our lack of automation use is one of the reasons for lack of productivity,” the root cause of which is “lack of investment.” This in turn, says Wilson, is holding back the economic development of the UK.

What this means is UK manufacturing tends to use people rather than robots. “In many cases, these people are performing repetitive, mundane or dirty and dangerous tasks better suited to robots. These are the sorts of job that people shouldn’t be doing. They should be using their skills to add value,” which is not, in Wilson’s view, consistent with the highly digitalised industrial world we live in. “Even the government recognises that one challenge is that we have a very ‘long tail’ of manufacturers struggling to keep up with overseas competitors, who are not using available technologies, and prefer to take a route that involves the use of people, rather than other ways of doing the job.”

We have a culture of make-do-and-mend, says Wilson. An All-Party Parliamentary Manufacturing Group report entitled ‘Making Good: A Study of Culture & Competitiveness in UK Manufacturing’ concluded, summarised in Wilson’s words, that “in the UK we’re very proud that we keep all our old machines running, whereas in Germany they’re proud they’ve bought in new ones. I’ve said this to countless audiences of manufacturing people in conferences in the UK and I frequently get nods of agreement. If you walk around UK factories, you will find lots of manufacturing equipment that is old and being kept running, rather than the manufacturer investing in new equipment. That kind of culture is one of the challenges we face.”

Being so far down the league table has one benefit. The silver lining is that, armed with the knowledge that the technology is available, there’s plenty of room to improve. “We don’t manufacture industrial robots in the UK anymore. Yet the systems are built here, and a lot of the systems companies are overseas organisations that can bring in the technology solution to the UK.”

However, while there are easily available remedies that can be applied, “it’s more about changing the mindset of leaders in manufacturing, not the workforce. There have been studies that show the UK workforce is keen to apply new technology to do repetitive tasks. The managers need to take what might be a small risk, by investing in their manufacturing facilities. We’re not necessarily talking about big sums of money. Automation systems can be expensive, but you can also get palletising systems for £80,000, which could mean you get a payback in two years or less. It’s not as though you can’t get a return on your investment. It’s not about spending fortunes these companies don’t have – it’s about investing in capital equipment.”

Wilson says there’s no simple answer to this apparent inertia in the UK. “Over the years, manufacturing businesses, particularly production manufacturing, have developed systems to manage people, while not necessarily being good at managing the phasing in of technology.” It’s a classic chicken and egg scenario, where “managers haven’t done it because they don’t know how to do it, and they don’t know how to do it because they haven’t done it”. Yet it’s a situation that has the potential to change “as this generation of management retires and is replaced by people who are more digitally native” but, he says, if our only strategy is to wait for digital natives to inherit their place on the board, “we’re going to find ourselves lagging even further behind”. 

‘The real problem is that the government is spending all its time creating uncertainty.’

Mike Wilson, BARA

However, it’s not all bad news. Wilson is positive about the UK Government Industrial Strategy, and he welcomed the ‘Made Smarter’ review of industrial digitalisation. “They are starting to generate interest around businesses applying digital technologies inside their manufacturing organisations.” But progress is slow, he notes. He lays the blame for this on the government being distracted “by other things. Unless we change the prevailing culture within our manufacturing industry, nothing’s going to happen.”

By “other things” he is, of course, talking about Brexit. Yet whatever the outcome – win, lose or draw – “it doesn’t really matter in the context of the UK’s industrial robotics and automation sector”, while accepting we’re already beginning to see changes in industry that some commentators will inevitably attribute to Brexit. “When eastern European countries started to join the EU, the UK was one of the few countries that allowed them unimpeded access, which meant that rather than adopting automation, we brought in additional workforce to our manufacturing sector. However, what is happening now is these workers are starting to return to their countries of origin. Brexit has some impact on this. Yet it’s also significantly impacted by the exchange rate, while eastern European economies are becoming more stable or growing. All of this will continue irrespective of what happens with Brexit.” 

The decreased pool of local available workforce created by falling unemployment means that “we’ll have no option other than to look at increasing the levels of automation to get the work done”. Even with the UK’s culture of using labour rather than investing in automation, “you’re still in the position where you’ve got to use the available people as productively as possible and fill available gaps with machines. There are businesses today, especially in the food-processing and packaging industries, struggling to hire people because the available labour force just isn’t there. Thirty per cent of the workforce in this sector wasn’t born in the UK, and given that this is the UK’s largest industry, that is many people starting to go home. One sure way to combat this is to improve our own skills pipeline. We need engineers coming out of our universities and colleges with correct skills to meet the needs of industry.” 

Then there’s the issue of labour flexibility, which Wilson sees as being about “the long-term confidence in our business. Here in the UK, we can flex the labour pool more easily than you can in other countries, where employment is more of a commitment. Here, expenditure on capital equipment is seen as the commitment. If you’re working on a contract for a local supermarket, for instance, and you’re not confident you will keep that contract for more than five years, you’re not going to buy a machine. You’re going to buy people.”

Business is notorious for becoming more conservative in terms of investment during times of political uncertainty. “Yet that’s short-term. Whatever the outcome of Brexit, this will unwind, and investment will return. A bigger concern is related to global industries such as automotive. Brexit influences their investment programmes; that might well feed into the supply chain, which in turn might have the knock-on effect of reducing the amount of investment we have in UK manufacturing.” 

However, Wilson says this scenario isn’t so much driven by Brexit as that it’s happening at the same time. Brexit creates a convenient smokescreen to mask the inherent problems within the industry that are systemic and institutionally established. Whatever problems Brexit might bring to automation and robotics down the line, the UK’s decision to detach itself from the EU did not cause the entrenched cultural attitudes that currently affect the sector.

“It’s driven by situations such as changes in battery technology, different mobility models. These things are going to have an impact on the car industry anyway. Manufacturing will find an answer to changes in tariffs and regulations. It may be  inconvenient for a while, but the real problem is the government spending all its time creating uncertainty. That may in turn create a short-term lull – weeks rather than years – but businesses have just got to carry on.” 

Wilson argues that in terms of productivity and competitiveness, it is far more pressing to investigate automation to combat lack of labour availability. “I wouldn’t necessarily say industry in the UK particularly wants to do this, but they’re effectively being forced to. Ironically, the unions are in favour of automation. What they’re concerned about is sharing additional wealth that productivity will eventually generate. Ultimately, it’s all about getting robots to do jobs that people should not be doing in this day and age, while the people themselves get better jobs in higher-skilled opportunities where they can add value to tasks they are performing and earn more money.” 

In the long run, the transition to robots is beneficial to everyone because, “while we do see the occasional localised instances of an individual being replaced by a machine, the figures show the businesses that adopt the technology become more productive, more profitable and ultimately end up employing more people. Brexit is an opportunity for UK manufacturing to prosper, and BARA sees it as important to have the right steps in place to ensure we do. This includes the government investing in development of the sector, making sure there is development of the skills pipeline to ensure the UK can be as competitive as possible. Using robotics and automation technologies is one key way to confirm we can do that.”

At this point, Wilson asks rhetorically: why aren’t we doing it? Answering himself, he says: “It all boils down to perception. There is still this view, particularly within UK business leadership, that automation is more expensive than it actually is.” He believes there is also a widespread misapprehension that the technology is hard to use. “These perceptions aren’t helped by the prejudice that automation is less flexible than it ought to be. Any solution to the problem we are facing in manufacturing has to address these perceptions.

“There are small businesses out there that have installed robots successfully, and these are great case studies. Yet there aren’t enough of them. As an estimate, there are probably about 5,000 businesses out there in the UK using the technology, but there should be 100,000. How do we address that? That’s where the government can help, because it’s about changing that mindset. The government should get behind us and say: ‘this is the right thing to do.’ If we can’t get that message across, it doesn’t matter what the pros and cons of Brexit might be – short, medium or long term – because UK manufacturing will decline.”

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