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Why manufacturing can’t afford to ignore the rise of the cobots

Image credit: Universal Robots

UK industry needs to move on from its perception of robots as large, expensive resources requiring specialist expertise if it’s going to compete with foreign businesses that are adopting small-scale technology to support their human workers.

Between Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic, 2020 was an incredibly tumultuous year for the UK. Travel restrictions and the end of free movement have made an impact on manufacturing businesses that have long relied on EU nationals to fill labour gaps. Yet the opportunities are there to be grasped as we look towards a post-Brexit, post-Covid world.

Disruption to global supply chains has reiterated the value of producing products for the UK in the UK. Furthermore, with the greater adoption of robotics, manufacturers can do so more competitively and flexibly than competitors whose production sites are all offshore. If the Prime Minister’s ambition of creating a ‘Global Britain’ is to be realised, automation will be a key stepping-stone. And if capital outlay is the issue then leasing may be the solution. In other words, now could be the time to think in terms of a robot payroll.

Despite the proven benefits of automation, research conducted in 2019 by the International Federation of Robotics revealed that the UK is lagging behind other comparable economies. For example, in 2019 Germany installed ten times as many robots as the UK. Its manufacturing base and the number of manufacturing jobs it is supporting is the envy of the Western world.

Too many in the UK continue to view automation as a ‘nice-to-have’, but not a necessity. Many perceive the technology as too complex or something that requires specialist expertise and, therefore, is only reserved for the largest and most advanced players. It’s a mindset shaped solely by the era of large, costly industrial robots – such as those typically used in large automotive factories.

Yet the truth is that collaborative robots – smaller, cheaper and easier to programme – are a world away from their industrial counterparts and well suited to SMEs. On the continent these ‘cobots’ are widely adopted and viewed simply as a tool that supports employees and allows them to be more efficient. In most cases the cobots aren’t required to do anything particularly sophisticated or revolutionary. Instead, they are assigned routine and repetitive tasks such as screwdriving, sanding or palletising, freeing up humans to add value elsewhere.

Aside from the obvious benefits to productivity and output, adopting automation on a leased basis also promotes agility. For example, at the outset of the pandemic, the Lancashire-based producer of eco-friendly products Bloom-in-Box took advantage of cobots to quickly pivot its operations and begin manufacturing PPE equipment, serving the public well and responding to changing market demand. Taking the decision didn’t involve up-front capital outlay or a business plan that relied on the demand for PPE continuing long enough to justify the expense. Instead, the equipment was leased in the knowledge that repayments could be offset against sales of the PPE equipment it was producing. And that if demand dropped then cobot could simply be repurposed on a different product line.

A key concern for many in the manufacturing sector is the fear that automation will steal jobs, but this is largely unfounded and a result of scaremongering in the media. The idea of a fully automated, ‘lights-out’ factory is still science fiction; the reality is far simpler, as the first step towards automation starts with identifying parts of a production line that are most suitable to automation – or more simply, the tasks that are the most dull, dirty or dangerous. While automation has advanced to the point where a robot can now take on many human tasks, it certainly cannot replace the human employee. In practice, by automating certain processes across a production line it frees up staff to take on more rewarding work. Rather than replacing human employees, automation will only ‘steal’ the most strenuous and monotonous tasks, and will likely bring about an evolution of roles. 

The pandemic has brought about a period of unprecedented uncertainty in the UK, but the end is hopefully in sight. A wider adoption of automation will help boost the country’s output and help UK manufacturers regain some operational certainties. Of course, automation isn’t a silver bullet for organisations looking to increase profitability, but the technology can be a powerful tool to boost productivity and remain competitive, not only against our European neighbours, but the wider world too.

Mark Gray is UK sales manager at Universal Robots.

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