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UK industry aims for a higher position in the robot race

Image credit: ABB

Faced with the twin challenges of Covid and Brexit, a UK manufacturing sector that has fallen behind competitors in its use of automation is looking to technology to help it ‘build back better’.

A recent report by the International Federation of Robotics, ‘Robot Race: The World's Top 10 Automated Countries’, measures robot density: the number of operational industrial robots relative to the number of workers.

Unsurprisingly, five of the top ten countries in 2019 are in Asia, including the number one, Singapore. Five are European (the continent’s top-ranked is Germany, with Belgium and Luxembourg tied in tenth place), while the US comes in ninth.

The UK, once a global manufacturing powerhouse, doesn’t appear in the top ten. Nor indeed does it make it into the top 20 in a wider IFR list of countries that measures robots per employee. However, there are reasons to be optimistic that the UK is set to become a genuine contender in the dynamic automation race.

It is now recognised by the UK government and industry that robotics and automation equate to clear improvements in productivity, visibility, flexibility, quality, consistency and reliability of output. Food and beverage manufacturers that are well automated, for example, can adapt their operations to suit demand – not just different types of products and the rate at which they are introduced to market – enabling them to respond easily to short, seasonal lifecycles and shifting consumer tastes.

Machines can, and should, take on the dirty, dangerous, repetitive jobs for which employers increasingly find it difficult to recruit people. In a survey carried out in January 2021, ABB found that 78 per cent of UK businesses struggle to recruit and retain staff for repetitive and ergonomically challenging roles. Overall, it’s estimated that robots have the potential to raise UK manufacturing GVA by 21 per cent in less than a decade.

Why has the UK slipped so far behind the rest of the world and what can be done to redress the balance, to help industry ‘build back better’ following the twin challenges of Covid-19 and Brexit?

Many manufacturers continue to prioritise short-term return on investment from new assets rather than taking a more holistic view, where the initial purchase cost is weighed against benefits such as optimised production; predictive maintenance; reduced downtime, and environmental footprint.

Robotic automation costs pretty much the same wherever in the world it is deployed. It is therefore a great way of levelling the playing field when it comes to competitiveness, allowing countries with a high-cost economy base like the UK to compete with perceived lower-cost manufacturing regions.

Encouragingly, in the past three or four years more and more UK manufacturers have realised the benefits of reshoring operations, particularly component manufacturing, a trend that has only been accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic and the signing of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement with the EU.

This change of mentality is partly a result of efforts by companies like ABB to demonstrate not just the productivity gains from digital assets, but also their ease of use, flexibility and long lifecycles: industrial and collaborative robots can easily be retooled and repurposed for new tasks and projects.

Automation can be used to address concerns around cross-contamination at every stage in the food and beverage production cycle; for example, from raw-product handling to primary and secondary packaging, at the same time enabling the production of bespoke, customised products for better shelf appeal.

At least 80 per cent of data generated by industry is not being properly utilised, often because it is contained within legacy systems that operate in separate silos and on different formats. Digitalisation is the key to unlocking this vast potential and adding genuine value to industrial output. Tools that contextualise data and combine it with smart algorithms, industrial analytics and artificial intelligence allow manufacturers to make informed decisions driven by actionable data.

At a grass-roots level, this means better asset management and predictive maintenance that leads to improved equipment uptime and productivity, as well as better predictions around future demand.

In addition to the UK automotive sector, where robotics and automation is already embedded to a high level, we are seeing increased demand from traditional manual industries such as construction, where automation offers the potential to take risky and/or repetitive tasks off building sites and into off-site manufacturing facilities, resulting in many safety benefits, improved quality and productivity.

ABB’s recent industry survey found that eight out of ten workplaces plan to introduce or increase their use of robots in the next decade, with Covid-19 cited as a catalyst driving investment in automation. We strongly believe that the use of robotics and automation is key to UK manufacturing’s ability to compete on the global stage in the wake of Covid-19 and Brexit – not only in terms of productivity, but also when it comes to shortening supply chains and sharpening the focus on environmental footprint and the circular economy.

Nigel Platt is general manager, robotics and discrete automation, at ABB UK

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