Cobot in factory

Why faster adoption of robotics is key to industrial growth

Image credit: Shoeke27/Dreamstime

The UK has a unique opportunity to tap into the huge potential of technology to boost productivity and growth. Success will require long-term vision and a better understanding of how AI and automation can augment human skills.

Digital innovation has accelerated significantly in the past few decades, with emerging technologies such as robotics, generative AI and intelligent automation creating new opportunities for driving efficiencies and innovation. The manufacturing industry has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of these technological advancements. Robotics-oriented production processes are most obvious in factories and manufacturing facilities. In fact, approximately 90 per cent of all robots in operation today can be found in such facilities. Apart from improving productivity and efficiency, robotics offers greater precision and safety, resulting in improved product quality and faster service delivery.

Despite its many benefits, the UK manufacturing sector is not making the most of this technology. According to recent data the UK has a slower growth trajectory than many industrialised Western countries in its adoption of robotics.

How can we encourage faster adoption of robotics and AI to power productivity and innovation at scale?

First, we need to understand the root causes of the issue. The UK has some of the best universities in the world and some of the best technology researchers and tech talent. However, despite all this, our success rate at commercialising our academic research is low compared to other developed countries such as the US and Japan. Another big challenge for manufacturers is supply chain disruption, which has been further exacerbated by the increasing complexity of trading relationships with European markets. There is also limited availability of system integrators who have capabilities to manage complex robotics applications such as solutions that automate subtractive manufacturing processes like sanding, grinding and deburring. 

However, one of the biggest barriers to the wider adoption of advanced robotics in the UK is probably the short-termism of decision making when it comes to investment in the technology. As robotics solutions are complex products and require significant upfront investment, many manufacturers are discouraged by the initial cost as they expect a very quick return on investment, in many cases within only 12 months. This inhibits decisions in favour of adopting the technology. By contrast, in markets with faster adoption of robotics, organisations are estimating the return of investment over the value of their contracts, allowing them to see the longer-term benefits of the technology and making it easier for them to justify the investment.

To address this challenge, we need to focus on both the short term and long-term benefits of robotics and understand how it complements other existing technologies. For instance, low-code or no-code robotic programming is developing quickly and offers Industry huge potential to bring the benefits of automation to small to medium enterprises (SMEs) that can’t afford dedicated programming resource. The use of low-code and no-code robotics could also help address skill shortages in manufacturing by making the use of robotics in automation more accessible to people who don’t come from a traditional coding background.

A less obvious application of AI in robotics is the use of sensors for predictive maintenance. In this scenario, manufacturers can use the sensory data from robots to determine the optimal preventative maintenance of machines to avoid service disruption. Other emerging technologies such as generative AI are being used to develop ‘vision systems’ that can characterise machine components and identify defects and repair strategies. In the future generative AI will be used to translate visual information into generative adaptive processes, which will provide significant efficiency gains to organisations.

Another great application of robotics in manufacturing is connected automation. Connected automation uses robotic process automation (RPA), AI and robotics to form deeper connections between people, processes, and data, which is paramount to achieving scale and speed. In manufacturing this type of automation can be used to connect machines and automate processes in the manufacturing plant with minimal human intervention. This technology has immense transformative potential to disrupt business models in ways we’ve never imagined before.

We are also seeing increased interest in power- and force-limiting robots (commonly referred to as cobots or industrial collaborative robots) for lighter material-removal applications and these smaller cobots may be able to work alongside human employees and take on tasks that are repetitive, dangerous, and or require precision.

Cobots are designed to augment human capabilities and may be able to be programmed by holding them and teaching them physically how to do a certain task. This technology can be used to bring simple processes into the hands of people who don’t have the technical capabilities to do the work on their own. Any deployment of a robot, including a cobot, should include completion of a thorough risk assessment covering the entire application to ensure safety.

As robotics and automation are becoming increasingly adopted by manufacturers across the world, the UK has a unique opportunity to tap into the huge potential of these technologies to boost productivity and growth. Achieving this will require long-term vision, as well as a better understanding of the use cases of these emerging technologies and how they can augment human skills.

Paul Larking is global robotics & automation senior specialist, Abrasive Systems Division R&D at 3M.

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

Recent articles