Robots hit the road to show UK manufacturing the way

Chris Middleton Profile picture for user cmiddleton October 13, 2022
A robotics innovator talks about how UK manufacturing can position itself for the future

Image of a robot
(Image by StockSnap from Pixabay )

Industrial robotics company Universal Robots hits the road in the UK this week, with its latest ‘Collaborate’ event visiting the northern city of York. This will be the 35th live workshop in a series designed to show manufacturers – especially those in the struggling SME sector – the benefits of robotic automation, alongside hardware partners such as Robotiq, Ewelix, and Igus.

That it takes a Danish company to spread the word when the UK has long been a hotspot in fields such as robotics, end-effectors (robot hands and grippers), sensors, and artificial intelligence is interesting. But Universal Robots should be commended for reaching out to manufacturers with a positive message about productivity, skills, efficiency, and new opportunities, counterbalancing the apocalyptic message about job-stealing machines so beloved of tabloid newspapers. 

That said, the Collaborate event takes place at a new facility for the North of England: the University of York’s recently opened Institute for Safe Autonomy, the latest in a chain of academic venues and hubs that spans the UK and aims to speed innovation out of research labs and into business.

However, the big question facing the UK remains stark: why does a leading economy with flatlining productivity and fractional-to-negative growth lag behind its industrial peers when it comes to robotics and other Industry 4.0 technologies? 

According to figures presented by the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), analyst firm Balloon One, and others, the UK remains the only G7 nation with a robot density (the number of robots per 10,000 human workers) below the global average: 101 versus an average of 126. That’s far behind the likes of Sweden (289), the US (255), Denmark (246), Italy (224), Belgium (221), Netherlands (209), Spain (203), France (194), and Canada (176). Meanwhile, just five nations – China, Japan, the US, South Korea, and Germany – account for 76% of all industrial robot installations. 

The UK, with its new political mantra of “growth, growth, growth”, is nowhere by comparison – despite robotics being core to the (now scrapped) Industrial Strategy. To make matters worse, rumours abound of government plans to scale back investment in R&D to pay for October’s unfunded tax cuts: if true, a lamentable state of affairs.

The economic imperative to do better could not be clearer: the pound’s value against the dollar has fallen again this week, and there is more evidence that the UK is sliding into recession. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the economy shrank 0.3% month on month in August, hit by a slump in manufacturing: the very sector automation promises to help. Meanwhile, ONS data published on Monday revealed that UK trade openness – the size of its international trade flows relative to GDP – has fallen further than other G7 nations since Brexit.

I discussed these issues with Mark Gray, Universal Robots’ Country Manager for the UK and Ireland, who will lead the Collaborate event in York this week. Why do British manufacturers find it so hard to modernize? He said:

One of the simplest answers is that the UK has always been an economy that's relied heavily on labour, and we've been able to access cheap European labour. We haven't invested in automation as other countries have. And that's been a big issue for us: the fact that we need to change our mindset. 

But what has changed, certainly in the last couple of years – because of Brexit and COVID – is that UK businesses have had to completely rethink how they manufacture things. And they seem much more open to automation. So, we've seen the use of robotics increase exponentially. 

In the UK, we've seen big growth in the metalwork and machining sectors, especially to increase capacity so factories can run lights out [automated through the night]. There's also a shortage of skilled welders, so [robotic] welding has seen a spike. We also deal with people in logistics, food, packaging, plastics, medical devices, and pharmaceuticals, all of which have seen big growth for us in the last year.

Good news. However, the UK still has a mountain to climb from its historic inaction, despite the Industrial Strategy identifying robotics as a critical technology for economic prosperity. Gray said:

With the new agenda of ‘growth, growth, growth’, we can only achieve that if we create a culture and an environment where it's easy for businesses to adopt technology – not just automation, but technology in general. To be able to increase their productivity and make things with less waste for less cost, and less impact on humans.

Cobots > Robots 

On the latter point, why do UK commentators persist in associating robotics, automation, and Industry 4.0 technologies with job losses rather than job creation? Most of the world’s highly automated countries have low human unemployment, so there seems to be little correlation between ‘robots in’ and ‘humans out’.

Gray concurred with this assessment:

That’s the major question, isn’t it? We've got a dystopian view of the future with regards to automation. But for us, the clue is in the title of our products: we make cobots [collaborative robots] to work alongside people. 

The advantage of a cobot over a normal industrial robot is that it's designed to work with people to increase their productivity. It's a blend of both. That's one of the things that we really suffer from in the UK: low productivity. And the countries that have high productivity are all highly automated. 

Look at South Korea and Germany, for example. They haven't got mass unemployment because of automation, they’ve got very healthy employment, including in manufacturing. So that's one of the mindsets we need to get out of, that it’s either a robot or a person.

Where are the skills gaps in the UK when it comes to working alongside robots and other Industry 4.0 technologies? Gray added: 

There's a huge gap in the skills base for young people coming into this because we need robot programmers and automation engineers. For example, a robot master might have similar skill set to a mechanical fitter or an electrician to go into a factory. 

So, it’s not just about going to university to be a robot programmer, necessarily, but also more of a technical qualification. That's where we see the skills gap in the UK. But the situation is being addressed by a lot of universities and colleges creating courses to deliver those skills.

Is he frustrated that the Industrial Strategy, which focused on Industry 4.0, was quickly scrapped and replaced with something vaguer: the ‘Plan for Growth’? Gray said: 

To be fair, the Strategy was written a few years ago and it can be out of to date within two years, if you think about blockchain technology, cybersecurity, and cloud computing all evolving at such a rate.

But it seems obvious to me that if you want to be at the forefront of this, of using these new technologies in industry, then you need to have a minister who solely concentrates on it. One of the things we need is funding streams to create an environment where it's easy for people to develop and adopt new technologies. 

And you need to have localism, where you've got something in the middle: a college or a university, which has those relationships with businesses and with schools, where you can create a pathway, almost from cradle to grave. I think that's the only way it will work. 

Just having one big, broad strategy doesn't fit all businesses. SMEs are all completely different, and different parts of the UK have got different types of economy. One size does not fit all.

But we do need somebody who is championing this and able to access funding to help the UK do that. But at the moment it’s just not clear who's responsible and what their remit is, and how far they can go with it.

My take

An excellent assessment. With the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) currently led by a minister, Jacob Rees-Mogg, who is often lampooned as a Dickensian throwback with little interest in the modern world, it’s clear the UK needs to put someone more credible in charge of driving through new technology, at least. In the meantime, the UK’s businesses need active help and support: especially in R&D and in modernising their production lines. Just cutting taxes won’t achieve this, especially if it makes workers’ lives even more difficult.

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