Let’s talk Brexit with Universal Robots
06 April 2018
DPA & Connectivity Editor, Paige West, spoke to Mark Gray, UK Sales Manager of Universal Robots about the impact of Brexit on UK manufacturing and what it will mean for the future of automation.
UK manufacturers begun 2018 in the same upbeat manner they left last year on the back of continued improvement in global demand with a pick-up in the UK market. Despite this growth in manufacturing, investment by Britain’s manufacturers has seen a reality check in response to the continued political uncertainty surrounding Brexit.
What impact has pre-Brexit had on Universal Robots and the cobot industry? And what impact, if any, do you see post-Brexit having?
So far in my 15 months at Universal Robots, Brexit has had a positive impact; people are starting to look at automation, collaborative robots in particular, to fill the gap that Brexit will leave in the market for readily available labour. The UK employs a lot of temporary labour, for simple tasks such as packing and picking, and if we lose this companies need a backup strategy. In the last 6-8 months, companies have begun to put aside a budget for automation and specifically look at employing robotics to automate simple tasks.
Post-Brexit may see this calm down a little, but at the moment it’s playing into the hands of robotics manufacturers and automation companies in general.
The UK is currently lagging behind in its adoption of robotics. Will Brexit help or hinder the robotic movement?
It’s widely known the UK is slow to adopt robotics, with around 33 robots per 10,000 people compared to 390 in Germany. Traditionally we’ve always been a very labour intensive market and as a manufacturing nation we don’t make things in a lean manner, but as cheaply and quickly as we can. However, we are starting to adopt a more forward thinking attitude. Although we are still lagging behind, I see it changing and had we not been facing Brexit it probably would have been at a slower rate. As people get more enlightened with the technology that’s available, they are positively embracing automation, which naturally means an uptake in robots.
According to the UK statistics authority, UK manufacturers currently employ 300,000 EU citizens, representing about 10 percent of the workforce. What effect will a post-Brexit world have on our already depleted workforce? And what can businesses do to combat the problem?
Let’s take a look at an individual industry - British plastics. It employs about 275,000 people and roughly 10 percent of their workforce are foreign workers. Brexit will hit them hard as people start to head home, mostly because this particular industry doesn’t attract the younger generation. So a depleted workforce will be a real problem. My own feeling is that we won’t lose the whole of this workforce, but anecdotally, the manufacturers I speak to in various sectors say there’s less new people coming in from abroad to work.
Robots aren’t going to solve everything, they will, however, solve a large part of the problem. UK manufacturers are now engineering robots into their production processes ready for the future and this will only increase.
That’s not to say humans will become obsolete. Research has shown that using robots can make processes more efficient, leading to increased production and jobs. For example, one company in Denmark implemented 42 robots into its production line in the space of 18 months and it created 50 jobs. This was because they could make more product at a cheaper rate so they won more market share. This solution is the key; if we can make our products better and less expensive, we’ll win a better market share and be more profitable which will lead to more jobs. Robots replacing people is becoming outdated.
Our CTO, Esben H. Østergaard, actually talks about Industry 5.0 which is about putting humans back at the centre of industrial production – aided by tools such as collaborative robots (cobots). Click here to read the full thought paper
With the UK manufacturing industry in mind, what key components do the Government need to bear in mind when negotiating to leave the EU?
The focus needs to be on free trade, so we can still export products - this is critical. It’s also important to maintain links with the EU and the rest of the world. The EU is one of Britain’s biggest trading partners so there’s no doubt there will be some impact but there’s also lots of intertwined companies and foreign companies that have a UK manufacturing base which we need to maintain.
A lot of the manufacturing companies that I visit all face the same uncertainty. What they would like to see is a forward work plan or a guide on how we will tackle the next two or three years. In particular, something with milestones where manufacturers can pinpoint themselves and see what’s going to be put in place to help them.
Which sectors do you see being affected the most post-Brexit?
Food is certainly one - the food industry is very labour intensive, in agriculture particularly with around 75 percent of workers being foreign labour. There are actually strategies being put forward to look at automating processes such as picking fruit, weeding out plants etc. The same goes for Logistics, as this sector is also labour intensive and looking to automate jobs such as picking and packaging, as well as the Automotive supply chain which has lots of foreign labour involved in the manufacture of trim parts etc.
I can see robotics being adopted by a large number of industries, including the larger corporations and the SMEs. One of Universal Robots’ strategies, when we market to companies affected by Brexit, is that we’re not a company with huge pieces of capital equipment that needs a qualified individual to programme and maintain. Our devices are meant to be implemented very quickly, are flexible and ultimately the software is very simple for people to programme. It’s designed to get the end user up and running fairly quickly. The key thing is also the short pay back; 9 months is our typical pay back if the task is simple loading and unloading, giving companies who are unsure about investing reassurance.
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