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The UK has “too few robots”, MPs report

01 October 2019

A new report from MPs on the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy concludes Britain urgently needs more investment in robots to boost pay and create better manufacturing jobs.

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The Automation and the future of work report highlights how the UK’s slow adoption of automation is being hampered by a lack of action from the Government, with entire regions of the country at risk of being left behind by G7 competitors. It argues that, unless concerted efforts are made to manage the transition to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, UK businesses will miss a pivotal opportunity for economic growth. 

According to the report, in 2015 the UK had just 10 robots for every million hours worked compared with 167 in Japan. By 2017, the UK represented just 0.6% of industrial robotics shipments. 

The report has been welcomed by Fanuc UK’s Managing Director Tom Bouchier. He comments: “The report urges our Government to establish a Robot and AI Strategy by 2020, which is a crucial step in building confidence amongst businesses, industries and universities. There is significant appetite for automation, but the Government needs to take the lead on coordinating efforts to capitalise on emerging technologies.

“The UK has great potential, with a superb base of technology and research, but by embracing robots at a slower pace than our international competitors, we risk falling behind. To combat this, Fanuc will be hosting its first UK Open House. This has been arranged as a conscious effort to showcase the power of automation to improve productivity, stimulate market growth, and ultimately create a new wave of skilled workers that will help British industry to flourish.”

The report also discourages the notion of a ‘robot tax’, which would be inhibitive to the adoption of automation and the interests of businesses and workers. It argues that UK Government should incentivise investment in new technology, such as robots, given the likely boost this will give to SMEs.

Reflecting on the barriers to automation, the report suggests that a lack of awareness and understanding is particularly damaging. It criticises the Government’s decision to close the Manufacturing Advice Service in 2015, highlighting it as indicative of a nation yet to grasp the importance of educating and supporting businesses on emerging technologies. 

Tom Bouchier adds: Education and generating awareness of the power of automation are perhaps the biggest challenges we face in UK manufacturing, and it is something that needs to be addressed at all levels. It starts by ensuring that school and university curriculums are exposing people to new technologies from a young age, providing a clear entry route for everyone, regardless of socio-economic background, race, or gender. 

“But it is also crucial that we continue to educate higher up the chain. We need to support UK Government by offering specialist support on technical matters, so that it can show the strong leadership that we are asking for. The report calls for funding of an impartial source of advice for businesses looking to invest in automation, which is the type of support that SMEs need to compete on a world stage.

“UK Government’s role in managing the transition to new technologies and a more automated industry is absolutely critical, but it must do so with the support of businesses. Manufacturers such as Fanuc UK are obliged to use their expertise to showcase the benefits of automation and robotics, which is what makes events such as our upcoming Open House on Manufacturing Automation & Digital Transformation so important.”

Mark Gray of Universal Robots has also responded:

“This report confirms what we’ve all known in the industry for some time. Far from being a threat to jobs, automation is the key to increasing productivity and ensuring UK manufacturers can compete on a global scale. 

“Too often we see robots and automation presented as something to be afraid of which puts off the exact SME manufacturers who can derive the most benefit. In reality they are simply another tool that enables humans to add more value elsewhere in the process. In almost every case I’ve witnessed, for every manual task performed by a robot there are many more jobs created in the likes of quality control, logistics and distribution. 

“At Universal Robots, we emphasise the importance of collaborative robots (cobots). These are designed to work alongside their human counterparts as the ‘workforce of the future’. With flexibility in mind, the cobots are built to do more than simply carry heavy loads. The lightweight solution ensures that they can adapt with manufacturers’ production needs and transported anywhere on the assembly line. 

“In my opinion, we shouldn’t be concerned about how many robots Britain has but how few.”

Dr Jenifer Baxter, Head of Engineering at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers said:

“We welcome and support the recommendations of this report. Automation is a critical part of our engineering future and as engineers we are very aware of the lack of understanding about the role it can play in improving work environments. 

“The use of AI and robots are tools that support the effective delivery of automation into our workplaces across all sectors, but it is crucial that people understand how automation can help support and improve current jobs rather than necessarily replacing their jobs.

“The recommendation to deliver a new strategy must be approached with product development in mind. It must be rooted in the needs of society and explore how autonomous or assisting systems can meet these needs. 

“By framing progressive automation this way and actively using our institutions like research catapults and implementing Made Smarter, we can advance our manufacturing, healthcare and energy systems for the benefit of society.” 

Read the report here.

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