An automation update from the MTC

Posted on 13 Apr 2022 by Joe Bush

At the recent MACH show in Birmingham, The Manufacturer caught up with Mike Wilson, Chief Automation Officer at the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC), to get an update on automation within the sector.

What is your role at the MTC?

I was brought in to help develop the strategy that the MTC is delivering around robotics and automation. In particular, to ensure that what we are delivering has a positive impact on UK industry; making sure we are helping businesses adopt what’s commercially available today, but also ensuring that what we are working on is close to what industry might need in the not-too-distant future. The aim is to take ideas from universities, help those ideas develop to the point where they can be exploited, and make sure it’s relevant to what industry is actually going to be using.

Mike Wilson - MTC

We’re growing our activity, firstly in terms of providing assistance where businesses, typically SMEs, recognise the need for robotics and automation, but are new to it. We help them go about adoption and deployment in the right way in terms of choosing the right application, and developing the initial concept and business case, so we can justify the amount of money being spent. We also help them write a specification, so that when they go out into the marketplace, what they require is clearly defined.

Then of course, we help them pick the right suppliers, because there are around 200 out there. For your average SME, it’s difficult to choose between them as they don’t have the resources to properly research the market.

You wrote a book in 2014, ‘Implementation of Robotic Systems’. How has the landscape changed since then?

To be honest it hasn’t changed all that much. In the UK, we’re still relatively slow at adopting robotics and automation. The International Federation of Robotics (IFR) collect data on robot density which analyses the number of robots per 10,000 workers. The UK’s position on that table has slowly but surely been falling and we’re now 24th.

We’re the ninth largest manufacturer in the world, so we ought to be in a similar position on the robotics density table. There’s an awful lot of businesses out there that still haven’t employed any automation or robotics. And they still need that assistance in order to do so. That’s what the book was about; providing that basic information.

Why is the UK lagging behind?

There are a number of answers to that question, which is perhaps why it’s not an easy problem to solve. But historically, as a country we have been relatively poor at capital investment; not just robots and automation, but across the board.

Particularly in manufacturing, we do not tend to invest in capital equipment in the same way as our major competitors. There was a report commissioned almost ten years ago by the All-Party Parliamentary Manufacturing Group (APMG) which looked at the culture of UK manufacturing, in particular, relating to productivity and investment. They called the report Making Good, which was a very well-chosen title. Because effectively they concluded that in the UK, we’re very proud that we keep all of our old machines running. Whereas in Germany, they’re very proud when they buy new ones. So, one of the biggest challenges is cultural; we just don’t invest in the latest technology, rather, we try and keep our old machinery going. And that holds back the adoption of robotics and automation.

Many businesses also employ short-term payback, which then restricts how much they can invest. I would argue that robots are going to last ten years, so longer-term thinking is required. For me a business should be looking at where it wants to be in five or ten years’ time, and then figure out how to get there. So there should be an automation strategy in the same way that there is a business strategy.

Another major issue over the last few years, is that we’ve brought in a lot of overseas people to work in the UK, particularly from Eastern Europe. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that; they’ve done a great job, worked hard and been rewarded for it.

However, it meant that we employed more people during that period than machinery. Whereas, in other countries in Europe, Germany, France, Italy etc, they took a different approach. When the Eastern European countries joined the European Union, the free movement of labour didn’t apply in most of Europe for a number of years, whereas it did in the UK.

In the UK, we’re very proud that we keep all of our old machines running. Whereas in Germany, they’re very proud when they buy new ones.

That meant that people were able to come to the UK to work. As I said, they did a great job, but it effectively gave all of our manufacturing businesses the option of bringing people in, rather than upgrading equipment. We’re now suffering as a result. Due to Brexit and COVID many people have returned to their home country, and we now have a labour shortage.

Even if this kick-starts automation in the UK, we’re starting behind everybody else. And we’re also starting from a position where we haven’t necessarily got all the skills and expertise to deploy it effectively. That’s why the work we’re trying to do at the MTC is so important, because we’re trying to help those businesses that now want to employ automation, in a way that limits the risk, minimises the chances of mistakes and enables them to learn from the benefit of our experience.

What are the long-term consequences if the UK fails to embrace automation?

There’s a number of specific challenges that need to be addressed, but generally, manufacturing could struggle because it can’t get the right people. That’s a concern. The sector could also struggle to be competitive, because our productivity is certainly behind most of our major rivals; 16-20% in some cases.

Unless we can address that, we’re going to have a problem and manufacturing is going to decline. I’m a great believer that we need a strong manufacturing sector. Maybe it only contributes 10% of GDP today, but it does contribute more than 50% of our exports. I’m still a great believer in making and selling things. That might sound old fashioned, but if we do that we generate income, which generates prosperity for the country.

The general trend over the last ten years or so has been to offshore which has resulted in very complex supply chains. There’s now a number of issues that will be influential in changing that state of affairs. One, which is a longer-term issue, is the net zero agenda, because we can’t continue to ship stuff all over the world if we want to be sustainable. And, we certainly can’t export the carbon issue just by moving the manufacturing somewhere else.

In the shorter-term, there’s been quite a few recent shocks, particularly related to supply chains, which have demonstrated that we need to be more resilient and manufacture more in the UK. Obviously challenges like COVID have had a significant impact on supply chains, but we’ve also had incidents of boats getting stuck in the Suez Canal; it’s happened once, it could happen again. Also the Ukraine war is having an impact on various supply chains. So, we need to figure out how to be more self-sufficient. And that includes bringing back some of our manufacturing and to have it based in this country. But to do that, due to the labour shortage and because it’s got to be competitive, we’ve got to use more automation; it’s got to be part of the plan.

Will robots ‘steal our jobs’?

That’s been the argument for many years, and there is always an example of a company installing a robot and displacing a person. However, for the vast majority of businesses, it doesn’t result in redundancy, and where that employee is displaced to actually means a better job which adds more value to the business; they may become a machine minder or a programmer.

Most businesses that have employed automation have actually ended up employing more people. As a specific example, over the last ten years, Jaguar Land Rover has brought in thousands of robots. However, they’ve also brought in thousands of people to work in the factories they’ve built in the UK. I would argue that if they hadn’t brought in that level of automation, they wouldn’t have built those factories in this country and none of those jobs would be here. The truth is that most companies that employ automation actually become more competitive. They then grow and employ more people. So it’s actually positive for jobs rather than negative.

However, it should be said that today, because of the labour shortage, the industry is not talking about job loses caused by automation and robotics, the conversation is more around the fact that companies can’t get the people. And if you can’t get the people, the only way forward is to look at automation. To me, that’s the right position. Because you use robots for the mundane, arduous, dirty, dangerous tasks, and use people where their skills are adding value. That will mean more interesting jobs and they will probably get better pay as a result.

What are some of the key barriers to entry for companies wanting to deploy automation?

For a lot of businesses there’s a perception that robotics in particular, but automation in general, is complicated and difficult. People have seen lines of robots in car plants for example, and think it’s not appropriate for them. They also think it’s expensive. Both of those views are no longer true.

Automation is much easier to use and not as expensive as people think. Cobots are a great example of that. There’s a growth in the use of cobots, particularly in SMEs. The main reason for that is partly because they’re easier to install, because you don’t necessarily need all the infrastructure around them from a safety perspective; in the same way as you would with an industrial robot. They are also much easier to program. That’s a great step forward and it’s making people more aware and happier to take the technology on.

At the MTC we’re trying to help those businesses that now want to employ automation, in a way that limits the risk, minimises the chances of mistakes and enables them to learn from the benefit of our experience.

In addition, a lot of people are nervous. Manufacturers will talk to vendors, but they know they are trying to sell them something, which you’d expect. However, if the manufacturer is new to automation, who can they trust to get an unbiased opinion? That’s what puts some people off approaching the market. This is where the MTC and the other members of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult (HVMC) can help. We’re not here to sell anything and we will give people an honest, unbiased opinion as to what is the right thing to do.

One of the key issues for me is picking the right application for automation. Many people will often point to their biggest problem as the one where they’d like to deploy robots. However, often the reason why it is the biggest problem in the first place is because it’s one of the more difficult jobs in the factory, which isn’t necessarily the easiest one to automate.

Recognise that there is a learning curve, so start with something relatively simple and work with us. We’ll help you identify what that job is. If you’re not ready for automation, we will also tell you and help you work through what might be required to get you to the point where you are ready – which could be something as simple as factory layout.

Can we learn from other nations around successful automation rollout?

We certainly can but it’s more around the solutions. The benefit of being behind a lot of other countries is that most of the solutions already exist. It’s not that we have to go out and develop brand new solutions to solving problems, we just have to look around. At MACH, most of the automation suppliers are global businesses, so they have access to what happens in the rest of the world.

The systems integrators that we have in the UK, that will ultimately deliver the system, are often much smaller businesses, and maybe haven’t had the benefit of seeing what’s happening elsewhere.

However, via the main equipment companies, we can access what’s going on and bring in the solutions, we don’t have to invent new solutions to solve problems. We just have to apply what’s already been done elsewhere, which makes things easier, reduces risk and should shorten adoption timescales.

What does the future of automation look like in the UK?

The landscape has certainly changed. At the moment there are an awful lot of businesses investigating and enquiring about automation, and there is a willingness to move forward. There’s a recognition that things need to be done differently, and that’s being driven by the outcomes of COVID and Brexit.

The one barrier that we still have is the reluctance to invest. Finance is still available and still relatively cheap, but I haven’t seen many businesses seriously going for it. There are some but we need everybody to be on the journey. So, we haven’t got there yet but I do think it’s starting to happen? I’m hopeful that when we come back to MACH in two years’ time that the situation will have changed significantly.

However, while we’re doing that, the rest of the world is, of course, still progressing. So, to overtake them we’re going to have to really move quickly. But even a slight acceleration could see a significant change in what happens in the UK. And it could start a snowball effect, particularly for the SMEs. They’ll see another company down the road who has had a success with an automation rollout, and that will start to spread the good news and encourage others to embark on their own journey.