Automation & Robotics: reach out and touch the future

Posted on 15 Feb 2016 by Ruari McCallion

Will tomorrow’s factories be lights-out operations populated entirely by machines or will automation enable new heights of productivity? Ruari McCallion presses a few buttons.

According to a recent report from Barclays Bank – Future Proofing UK Manufacturing – investing £1.2bn into manufacturing processes to increase robotics and automation over the next decade could add as much as £60.5bn to the UK economy, which is equivalent to adding nearly two-fifths of today’s value of the manufacturing sector.

Rise of the machines

  • Worldwide supply of robots (est): 205,000 in 2014 (World Robotics 2014)
  • The total number of industrial robots in UK – 190,000, according to World Robotics 2013 – is less than one-tenth the number in Germany
  • Even after major investment over the past few years, the UK’s industrial density of 622 robots/10,000 employees in the auto industry is only around half that of the German and Italian auto sectors
  • Outside of the auto industry, the UK’s density of 27/10,000 robots in manufacturing is approximately one-fifth that of Germany (137/10,000); one-quarter that of Italy (113/10,000); and half that of France: 59/10,000
  • £1.2bn invested in robotics and automation over the next 10 years could:
    • Add £60.5bn to the economy
    • Protect 33,000 manufacturing jobs by 2020
    • Safeguard 73,000 manufacturing jobs by 2025
  • Each £1 invested in automation returns £49 of value

More than half (58%) of British manufacturers from the survey said they already invest in automation, and 68% believe there are opportunities for further investment in the future – which is broadly in line with the findings of Hennik Research’s Annual Manufacturing Report 2016.

It found that 83% of companies implemented some form of automation in their production in the past five years and 60% claimed improvements in working conditions and job satisfaction.

Automation brings improvement in productivity, consistency and quality – 65% of respondents to Barclays’ survey concurred.

Jobs or serfdom?

However, automation and investment in robots continues to be a source of concern for some. A report published in January by global recruitment group, Hays, found that almost 25% of 18-24 year olds believe their job could be replaced by a robot in the next 10 years.

Older people appear to be more sanguine, with only 15% of 45-54 year olds believing that they would be replaced by machines.

The Bank of England’s Andy Haldane seems to be on the side of the pessimists; he said that by the end of 2015 as many as 15 million UK jobs could be replaced by robots in the future, with many machines now capable of “thinking as well as doing”.

On the other hand, Bank of America Merrill Lynch estimated that as many as 10 million jobs have already been created by increasing use of automation, with another 3.5 million set to be created before 2020.

What, then, is the truth? Does automation increase employment or reduce it? A bit of both, according to Mike Wilson, General Industry Sales and Marketing manager, ABB Robotics UK and Ireland.

“There is always a short-term impact on employment,” he said. “If you put a robot in to do a job that a person is currently doing, that person is replaced.

Barclay's - Automation Robotics Report PQ“However, the evidence is that they are redeployed to different, higher quality tasks. Automation improves productivity and quality, and so improves the competitiveness of the company.”

Lloyds Bank is convinced of the value of automation to its customers. “Many firms are concerned that investing in automation will result in job losses, when in reality it can help firms to grow their business,” said Dave Atkinson, head of manufacturing at Lloyds Bank Commercial Banking.

“The food and drink industry in particular has adapted robotics, using x-ray machines to scan food for foreign bodies – automated processes can often be more accurate and quicker than staff at certain processes, and don’t need a break from repetitive tasks, helping manufacturers make better use of their staff across other areas of the business.”

Lloyds says that it has committed to lend more than £1bn a year to manufacturers to the end of 2017. Mike Rigby, head of Manufacturing at Barclays Bank, emphasises that automation is probably the most valuable investment companies can make.

Magnifying Returns

“The economic analysis finds that a business can expect to see a return of £49 for every £1 invested in automation,” he said. “The benefits are achieved by being more globally competitive and resilient.”

ABB Robotics research supports the contention that automation and robotics increase productivity and competitiveness.
ABB Robotics research supports the contention that automation and robotics increase productivity and competitiveness.

The tangible impact is estimated to be the creation or protection of 33,000 manufacturing jobs by 2020 and 73,000 by 2025.

While ABB Robotics has clearly got ‘skin in the game’, its research supports the contention that automation and robotics increase productivity and competitiveness, and it is failure to automate and mechanise that destroys jobs.

In the period 1993-2007, manufacturing employment in this country fell by around 55%, while the use of robots rose by around 80%. By contrast, Germany’s deployment of robots rose by around 165% and its manufacturing employment declined by less than 20%, according to Graetz & Michaels, Robots at Work 2015.

Of course, that decline in UK manufacturing jobs also reflects a switch to a service economy, but the case for automation is made most strongly by the sector that has grown fastest since 2007: automotive.

BMW’s Mini Plant Oxford and Jaguar Land Rover’s plants at Solihull and Halewood especially, are examples of soaring productivity, made possible by heavy investment in automation and robotics.

Inside the BMW Mini plant near Oxford
Inside the BMW Mini plant near Oxford.

So, why have UK businesses not jumped in at the deep end? The uptake of these technologies was undoubtedly given a boost by the Annual Investment Allowance (AIA), according to CapGemini, but is it all a ‘government thing’?

“The Government can help in creating a political and economic environment that will encourage investment. In our experience, the AIA removes a ‘reason not to invest’,” said Rigby.

“But it is up to vendors of automation and robotics to make the case. They have to make their products easier to use, more programmable and adaptable to different environments.”

But it is happening, it would appear. He reckons that every factory he visits on his weekly tours has new equipment and more automation.

“In my opinion, the future of manufacturing is going to continue moving towards increased use of automation and robotics, removing the requirement for human interaction in the manufacturing processes.

“This is not to say that engineers and a skilled workforce will no longer be required, it is just that their skill set will need to change,” Neil Gallant, managing director at Neutronic Technologies, observed.

Automate UK – growth through automation

The Automation Advisory Board Thought Leadership Network’s annual conference,Automate UK will provide the opportunity to hear from industry experts not only making the case for automation equipment, but showcasing what is available and what it’s capable of.

By learning from the most innovative manufacturers embracing automation – including BMW Mini; Jaguar Land Rover; Aston Martin; Accolade Wines; Lambert Engineering; Philips AVENT; Brother Industries, and GKN Aerospace, Automate UK offers a unique benchmarking and learning experience to all those who attend.

With the limited free places available expected to go quickly, you’ll need to be swift to secure your place before full price tickets will be the only option available.

Find out more information here.

“As robotic automation becomes more commonplace the capital costs of implementation should be driven down, which will allow access for smaller companies to implement fully automated production lines.”

Connectivity: joined–up thinking

Talk to businesses about Industry 4.0 or the internet of things (IoT) and they might scratch their heads, according to Rigby – but it’s a different matter when you ask about connectivity.

“When you explain what you mean they readily acknowledge they are using information that comes off their machines and they are very comfortable about that,” he said. “They are using information generated to improve their performance.”

Asif Moghal, manufacturing industry manager, Autodesk, has some pretty clear ideas of where connectivity is taking industry and what manufacturers should be aware of.

“The barriers between bio, electronic and mechanical are blurring – it will be impossible to tell the difference, one day. They will simply be applied, across the board, as appropriate,” he said.

That sounds a scary concept to the uninitiated but it’s simply a question of mindset, he implies. The technology to design mechanical devices is now largely cloud-based. That gives greater accessibility and allows people to exercise their innovative muscles collaboratively, with some remarkable effects.

“This is putting the technology into the hands of ‘bright young things’, who can suddenly come up with, say, a £2,000 robot arm,” Moghal said. “It used to be all about industrial applications; it’s now much more variable.

“Devices will inevitably become cheaper; at some point, they will become ‘free’, because the value will be in the ongoing support.”

Connected Technologies Mobile Industry 4.0
Industry 4.0 describes the range of capabilities and technologies that will transform many manufacturing sectors.

Much like mobile phones, which network operators will provide without upfront charge, in exchange for a contractual commitment to use their added-value services.

“Industry 4.0 is the general term that describes the range of capabilities and technologies that will transform many manufacturing sectors creating capability for bespoke products and distributed, highly automated facilities,” said Scott Steedman, director of Standards, British Standards Institute (BSI).

“This includes using digital information and automation technologies to make processes more efficient, flexible and adaptable, and to enable them to integrate with the manufactured product in its use phase post-manufacture.”

What this means is, anyone talking about Industry 4.0 is talking about methods to improve manufacturing performance.

“Examples of where these new capabilities will add value include mass customisation, which is the ability to manufacture products that meet an individual specific need, while retaining the reduced unit costs associated with mass production,” he explained.

Moghal agrees, and asserts that this represents an opportunity that the UK can seize. “Robotics takes basic tasks away, enabling us to focus on higher value activities,” he said.

COP146 - Three things you didn't know about IIoT - BP
What this means is, anyone talking about Industry 4.0 is talking about methods to improve manufacturing performance.

“The workshops of the future will be highly automated; the human difference is innovation and skills. Software will offer more key functionality.”

People want to be treated as ‘markets of one’; the challenge is to deliver that without incurring massive increases in cost. The belief is that increased connectivity – Industry 4.0, the ‘New Industrial Revolution’ will enable it.

“Local manufacturing plants on retail parks could provide bespoke manufacturing capability to local companies to manufacture small runs or individual items to order in a fully automated factory,” said Steedman.

“Recently JLR have developed a virtual commissioning capability that develops a common vehicle platform that can be used for any future vehicles under development.

“This is enabled by automated control systems, and the time taken for a new assembly line to reach production after commissioning has reduced from a number of weeks to a matter of days.”

Other benefits could include personalised medicines, which could be produced on bedside equipment that could perform lots of different manufacturing processes at a fraction of the cost of manufacturing existing drugs; it is Industry 4.0 technologies that will make it a reality.

Pharmaceutical machine operating
Industry 4.0 technologies could make personalised medicines a reality.

BSI is working with a number of leading stakeholders, including the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, to research key issues, including:

  • exploring opportunities for significant productivity growth in the UK manufacturing sectors,
  • where the UK should take the lead in the development of standards to help accelerate innovations in these sectors,
  • what international partnerships need to be established to ensure the UK remains competitive.

BSI is working with counterparts in Germany to agree how industry standards can be developed or adapted.


Robots are breaking out of their cages. The typical industrial machine had to be guarded, lest it damaged the delicate people around it, oblivious to their presence.

But a new generation of robots are more sensitive to their surroundings and able to work alongside human beings – even right alongside them.

ABB Robotics’ YuMi is designed to be used in close proximity to regular personnel.

ABB Robotics’ YuMi is designed to be used in close proximity to regular personnel.
ABB Robotics’ YuMi is designed to be used in close proximity to regular personnel.

“As a collaborative robot, or ‘cobot’, YuMi is easier to put into the process and allows businesses to decide better and more flexibly where to use robots and where to use people,” said ABB’s Wilson.

“The robot can undertake the repetitious jobs while its human co-workers focus on the more intricate activities.”

Its sensors enable it to do its job; its design means that it has no trapping points on its arm. It currently has a low weight capacity – just half a kilo – so it is inherently safe.

“YuMi is aimed at small parts assembly in areas such as electronics, medical equipment and toys, for example,” Wilson explained.

“It also opens up robotics to businesses that haven’t had them in the past; companies that need flexibility and that need to integrate automation more effectively than was the case in the past.”

AME invests in ‘cobots’ and advanced robotics

The Institute for Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering (AME), a collaboration between Coventry University and Unipart Manufacturing.
The Institute for Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering (AME) is a collaboration between Coventry University and Unipart Manufacturing.

The Institute for Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering (AME), a collaboration between Coventry University and Unipart Manufacturing, has recently invested in a ‘state-of-the-art’ Cobot system.

The ABB YUMI robot is equipped with vision sensing, force torque sensing and the ability to learn, and is inherently safe to work with humans.

AME currently has two advanced robotic and automation cells devoted to robotic training and research.

The multi-axis synchronised ‘Robot Training Cell’ consists of four workstations, each equipped with a multipurpose 6-axis industrial robot. These can be used individually or linked together to create a fully automated assembly cell.

The robotic welding cell, which replicates a full size production facility, uses an 8-Axis robot to manipulate highly complex fabrications augmented with innovative tooling and the latest welding technology.

It enables the user to refine existing methodologies and explore novel solutions for future products.

Successful completion of a recent project will see Unipart commencing short to medium volume production of a lightweight exhaust system for Aston Martin. The parts are expected to be fitted to vehicles from summer 2016.