Britain’s imperative to automate

Posted on 1 Jan 2014

Reduce operating costs, increase quality, become competitive. The Manufacturer's Automation Advisory Board's mission is to educate companies about the benefits of automating manufacturing processes.

19th. That’s the United Kingdom’s global position, down from 17th last year, in robot density, or the number of robots per 10,000 employees.

While South Korea and Japan have nearly 400 robots installed per 10,000 workers, Britain has a lowly 67, a small rise on 2012.

So what? Does British manufacturing actually need to automate? Orders are rising and much of manufacturing is very efficient, so why change the status quo?

Two primary drivers of automation investment are to reduce labour and to increase quality and repeatability. Reduced operating costs and higher quality are advantages that foreign – and domestic – competitors with more automated manufacturing processes are gaining, and will continue to.

The Manufacturer has launched the Automation Advisory Board, or AAB, a cross-vendor industry group whose purpose is to demonstrate the advantages and cost savings to realise from more automation in factories. Five of the nine AAB members give their views on this need:


Mike Wilson
General Industry Sales and Marketing Manager, ABB

Mike Wilson, ABB

“Our manufacturing sector is improving and exports are growing but we are slipping on the international league table – the UK was 4th not that long ago and is now 10th.

Developing countries, particularly China, are significantly increasing their use of robots, despite relatively low wage costs, because they recognise that to be competitive they need to use the best tools to achieve both productivity and quality. This will be a growing threat to the UK.

ABB26 Youngman

“The main problems in British manufacturing in my view are a lack of skills to develop solutions, implement and maintain the latest automation technologies; and a short term approach to capital investment.

We want the best manufacturing in the world. We are good at product and process innovation and efficient manufacturing, e.g. lean implementation, in this country. We are not good at capital investment, including automation. To compete we need to get all three right.”



Martin Walder
UK Manager – Industries, Rockwell Automation

Martin Walder, Rockwell Automation
Martin Walder, Rockwell Automation

“If a manufacturing process can be automated then goods can frequently be produced competitively here in the UK.

Domestic consumption with short term flexible demands and the constant drive for environmentally-friendly solutions, add weight to the argument for more local production.

I chair the Engineering and Machinery Alliance, which has long campaigned for increased capital investment in manufacturing and processing, and specifically investment in automation. After many years of writing it off, manufacturing is now finally firmly on the government’s agenda – witness BIS’s launch of the Automate Manufacturing Fund for £600,000 in 2011, which we understand is to be repeated in some guise.

Rockwell cheese processing
Rockwell equipment saved Barbers £3,000 per day in processing time

Often a good SME business just does not know what can be done with this equipment, they don’t know what the benchmark is for an efficient manufacturing process. Our job is to educate across the piece to say “Look what has been done here, this is a 20-person company but this technology has let them achieve this productivity.”


By implementation of an automated weighing and cutting system, food processing company Barbers has been able to reduce this giveaway from between 4% and 5% down to less than 1%… [a saving] worth up to £3,000 per day.


Brian Holliday
Brian Holliday, Siemens

Brian Holliday

Divisional Director, Industry Automation, Siemens Industry UK

“Being involved in the AAB is key for us because this expert platform will be dedicated to promoting the productivity enhancing benefits that automation brings to high value manufacturing.

It will allow Siemens and our partners to highlight the real economic benefits that this type of technology brings to Britain.”

Coca-Cola Enterprises
Coca-Cola Enterprises canning line at Sidcup

A great example is our partnership with KHS for the five new canning lines for Coca-Cola Enterprises.

Our industrial automation solutions deployed at the Sidcup plant increased production by another 20 million cases per annum, which will provide additional capacity for consumer growth.



Neil Lloyd
Head of Sales Development, Lombard

Neil Lloyd, Head of Sales and Development, Lombard Business Commercial
Neil Lloyd, Lombard Business Commercial

“Automation is important to UK manufacturing because the benefits to be gained from improved productivity, consistently higher quality and cost reduction are being harnessed by other countries, improving their competitiveness. While copying others’ strategies is not always a good idea, it is clear that the advantages of automation will help us keep pace with other manufacturing nations.

It’s rare that a robot is purchased as a standalone asset and more often than not they are part of a larger investment plan. This can make them difficult to fund because they become an integral part of a production line, which in itself may be funded by another finance company.

Hymid Multishot
Hymid Multishot's new Arburg plastic injection moulding machine

As such it’s always best to use a funder that has the asset knowledge and expertise to be able to see and explain to underwriters the bigger picture.

Typically Lombard will look for what added value the automation will bring the business in obvious areas such as cost reduction, increased productivity and profitability and also how it will benefit staff or reduce energy consumption.”



Ian Walker
General Sales Manager, KUKA Robotics UK

“In the UK, KUKA has changed its proposition to become a product seller more than a solutions provider, such is the maturing of knowledge within certain niches where robots are now a proven solution.

Ian Walker, Ken Young MTC-web
Ian Walker of Kuka and Ken Young, the Manufacturing Technology Centre

Certain areas of the market are already aping customer behaviour seen elsewhere in the world, where the robot supplier can sell a product out-of-a-box to a customer who appreciates its advantages, who is able to identify application and discipline, and engineer that solution themselves. In effecting this change, KUKA in the UK has seen robot numbers double, then triple in recent years.

However, it is equally evident that – no matter how convincing the proposition – the message still isn’t either being delivered coherently, or fully understood.

KUKA spot welding
KUKA robots spot welding on a car line

Within this context, in many markets the investment ratios we’re able to achieve in the UK, be that measured by robots per employee or robots per pound invested, do not reach the density being delivered in other developed economies.

In order to accelerate the step-change needed to take up robotic-based automated solutions in certain markets that are slower to adopt then their peers elsewhere in the world, KUKA has joined the Automation Advisory Board, to be a significant voice and player in a process to deliver changes needed to keep our economies globally competitive.”

What do you think?
If you run or work for a manufacturing company, do you need to know more about the benefits, or do you think more automated processes are unnecessary to be efficient? Do you think that automating Britain is a serious risk to jobs? The Automation Advisory Board would like to hear from you: contact [email protected].