We must invest more in robots to improve UK productivity, says PPMA CEO

Robotics and automation are a major solution to improving the UK's productivity levels, says CEO of PPMA trade organisation.

Artificial intelligence automation robotics robots cobots - image courtesy of Depositphotos
The UK has only 71 industrial robots per 10,000 workers, below the world average. – image courtesy of Depositphotos

Businesses and government must invest more in robotics if Britain is to improve its poor productivity levels, the CEO of PPMA Group has said.

Dr Andrew Mint, whose organisation represents over 500 companies, some of whom are robotics businesses, made the comments in a speech at the Smart Factory Expo in Liverpool today, where Digital Manufacturing Week is taking place.

He claims that robotics are often misunderstood by both business and the general public and that these misconceptions hold back investment in the sector.

Among the multiple benefits he cited of increased investment in robotics are higher productivity, consistently better quality, and improved competitiveness. One case study he mentioned was of a factory in the northwest that used robotics to produce poppadoms. The robots had not broken down in eight years and so were able to produce an extremely large number of poppadoms.

Dr Mint also said robots offered businesses greater flexibility, extendable production hours, improved health and safety and more rewarding jobs. He cited a study from the Copenhagen Business School which modelled how much productivity in manufacturing would increase if all industries in a country had the highest found level of robot-intensity. It estimated that productivity would rise in the UK by 22%.

Often, under-investment is due to worries over jobs. Dr Mint blames the media for writing too many scare stories: “It’s very hard to find in the general press, a positive reaction to robots,” he noted. “Many people don’t realise that robotics isn’t about making people redundant or about replacing humans.”

There are far more positives coming from robotics than negatives he said. Collaborative robots, which physically interact with humans in a shared workspace are easier to install and use, have more flexibility and less impact on existing production facilities. They also allow human beings to perform more interesting creative tasks while robots carry out all the mundane and repetitive jobs.

Statistics from the International Federation of Robotics show that in 2016, the number of installed industrial robots per 10,000 workers was 74. At a country level, Germany and Japan had more than 300 robots per 10,000 workers while the United States has 109. The UK is below the world average with 71 robots per 100,000 workers.

Dr Mint stated that if British manufacturing is going to become more productive, it will require product and process innovation, effective organisation, and capital investment. More government support is required along with a change of culture. Sweat the assets not the people,” he pithily asserted.

“We’ve under-invested in things like apprenticeships and we’re starting to see the implications from that,” he said. He added that capital investment was an absolutely crucial factor in the success of business in the long term, because as the great tycoon Henry Ford remarked: “If you need a machine and don’t buy it, then you will ultimately find that you have paid for it and don’t have it.”

Smart Factory Expo is Europe’s largest digital manufacturing show – presenting the most extensive free programme of presentations across seven stages, 150+ exhibitors, and thousands of digitally-savvy manufacturers.

It is the largest component of Digital Manufacturing Week, an annual celebration of UK manufacturing excellence that takes place every November in Liverpool. This year saw 5,322 visitors to Digital Manufacturing Week (up 36% on 2017).

Clear your diary and join us next year: 13-14 Nov 2019!


Reporting by Harry Wise