Robot adoption: The SME challenge

Posted on 12 Dec 2019 by Jonny Williamson

The 10th quarterly SWMAS Manufacturing Barometer included a ‘special focus’ exploring the attitudes of UK SME businesses towards robots, revealing where manufacturers are successfully using automation, where they are not, and what we can learn from them.

The headline finding is that just 16% of SME manufacturers are already using robots and, worryingly, more than 70% either do not plan to or do not know if they will utilise robots in their operations.

Of those already utilising robots in their business, the impact of efficiency and effectiveness on their operations was made clear; the highest benefits cited were better quality and repeatability, lower cost and faster operations.

National robot adoption users - SWMAS Manufacturing Barometer Autumn 2019-20 - image courtesy of SWMAS and Economic Growth Solutions.

National robot adoption users – image courtesy of SWMAS and Economic Growth Solutions

The biggest drawbacks to using robots for this group include the inflexibility coping with product variation, a shortage of programming and maintenance skills, and the high implementation costs.

How this differs to the barriers perceived by those “not sure” or “not planning” to use robots begins to highlight the challenges to greater adoption by SME manufacturers, the Barometer states.

“Both groups share the concerns about the cost of implementation but are more worried about the technology’s perceived inflexibility when it comes to coping with product variation and handling.

“Other concerns are that robots would not be applicable to the manufacture of bespoke or low volume products, and small batch sizes would make it impractical to programme or set up.”

When asked ‘Do your competitors use robots?’ more than one-third of manufactures not yet using robots in their business said they are unsure if their competitors do.

“This raises questions regarding a general lack of awareness and benchmarking across the sector,” notes the Barometer.

National robot adoption barriers SWMAS Manufacturing Barometer Autumn 2019-20 - image courtesy of SWMAS and Economic Growth Solutions.

National robot adoption barriers – image courtesy of SWMAS and Economic Growth Solutions

The findings demonstrate that a lack of awareness around robots is harming the productivity of businesses, particularly for SMEs.

The concern echoes with a recent report released by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) which outlined the serious failings of government to adopt “the fruits of the Fourth Industrial Revolution” as swiftly as global contemporaries.

The report makes several recommendations regarding the possibilities of robotics and automation to enhance manufacturing productivity, which BEIS believes the UK will depend on in the future.

  • Develop a UK Robot and AI Strategy by the end of 2020 in order “to improve automation adoption and support British industries”
  • Expand the implementation of the government-backed, industry-led Made Smarter scheme which largely benefits SMEs
  • Reinstate an impartial advice service – similar to the Manufacturing Advisory Service (MAS) – that is “fully accessible to SMEs” and available to businesses that want to invest in automation
  • Establish a dedicated service robotics centre within the UK’s Catapult network to encourage public and private funding and support for British robotics businesses
  • Provide financial incentives to organisations who invest in training and upskilling their workforce – particularly those employees “most at risk from automation”
  • Create a leadership group of experts in support of a Robotics Sector Deal – under the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund
  • Include tax incentives to encourage investment in new technology in the new Budget.

Key findings from the 10th SWMAS Manufacturing Barometer Autumn 2019-20

  • 44% of UK SME manufacturers experienced a reduction in profits (worryingly, 10% more than last quarter)
  • 35% said their sales figures have dropped in the past six months
  • nearly 30%, reported an active reduction in their staff numbers (driven by talent shortages and the effect of uncertainty on growth plans)
  • More positively, 40% say they have increased investment in machinery and premises
  • Less than half (44%) are expecting sales to increase over the coming six months (nearly 33% believe they will see a decrease)
  • Nearly 20% expect to reduce their expenditure, and the same amount anticipate having to cull staff numbers

Click here to read the full SME Manufacturing Barometer report (Published by SWMAS and partner Economic Growth Solutions)