Robots: The missing piece to boosting UK manufacturing competitiveness?

Posted on 31 Mar 2023 by The Manufacturer

Robotics investments could be key to global competitiveness, yet it is a commonly held belief that UK manufacturing is lagging behind. However, is that really the case? Fleur Doidge reports

The Department for Business, Energy and Industry Strategy (BEIS) has claimed that UK businesses need to spend more on robotics and autonomous systems, based on estimates that further investments could generate £6.4bn ($8.7bn in 2021 figures) for the UK economy by 2035 and part-solve the productivity puzzle.

Similarly, the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) 2022 global report places the UK well down the list when it comes to robotics installations. These worrying-sounding figures obscure the truth, however, that UK industrial applications have been making proper hay when it comes to timely robotics investments – with most of the BEIS’ expected gains to come from other sectors.

Cut critique to fit

The IFR lists the UK in fourth place among European countries and 0.5% of the global total for new industrial robot installations. However, as Rob Pears, Vice President, Head of Automotive, Manufacturing and Life Sciences, UK at Capgemini, noted, a lot of UK manufacturing focuses on luxury and bespoke.

“For Rolls-Royce and so on, robotics play a significant part in the base vehicle, but much of it must be customised, and hand-finished with exotic materials,” He commented. “The proportion of the product that can use those (robotics) technologies is by default, less.”

UK manufacturers could be further ahead on sustainability in some ways, with “much more of a reduce, reuse, recycle kind of drive”, compared to the so-called global manufacturing leaders.

“I think the UK does lead on that,” Pears added. “Look at heritage which has popped up. A collective of people reimagining and mastering old techniques to refurbish and restore classic cars. People send their cars here from all over the world.”

Outside of automotive and packaging, the UK market isn’t geared up around huge amounts of mass production. Production of raw materials too – like steel – has been de-emphasised. That tends to skew some of those figures in comparison to places like China and even the US where they are making more first-stage materials for production.

“Then, where we are engaged in more mass production, we’re absolutely exploiting it. There’s no shyness or backward thinking at all,” Pears confirmed. “We’re very forward thinking on a real business-case driven basis.”

For evidence, he pointed to the aforementioned automotive and packaging manufacturers; businesses increasingly built on the ability to “do scale” with robotics and exploit the benefits in ways that ensure the numbers add up.

Skills as a limiting factor

That said, the UK could benefit from investing in skills that can transform organisations in the first instance and ensure they can adopt new technologies and ways of working. The skills to be able to operate, maintain and make the most of those technologies and follow up with product design, need to be fundamentally changed to develop “bigger ripple effects across the value chain”, warned Pears.

The best combination of skills, business case and understanding of organisational direction should deliver greater confidence for additional productive investments, backed up with quality feedback and understanding of the customer base, he added. For examples of robotic success benefiting UK manufacturing, the British Footwear Association referred The Manufacturer to Stephan Quade, Senior Sales Manager at EU-based robotics company Magazino.

“The IFR report is very focused on ‘classical’ industrial robots which means articulated, stationary robot arms,” Quade said. “My personal feeling is that any industry can benefit from robotics but not every process is ready to be automated with the current level of technology and/or costs.”

For footwear, that means looking separately at material transport, manipulations, assembly and storage processes. In footwear, the challenge with manipulation and assembly is the complexity of sewing or how the single pieces are glued together, properly turned and arranged. Raw materials for shoemaking – such as leather – are flexible and can be highly variable both before and after processing.

“If the cutting process is always that good that the parts are loose, to pick up the components, you might need cameras to detect the correct picking position and quality inspection. And this will be a cost driver, for sure,” explained Quade.

In footwear making, the low hanging fruit is material transport and storage. Transporting single components between the stations or storage can be facilitated by using standardised bins linked to a warehouse management system (WMS), making for reliable, intelligent and autonomous material flows.

“After the shoes are packed in a box, the transport and logistics can also be automated,” he said.

On the one hand, many countries in Europe are expected to continue to suffer from a lack of available labour, rising over the coming years. However, business is cost driven, so reducing costs is often essential to be competitive. Robotics can enhance consistency and often even quality versus human employees – and they don’t need holidays or fall ill. However, Quade confirmed that it is all dependent on specific industry, process and use case.

“Another buzzword heard over the last weeks and months is ‘de-globalisation’,” he said, adding that regardless of country, it can be hugely challenging to find the right systems integration partners as they need to have a certain capability profile. Embedding the systems into the existing or planned environment means close attention and conformance across hardware and software alike. “Of course it is more complex to deal with post-Brexit,” he noted.

“As a high salary country, like the rest of middle Europe, US, Japan, Korea and a handful of other countries, UK industry needs to focus on committing to very high quality, which somehow justifies the higher price, and dramatically reducing costs for non value-add labour.”

Magazino’s two robotics products, the Toru and the Soto machines, are used to help shoe producers, for instance, improve feeds to the production line or retail warehouse with automated transport platforms for picking and packing.

“Pick-up units can operate on different heights and contain up to 24 (shoe) boxes in the ‘backpack’ (transport platform). You don’t have to go back and forth 24 times – you just put everything in and bring it from the storage to the production line,” Quade said.

Yet again, it all depends

Mike Dwyer, Director of Digital Engineering and Operations Transformation, Capgemini, underlined that robotics successes depend on manufacturer objective.

“What are you trying to get out the door? Is it a luxury yacht or something that’s mass-produced?” Dwyer said. “The ecosystem is not just robots; it’s all the other equipment that you need around it to create very high precision, high-end or high efficiency manufacturing.”

Multi-dimensional robots able to ‘learn’ and ‘understand’ their environment can help free up human capital to focus on innovation. Working cooperatively with robotic cells can make for an organisation that’s agile and delivers more with less energy and resources, but working out exactly how to achieve this and work with the right level of complementary technology and customisation takes time, he added.

“We want to go faster, make it simpler for people to reprogramme, adapt and go to new products and scale. But it does come back to what’s my objective and what’s my business case?” Dwyer confirmed.

While educating people to understand what they can achieve with digital technology and where it fits in the whole puzzle, manufacturers can harness consultancy, right-sized for organisational need, leasing partnerships or even robotics as a service (RaaS).

“Robotics doesn’t necessarily need to be a core competency, but you might need it to achieve the right effects,” agreed Dwyer. Companies like US-based Behrens Metalware, for example, have plumped for RaaS, enabling them to bring in cobots for data-driven continuous improvement projects, including automated labelling for variations on the steel buckets it makes.

Views, however, differ Mark Gray, Country Manager UK & Ireland at cobot company Universal Robots, said the UK is the only G7 nation with a robot density below the global average – with one reason being a previous over-reliance on “cheap labour” from overseas.

“Investing in new technologies could help businesses become more resilient and flexible since they can no longer rely on migrant workers the same way,” Gray said. “It’s vital to create a culture of encouraging innovation, where companies have easier access to funding and skills, to implement the right technology into their businesses.”

SME advisors should be appointed regionally to “create consistency” UK-wide, and a designated minister should exist for the sole purpose of boosting innovation, including through access to funding, as well as bridging the gap between organisations, education facilities and industry at a regional level, he said.

“Build interfaces connecting researchers with the manufacturing SMEs that could reap the benefits of this work,” he added, pointing to Smart Hub Lanarkshire council-college partnerships as a potential model for state-of-the-art centres that can help smaller manufacturers grow.

For Gray, more UK SMEs could benefit from niche, easily programmable robots for example, robotic arms designed to support with specific tasks, such as machine tending, welding and palletising – including to increase productivity, for example, overnight.

Mikko Salminen, Director at 3D manufacturing simulation software firm Visual Components, cited a raft of reasons for ramping up robotics investment in UK manufacturing, not least, helping address the skills shortage itself. Then, of course, there’s Brexit.

“Half the nation’s welder workforce is expected to retire by 2027,” Salminen said. “Robots could have a key role in plugging gaps, and automation can help reduce waste. Effective automated processes can help reduce lead time through the production system.

Take a long-term view

Rather than being preoccupied with short-term expense, manufacturers need to take a longer-term view and focus on the future opportunities of investment in robotics and automation. Not investing will often prove to be a higher risk for these companies than taking the plunge, Salminen maintained.

Robotic ‘pick and place’, packaging and palletising already drives better performance and quality control at automated warehouses, but more can be done. Warehouses can drive further efficiencies too by using mobile robots and laser-guided vehicles to assist operations, distribution of components or transport of assemblies between processes, he added.

John Dunlop, Chief Technology Officer, Founder and automation expert at Bytronic Vision Intelligence, agreed with much of this. Worldwide, manufacturers are seeking to take human resource out of repetitive, routine tasks that you can use machine intelligence for.

“We provide vision automation, such as cameras that go on the end of a robot manipulator,” Dunlop explained. “We support companies like Unilever abroad, and in Asia, they are ahead of us. In manufacturing people need to be used where they have the best value; AI allows you to do things like identify if bananas are the right shape, if apples are bruised or if there are scratches on the surface of panels – things previously done by people.”

Dunlop noted that automotive manufacturing might be leading the UK field and keeping up very well, yet other sectors, such as agriculture, are lagging in robotics and automation. Even though this might partly be down to the continued existence of many relatively small independent farms, opportunities could perhaps be taken collaboratively, for example.

“In automotive, the only thing really left is the more subjective quality measurements at the end, the final inspections, but even then a lot of that is done through computer vision at a very high standard,” he said.

Dunlop prescribed investments in reprogramming skills, especially to meet the need for customisation. In manufacturing robotics, one size won’t fit all, either now or later on. Putting a robot and camera in will be good for one task, but adapting a setup as situations change is challenging.

“However, many manufacturers are bringing out robot programming and vision programming that’s easier to use, bringing in a wider scope of people who are capable. That might be the saviour,” said Dunlop. “You can’t afford to buy a tool to understand every single problem on the line.”


  • Estimates suggest the UK manufacturing sector could be far behind on robotics
  • However, not all manufacturing sectors can benefit from robotics for the same reasons
  • Manufacturing needs to understand what will work for individual sub-sectors and specialities
  • Is the level of automation, per se, really the most appropriate measure?
  • The right amount of robotics and investment can help sustainability and savings