Special feature: Auto nation

Posted on 6 Feb 2012

Per 10,000 employees in the manufacturing sector there are 25 robots in the UK. This compares to 127 per 10,000 in Germany. Jane Gray talks to Steve Brambley, deputy director of the trade body for automation technologies, Gambica, about why this small foray into industrial automation is nowhere near enough for economic rebalance.

So far as UK government has any kind of industrial strategy, the common message from political figures over the last two to three years has been that Britain requires a high-tech or advanced manufacturing base in order to balance national strengths in the service sector and compete with economies that offer a lower cost of labour. But although this rhetoric has been fairly consistent, policy and practice have not supported the upskilling and investment required to actually achieve the shift.

According to the 2012 EngineeringUK report The state of engineering the UK still retains a base in low-tech and medium to low-tech manufacturing which accounts for 57% of employment in the sector. But the tide is moving against this kind of manufacturing in the UK. PwC recently revealed that around 10,000 UK manufacturing and construction firms have gone bust in the last two years and, with energy prices on the rise, the challenge to control costs will only increase.

Unless, contests Steve Brambley, companies begin to realise the scope of opportunity available in automation, not just through the use of robots, but through a whole gamut of technologies including industrial drives and controls. “Most of it involves deeply unsexy intelligent decision making devices,” says Mr Brambley, which none-the-less, are likely to make or break British industry in the next decade.

A critical factor is energy. Experts claim we will see 100% hikes by 2020 (see p28) but Brambley says automation could allow industry to cope through systematic monitoring of energy consumption, voltage optimisation and the enabling of intelligent automated responses to energy information.

For those who have invested in automation, Brambley says there is a lack of understanding around technology optimisation, often due to poor technical advice from a large middle layer of integrators and distributors which come between vendors of automation technology and the final user.

“More than half of UK automation investment is made through third parties,” explains Brambley. “The middleman doesn’t have to pay the energy bill and has no real incentive to optimise the use of automation in the equipment or system they are building.”

On campaign

To address this issue and the broader problem of a comparatively low investment base in automation in the UK, Brambley’s trade body, Gambica, is launching its Automated Britain campaign this March. The kick-off conference event will include presentations from Mark Prisk, Minister for Business and Enterprise, as well as Siemens’ UK managing director of industry sector, Juergen Maier.

Automated Britain aims to educate current and potential automation users about the kinds of questions they should be asking suppliers for asset optimisation and return on investment. There is also a need to alter perceptions of automation equating to robots and redundancies. “We need to get past this old chestnut that automation means lost jobs,” says Brambley.

This latter issue is something Brambley feels may have preoccupied government in times gone by, making political figures reluctant to become aligned with high profile automation campaigns. With this in mind, Gambica is lobbying government to alter the regulatory and taxation frameworks to emphasize the social and economic benefits of automation.

One route Gambica is advocates is the adoption of tax credits for plant investment – in a similar style to those available for R&D – rather than the use of enhanced capital allowances. “Capital allowance enhancements can ease cash flow,” explains Brambley, “but they do not clarify the incentive for investment or give those who make the investments ownership of the financial benefits.”

Ultimately, Automated Britain aims to shake manufacturers out of what Juergen Maier of Siemens has previously labelled “a make-doand- mend mentality” with regards to plant investment. While the UK machine tools industry had a record year for sales in 2011 commentators stress that this moved from a lamentably low base. In other words, there is no cause for complacency.

Automated Britain

When? March 6

Where? Commonwealth Club, London

How much? Gambica members £245, non-members £750 (prices exclude VAT)

For further information and updates on the speaker programme for Automated Britain go here.