Nationally, the UK invests relatively little in automation and robotics compared to most other advanced economies. Recent reports have suggested that investments might be picking up, but intentions haven’t become a reality.
By 2020, more than 1.7 million new industrial robots will be installed around the world, according to data published by the International Federation of Robotics (IFR). The increase could reportedly pave the way for ever more flexible automation.
Asia – led by China – currently shows the strongest robotics growth. Germany is currently the world’s fifth largest industrial robots market, and by far the largest in Europe. You have to travel quite a way down the list before you stumble across the UK.
That’s quite surprising, as the latest Annual Manufacturing Report shows that 92% of manufacturers believe ‘Smart Factory’ technologies will enable them to increase their productivity levels per headcount.
Many of those companies who have invested in automation cite improved business efficiency, product quality and cycle times, alongside a better working environment for staff and increased health and safety as a result.
Yet, doubts still persist; with those who haven’t as yet invested frequently stating that they are‘unsure of where to start’, ‘concerned about ongoing costs’, or consider their products to be ‘too bespoke to automate’.
To learn more about how UK manufacturers view automation and robotics, The Manufacturer recently sat down with members of the Manufacturing Assembly Network (MAN) cluster group.
MAN is one of the UK’s leading manufacturing collectives, comprised of eight sub-contract specialists and an engineering design agency. All are small or medium-sized companies and, for the most part, all are based in and around the Midlands.
Automation as an opportunity
Adam Cunningham, managing director of subcontract machine group Muller Holdings, views automation as an opportunity for his business. He sees full automation as a natural evolution of the multi-axis machines Muller has already invested in.
He noted: “Muller has high-volume manufacture, which sees dedicated equipment producing completed turned parts that go through a grinding and finishing operation, before being dispatched to the customer.
“It also has low-volume production, small batch sizes which are run a handful of times a year. Flexible, relatively collaborative robots can handle small runs in a cost-efficient way; you no longer need very expensive pieces of kit.”
Such ‘cobots’ could help Muller address its current labour shortage, something Cunningham noted was a challenge for the business.
“The advantage of robots is that they work 100% of the time. They don’t need coffee or lunch breaks, or call in sick. Muller runs 24-hours a day, which means we must have constant supervision. That’s not necessary for an automated system, you just need someone to step in should an issue occur.”
Does automation ‘steal’ jobs?
Contrary to popular speculation, data shows that the majority (63%) of industry professionals have never witnessed job losses as a result of the introduction of robots or automated processes.
Furthermore, more than a third (36.7%) have seen robots and automation lead to job creation within their place of work.
Do the experiences of MAN Group reinforce the findings?
Rowan Crozier, CEO of precision stamper and toolmaker Brandauer, explained: “Each job has its own merit, each job might demand a manual operator, automation or indeed a mixture of the two. For Brandauer, productivity is vital. I don’t think the silver bullet is automation.
“As manufacturers, I believe we have a duty to try and employ people – a slightly provocative comment, admittedly, but I don’t foresee Brandauer ever becoming 100% automated.”
What is needed is a redefinition of work and what constitutes a valuable job, suggested Austin Owens, managing director of Grove Design: “Perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to lament the passing of jobs displaced by automation.
“We need a different attitude to what people do in society, what we consider to be useful and adding value. We shouldn’t worry about the loss of unrewarding menial jobs, we should be thinking what tasks people could perform instead.
“That holds us back, I think, and prevents us from getting on with adopting more automation and creating rewarding opportunities for people that we value, rather than spending their day stood by a machine, opening a door and pushing a button.”
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