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Wake up and smell the coffee

A recent briefing by the British Automation and Robot Association (BARA) together and VDMA, Europe´s network organisation for mechanical engineering, highlighted how poor the UK’s record has been in deploying and using robots.

In terms of industrial robots installed, the UK comes in at a lowly 22nd with just 91 units installed per 10,000 employees.

In Europe, five countries Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium and Italy make the global top 10 and in countries like Singapore and South Korea the numbers installed are 831 and 774 per 10,000 employees, respectively.

The benefits of automation are well documented. It’s more efficient when it comes to the use of resources, it significantly improves levels of productivity and enables much greater flexibility, and can provide people with more rewarding jobs - they no longer have to do dirty, dull and monotonous routine ones.

Worries about robots taking jobs seem to be overblown as research from Germany points to quite the opposite outcome, with increased levels of investment in technology accompanied by a jump in employment. In fact, the use of smart industrial robot systems has improved the chances of higher quality work for employees.

In the UK businesses seem to have preferred to hoard cheap labour to throw at raising levels of production. The argument that the UK’s manufacturing base is dominated by SMEs, which means that there just isn’t the demand for robots when compared to countries where much larger manufacturing businesses operate, no longer holds true either with the development of cheaper robots and cobots.

How ever you look at it, the UK is performing badly and if we want to be economically successful this is going to have to change as we enter a post-Brexit world.

Immigration plans, recently unveiled by the government, want the UK to move away from relying on “cheap labour” from Europe and rather invest in training staff and developing automation technology.

Research shows that the working population in the UK want better education and training for working with robots and that it should be a top priority for policy makers.

We can but hope, but with the government reverting to form and failing to deliver on its own industrial strategy, the onus on raising investment in automation is likely to fall on businesses themselves.

This raises the question as to why businesses have been failing to invest enough and engage more with automation.

Is it to do with a culture that fails to look at the longer-term, or that has relied too heavily on cheap labour for too long, or one that is simply risk-averse when it comes to automation?

Is it because we have a fetish for sweating our assets and keeping machines running well past their sell-by dates, rather than regularly investing in the latest technologies and systems - I doubt many German or Japanese companies celebrate the fact that they are still using machinery first installed 30, 40 or 50 years ago.

We’ve cut ourselves off from our biggest trading market and we are now competing directly with the likes of China, Singapore, South Korea and the US.

After Brexit, businesses are going to have to use their workforce far more effectively and, as a matter of urgency, embrace automation if they are to survive, let alone remain competitive.

Neil Tyler

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