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This dialogue has continued throughout this year and the issue continues to be a shared worry across all businesses. The manufacturing sector, where the work is often physical and repetitive, is particularly vulnerable to a lack of available manpower.
This industry accounts for 10% of GDP and employs around 2.6 million people, however firms are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit the number of workers that they need to operate at the desired level of productivity. The skills gap has only been made wider in a post-Brexit environment. Traditionally, manual labour and factory jobs are heavily reliant on migrant labour but as uncertainty regarding immigration laws continues to prevail, fewer foreign workers are coming to the UK and instead view other European countries, such as Germany, as a less risky country to build a new home. As well as this, UK unemployment has fallen to a new low of 4.0% according to the Office for National Statistics, so the manufacturing industry needs an alternative plan to ensure that they can continue to operate in this current environment. This may all be beginning to sound rather negative but it doesn’t have to. Just like in other countries such as Australia, a labour shortage can be the nudge the UK needs to seriously consider greater use of robotics and automation. At Universal Robots, there has certainly been an increase in orders from UK manufacturers following the referendum.
Automate to compensate
While UK productivity levels have increased by 1.4% in the second quarter of this year, the UK is still below the levels of Germany, France and the USA. One of the reasons that the UK’s productivity level is lower is because many UK businesses have not yet invested heavily in automation. Just last month, Will Abel, the Bank of England economist, described British automation as ‘pretty rubbish’ and ‘below average’. The statistics are damning; the level of automation within the UK is about a quarter of the level in Germany and while Germany has 309 robots to every 10,000 workers, the UK only has 71, a number well below the global mean. Ultimately, this lack of investment in automation reduces the UK’s competitiveness, as European counterparts are able to deliver goods that are more attractive in terms of price and quality than their British competitors.
Investing in robotics within manufacturing has a number of advantages; robots can run 24 hours a day without supervision and undertake repetitive tasks for long periods without getting bored or developing repetitive strain injuries. This means that businesses can have a higher output at a lower cost, without having to hire more workers. This is especially important within the manufacturing sector as the price of raw materials are increasing, therefore any opportunity to lower costs is attractive. As well as this, deploying robots does not pose a threat to product quality, in fact it can have the opposite effect. Robots are highly accurate and can produce goods of a higher quality than human workers. Investing in robotics is therefore a clear solution to the Brexit-induced labour shortage that UK manufacturing businesses are currently suffering. So, what is holding companies back?
Intuitive, flexible and affordable
Traditionally, only large factories invested in industrial robots as they were expensive, difficult to program and set up, and required a large amount of space for the safety caging. However, developments within the robotics industry means that this is no longer the case. The invention of collaborative robots – small, flexible robots that can work alongside humans on the factory floor with no safety caging – has made automation accessible to all businesses, no matter the size. In many ways, a cobot is like a new colleague – a colleague that takes on the tasks that most people find trivial and physically debilitating. This in turn allows human employees to use their time and energy on solving problems that require reflection and creativity. Thus, businesses can exploit human potential to a much higher degree than we do today by implementing an automation strategy.
Furthermore, cobots have been designed with ease-of-use in mind. They are quick and easy to program and do require a robotic specialist to be added to the payroll, saving manufacturing businesses time and money. Existing employees can learn to program the cobots through the touch-screen tablet – this makes it possible to quickly and flexibly readjust the cobot to carry out different tasks and move it around in production.
Perhaps then the UK’s reluctance to invest in robots is a result of concerns about causing unemployment. However, research has proven that automation does not come at the cost of existing jobs. In Germany, where businesses are highly automated, unemployment fell to 3.7% in 2017 – the lowest since reunification. Moving to the Nordics, Danish company Trelleborg Sealing Solutions is an example to follow. It installed 42 cobots from Universal Robots within their factory system leading to reduced costs of production and higher productivity; assistance from robots meant that one worker who previously had managed three machines could now manage eight. As well as productivity, quality also increased with far greater uniformity of product and order numbers surged. Consequently 50 new jobs were created, in logistics, quality control, marketing and back office.
As we prepare to leave the EU, the case for robotic investment gets even stronger. Automation truly is the solution to the labour shortage that is affecting so many businesses in the manufacturing industry. By enrolling an automation strategy, British companies will make themselves more competitive and will be able to compete on price with Far Eastern manufacturers. However, British manufacturers need to embrace the automation mind-set and take the leap to invest in robotics, as this is the only practical solution to boost UK manufacturing productivity, lower costs and solve the UK labour shortage.
About the author:
Mark Gray joined Universal Robots in 2016 where he is UK Sales Manager. Prior to this he was Sales Director for Abtech, a company providing machine vision solutions into the automation industry across a variety of sectors. He has over 15 years’ experience within automation, having also been involved in building special purpose machinery for the packaging industry.
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