7 December 2015
The UK has long lagged behind many industrial nations with its uptake of automation in manufacturing. A simple look at each year’s figures from the International Federation of Robotics shows the UK far behind its major competitors. Yet automation of manufacturing tasks gives the UK a huge potential to increase its productivity.
We humans are by our nature flexible beings. We learn new things every day and adapt to our surroundings and environments as required. We can put together an assembly regardless of minor variations in fit because we are able to make judgements. However, because we can make judgments we are inconsistent and not reliable at doing this. We get distracted and we get fatigued which compounds this issue and as a consequence, productivity drops. Robotics and automation do not suffer from these human constraints. Indeed the level of reliability and consistency provided by robotics and automation for high-speed repeatable tasks far exceeds that of a human and now with the latest developments in sensor technology and adaptive software, flexibility can be bought closer to that of a human being.
How does this all affect jobs? Whilst it’s true that in the short term the introduction of automation often reduces the need for direct labour, the overall picture is not as simple.
Robots can’t do anything until they are programmed and configured by engineers and technicians. Robots are only reliable if they are effectively maintained and this drives the need for a richer mix of (higher) skilled jobs in the workplace, giving opportunities for displaced staff to be developed into these new roles.
There is a relatively simple analogy to make here; a Formula One car is often the main focus of a team; but it is the backup team, the engineers, the technicians, the aerodynamicists and others that actually ensure that the car is the fastest and most reliable as possible. Automation is very similar, without the backup team, a robot is just a “dumb tool”
Numerous academic studies have shown that successfully implemented automation leads to an increase in orders and turnover for the user, resulting in the creation of more productive and well-paid jobs in other parts of the business. This in turn impacts on the wider economy and drives up a nation’s GDP.
I’ve just attended a conference at the Royal Society, which bought together some of the world’s leading researchers on Robotics and Autonomous system. It was quite extraordinary to see the development in software and sensing systems which give machines intelligence and the ability to adapt to what they “see” around them. This intelligence helps to make robots safe to work in close proximity to humans, removing the need for expensive closed-off automation cells, bringing together the judgement and dexterity of humans with the strength, repeatability and resilience of robots. At the same time, robots have become cheaper to acquire and easier to use and implement. All of the past learning on robotics is already available in the software, so that decades of experience are “factory embedded” when you buy one. This offers manufacturers in the UK the potential to not only bring increased flexibility, consistency and reliability into their operations but to also create high skilled jobs.
Within the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, the Manufacturing Technology Centre in Coventry leads the work on robotics and intelligent automation, with other centres also offering support to manufacturing businesses of all sizes wanting to maximise the benefit automation could bring to their companies.
CEO, High Value Manufacturing Catapult