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Automation is key to reshoring

19 December 2022

George Thompson, chairman of the British Automation and Robotics Association (BARA) looks at the environmental case for reshoring, and how automation can be a key enabler

AS PART of the recent CDA Online Conference, I gave a presentation on how automation can help us collectively achieve our sustainability targets. We’ve all heard the arguments for and against any given product or way of life, and it depends on which piece of research that you read as to what is the largest contributor to the environmental changes that we are seeing. I think it is fairly safe to say that we would all agree that we need to implement some changes to save our environment.

We know that automation has well defined benefits such as better utilisation of space and energy, improved productivity, increased efficiency, improved flexibility, better utilisation of staff, consistent quality, less waste, as well as the health and safety benefits resulting from reduced manual handling. These same benefits are also directly linked to sustainability as they help to reduce waste.

By implementing an automation strategy, we can collectively improve the UK’s overall competitiveness and productivity. Once we improve these, the draw to lower cost manufacturing countries would not be as financially attractive. Once we collectively have the automation strategy in motion, we can collectively use automation as the key enabler for companies to begin reshoring their manufacturing processes back to the UK. By reshoring, we can begin to become less reliant on long supply chains. Wouldn’t it be a great position to be in that if we needed a part shipment of an order, we just pick up the phone and arrange it with a supplier on the same time zone?!

There is another HUGE benefit for reshoring, which has a key environmental positive, and that is the reduction of container ships traversing the world’s oceans. As part of my research, I was astounded to learn that there are over 90,000 cargo ships around the world. I had always assumed that these ships ran on diesel fuel, however I was wrong. From what I have learned, they run on bunker fuel, which is much cheaper and vastly more polluting than diesel.

According to an article that was published in the Guardian, one of these cargo ships would emit the equivalent of 50 MILLION cars throughout its serviceable life. If my math is correct, that is the equivalent of 4.5 TRILLION cars! In this same article, there is a reference to the level of pollutants that the bunker fuel contributes, and that level is truly staggering.  We’re talking up to 2000 x more sulphur being poured into the atmosphere compared to diesel. These ships are not remotely fuel efficient as they burn up to 160t of fuel each hour.

Hopefully, these figures have your attention – I know they certainly it got mine. Do not get me wrong, I am not suggesting for one moment that we should move everything to the UK, but we should be looking to reduce the number of ships bringing ‘stuff’ from far flung destinations as much as practical.

So, in summary, automation is the key to reshoring which is the key to growing our economy as well as saving our planet. Manufacturing the products that we want in our modern lives, should not cost us the earth.

For those who want me to give up my diesel car – personally, I think it would be far better if we give up a few cargo ships.