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Culture wars

04 March 2020

It shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone reading this magazine that the UK lags way behind it’s global counterparts when it comes to the implementation of robotic automation - a fact that was underlined at a recent event hosted by automatica exhibition, the British Automation and Robot Association and VDMA Robotics + Automation. What is quite shocking though, is just how far behind the UK is - in 2018 we didn’t even make it into the global top 15 in terms of industrial robot installations, and overall robot density (number of industrial robots per 10,000 employees in manufacturing) is just 91 compared with 338 in Germany, which leads in Europe.

So what lies behind the UK’s reluctance to invest in robotics automation? Well, Mike Wilson, Chairman of Bara has some ideas. Generally, he asserts, UK manufacturing needs to achieve short RoI and doesn’t think long-term. More recent times have also seen a proliferation of cheap labour, which has been used as an alternative to implementing automation.

Wilson also points to risk averseness and, while robot technology has been around for 40 plus years, it is still perceived as a new, risky technology. Ultimately, asserts Wilson, it is about our culture; referencing the All-Party Parliamentary Manufacturing Group’s 2013 report “Making Good - A Study of Culture & Competitiveness in UK Manufacturing”, he summarises it thus: “Basically, we are very proud that we keep all of our old machines running; in Germany they are very proud that they bought new ones.”

He continues: “To me that highlights the point; we do keep all of our old machines going when we should be buying new equipment to be more competitive, more productive, and more efficient.”

Of course there are examples where this has happened and Wilson points to the automotive sector where the last few years has seen significant investment in advanced automation technologies, resulting in vast improvements in productivity. And ultimately, that investment has lead to more jobs. Wilson points specifically to JLR, where he feels that had investment in robots not taken place, the manufacturing would have moved out of the UK. “It’s about investing in the technology to make us more efficient, so we can then grow and employ more people,” he summarises.

The rest of UK manufacturing really does need to heed the example set by the automotive sector if it is to remain competitive on the world stage and really, there has never been a better time to invest. Apart from the well documented benefits of automation in terms of productivity, there is also the added financial incentive offered by the Annual Investment Allowance, which was increased last year from £200,000 to £1m, meaning businesses can invest up to £1m annually in qualifying ‘plant and machinery’ assets and obtain 100% tax relief. You do need to be quick to take advantage of this though, as the scheme is to due finish on 1st January 2021!

Recognising innovation

Later this year, CDA is holding its first Smart Process Implementation Awards. Celebrating those companies taking the lead when it comes to digitalisation, smart technology use, connectivity and Industry 4.0, the awards will take place at the Houses of Parliament - what this space for further details of how to enter. Limited sponsorship opportunities are available. For details please contact rdye@western-bp.co.uk