UK manufacturers face historic need for automation
09 October 2023
Unprecedented Labour shortages mean UK manufacturers have no other choice but to employ robots and automate, asserts Mike Wilson.
THE UK is the world’s 9th largest manufacturing nation by turnover, and the industry employed 2.7 million people in 2022. Since COVID-19 broke out and Brexit was carried into effect in 2020, it has been increasingly difficult for manufacturers to hire and retain employees as migrant workers were leaving the country and the pandemic accelerated early retirements. Job vacancies in manufacturing reached record-high 95,000 by May 2022 – almost twice the number of three years earlier, according to data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS). Meanwhile, there is a growing productivity gap between the UK and other comparable nations with other G7 countries on average seeing a 16% higher output per worker in 2021 compared with the UK.
“To maintain our position as a global industrial superpower and preserve our manufacturing businesses and jobs in the long run, we have to act now,” says Mike Wilson, chief automation officer at the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC).
The answer to the manufacturing industry’s labour shortages and productivity challenges is, according to Wilson, relatively simple: Businesses must adopt robots and automate.
Robots can take on an increasing range of repetitive tasks and free up employees to take on other more rewarding tasks where their skills can add value. Also, they are shown to improve productivity. The UK, in particular, seems to have relatively large productivity gains in sight by automating compared to other countries. By reaching the same level of robot adoption as the global market leaders, the UK manufacturing industry could improve labour productivity by a staggering 22% a research paper from the Copenhagen Business School suggested in 2011. Nevertheless, robotic uptake in the UK has not kept up since then; the country ranked 24th globally in 2021 with a robot density of 111 robots per 10,000 workers in manufacturing, below the world average of 141, according to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR).
“The industry in the UK has not invested as much in technology as similar manufacturing nations, and now it has a lot of catching up to do. The good news is that automation has become much more accessible today – even for smaller businesses,” Wilson says.
The ROI on automation has improved drastically
While the potential for automation is high, there are still many outdated perceptions about it, according to Wilson – especially about the costs. Many manufacturers were previously put off by the high costs of robots, which meant long payback periods that seemed unattractive in the UK. With a more flexible labour market than most other European countries, it has been easier and less risky to hire people – even for a short term – than making large capital investments, he says.
But as labour costs keep climbing and the cost of automation goes down, the business case is much more attractive than it used to be according to CEO of HowToRobot, Søren Peters.
“Prices on robots and automation solutions have come down rapidly, leaving many businesses with outdated market knowledge. They are often surprised how quickly they can regain their investments today,” he says, while pointing out that some solutions that used to cost £160,000 about a decade ago are down to about £25,000. Meanwhile, hourly labour costs in manufacturing have increased by 40% in the last ten years according to data from the ONS.
Robot costs have fallen drastically during the past decades, while labour costs have risen sharply, speeding up the return on investment in automation. Note: labour costs are based on U.S. data. A similar picture emerges for the UK.
Another perception about robotics that no longer holds true, according to Wilson, is that it is exclusively for large companies primarily doing assembly or welding in the automotive industry – and that it is out of reach for smaller businesses.
“There is still this belief, that automation can only be feasible in large-scale production and that it requires extensive expert knowledge about robot programming, installation, and maintenance,” says Wilson and encourages manufacturers to take a fresh look at what is possible with automation today.
A growing number of robot solutions are becoming easier to use without robotic engineering skills, he says. They require very little programming and can be quickly adapted to the changes happening in smaller scale production. Some even take as little as five minutes to adjust to production changeovers.
In addition, automation is no longer limited to a small set of tasks. The range of new use cases for robots and automation are fast expanding with thousands of suppliers specialising in different applications across the world – from automated screwdriving to robot polishing, automated forklift transport, and many others. HowToRobot recently updated its automation marketplace with 137 new categories of possible use cases for robots.
“Today, it is much less a question if a robot can do a certain task – it most likely can – but rather who can provide the best solution, has it been proven, and what does it cost,” says Peters.
MTC and HowToRobot help manufacturers find the right solution
Finding the right solution among seemingly endless possibilities, however, can be a daunting task, Mike Wilson acknowledges. Businesses often need help to get pointed in the right direction, but at the same time they are wary about exposing themselves to deep technical sales discussions with suppliers too early.
To solve this challenge, MTC and HowToRobot are now jointly extending their support to manufacturers in the UK and helping them find robot and automation solutions. Businesses can, free of charge, make an inquiry directly on HowToRobot’s platform about a task that needs to be automated. The business is then connected to a range of matching suppliers among HowToRobot’s directory of over 16,000 robot and automation companies and receives tailored proposals on possible solutions from those suppliers.
“It really helps end-users quickly understand what their automation options are and what it might cost them while staying anonymous to vendors,” says Peters.
By gathering several offers on the same automation project, businesses can also better understand if the application has been proven or if it might require further specification or development. In the case of the latter, the business can consult with experts from the MTC to help specify their needs and get automation advice, including how to develop solutions that are not yet commercially available.
“Many robotic applications are fairly standard and can easily be implemented at little risk. But sometimes it is not that simple because no standard solutions exist yet. In those cases, the MTC can provide assistance,” says Wilson.
There is no limitation to the type of business or industry that can take advantage of MTC and HowToRobot’s offering. By being vendor agnostic, MTC and HowToRobot can help end-users find solutions from the widest range of possibilities.
“It is a risk-free way for businesses to get started with automation and finding a solution to the labour shortages. If you don’t know where to start, why not just try it?”, concludes Wilson.
How to get started
Businesses can get started with finding robot and automation solutions with HowToRobot and MTC’s help free of charge by following a few simple steps:
- Go to HowToRobot's marketplace to make a request
- Describe the process to be automated and goals for the project, including a few pictures and video of the process, and contact information.
- A HowToRobot representative reaches out to gather any additional information needed.
- Begin receiving custom offers on automation solutions, including price ranges, from suppliers.
- With a range of offers on hand, select the solution that best aligns with your goals and budget.
If the request is for a non-standard solution, an expert from the MTC can assist with clarifying specifications and developing a new solution.
Mike Wilson is chief automation officer at the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC)
- Since COVID-19 broke out and Brexit occurred, it has been increasingly difficult for manufacturers to hire and retain employees
- Robots can take on an increasing range of repetitive tasks and free up employees to take on other more rewarding tasks
- While the potential for automation is high, there are still many outdated perceptions, especially about the costs