UK industry automation: can technology redress the Brexit balance?

uk industry automation
© iStock/solarseven

Terry Hearn, Outreach Specialist at digital marketing firm Further, explores the potential of UK industry automation to mitigate the harms caused by Brexit.

As Brexit uncertainty rumbles on and deadlines continue to shift and be replaced, UK-based manufacturers face the challenge of planning for a future that is entirely uncertain. Growth and optimism in the UK’s manufacturing industry has slowed considerably in recent months, resulting in the UK falling behind European and global competitors. In response, many are considering job losses and price rises to try and redress the negative effects Brexit is already having.

But with the rise of automation, is it possible that new UK industry automation technology could help the UK recover its position and make up ground on leading competitors in the manufacturing industry?

The challenges facing increased UK industry automation

‘If it ain’t broke’

Of the G7, the UK is the only nation in which operates fewer robots than the global average. There is no single reason why this is the case, but with a steady stream of labour from Europe (there were 2.29 million EU nationals working in the UK as of March 2018) negating a domestic skills gap, it could be that there is no reason to overhaul a system which is already working. However, since the referendum in 2016 there has been a fall in net migration; which could precipitate a change in attitude towards automated solutions.

Falling behind

While automation could help to give the UK’s position on the global stage a boost, UK industry automation uptake is already trailing behind competitors and could take a number of years to catch up. There are currently just 71 industrial robots per 10,000 workers in the UK, placing it 15th in Europe – well below the 14th ranked nation, Czech Republic, which boasts 101 robots. By contrast, Germany had the highest uptake in Europe with 309 robots per 10,000 workers – just 21 behind world leaders Korea.

This is no reason to not invest in robotics and automation; but it does demonstrate how much ground industry in the UK has to make up from a standing start, and that automation may not be the silver bullet to solve these issues.

Lack of workforce support

As a side effect of improved productivity and finances, there is a risk that fundamentally changing the makeup of the workplace could have a negative human cost. A level of scepticism around new technologies is demonstrated by many workers in the UK, who feel that UK industry automation in sectors such as manufacturing could result in job losses, with 37% of those surveyed by YouGov believing automation would have a negative effect on their jobs.

Director of the Bank of England Mark Carney, however, has suggested this will not be the case; estimating that while 10% of UK jobs are at risk from automation, technology would be likely to change roles rather than eliminate them.

It is important that doubts around the industry’s evolution are addressed, to ensure that existing workers are not unsettled and that new generations do not discount manufacturing as a career option because automation has minimised future prospects. Of course, this is far easier said than done, and concern about upsetting the workforce could also be a factor in why manufacturers have so far been slow to adopt UK industry automation widely.

Despite these concerns, if Brexit results in further restrictions on labour and increased trade tariffs, owners will be forced to prioritise the survival of their business – most likely, by pushing investment into robotics rather than people in an effort to help to boost productivity levels, which have struggled since the 2008 financial crisis. Prior to the referendum vote the UK had the highest GDP growth rate in the G7, falling to its lowest in 2018.

Benefits of UK industry automation

New roles

Contrary to the idea that automation will see the end of jobs, engineers and staff will be essential in order to programme and monitor these new machines. This shift could result in a more diverse workforce and will give existing staff the opportunity to reskill rather than lose their job entirely.

In many cases, the machines used in manufacture will not replace entire roles; rather, they will simplify challenging or time-consuming tasks. Computer-aided design (CAD) or computer numeric control (CNC) machining are excellent examples of this. As a result, the World Economic Forum estimates that Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics could create 133 million jobs by 2022. While there will be some disruption, with the potential loss of up to 75 million jobs in the transition, the net gain is an additional 58 million jobs.

Resolving the skills gap

Skills shortages are a concern regardless of Brexit, but the uncertainty seems to be a trigger for organisations to take action. A recent report revealed that 34% of UK managers – rising to 44% in London – are considering automation in some areas of their business, in order to resolve these challenges.

Clearly, UK industry automation is becoming an answer for more and more companies looking to resolve issues around productivity and personnel. Providing training and upskilling opportunities will help to reinvigorate the existing workforce, but will also demonstrate to the next generation that the human aspect of manufacturing is a key component of the industry’s future.

Reducing costs

Despite the prospect of sizeable outlay, which could be putting companies off embracing UK industry automation, the truth is that in many cases businesses can see a swift return on their investment. Due to the reduced manual input and maximised productivity that automation offers, the return on investment can be high and rapidly achieved.

Duncan Geddes, MD of UK-based foam converter Technical Foam Services, which has been using CAM machines for 20 years, says: “CAM brings consistency and speed to the business, helping to save time and minimise waste. Automation is a great boost to efficiency, but by freeing up capacity that previously went into repetitive tasks, it also provides more scope for innovation and creative thinking.”

Conclusion

It might seem like a sci-fi future, but the use of robots has already started to become commonplace in many industries. Simply visit a supermarket or hotel and you are likely to interact with self-service machines rather than a person, and with its popularity in manufacturing worldwide, UK industry automation is set to become a larger part of the manufacturing sector in the coming years.

While the ultimate outcome of Brexit remains entirely unclear, the loss of momentum created by over a year of moved deadlines and persistent uncertainty has seen the UK fall behind its competitors, long before the manner of departure has been decided. An excellent example of this is the number of unnecessary factory shutdowns as a result of the March 29th deadline, resulting in a 44.5% fall in car production in April 2019.

To combat this, it is vital that UK industries embrace innovations that could help to increase productivity and reduce costs. While workers may have concerns about their job security, UK industry automation is likely to create jobs and shift how tasks are completed, giving human workers the opportunity to learn new skills and operate in more varied roles.

Coupled with the necessity for action, changing attitudes towards automation and robotics could be the boost that industry in the UK needs to re-establish itself at the cutting edge of manufacturing globally.

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