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Automate or fall behind: the stark warning to UK manufacturing

The UK manufacturing industry is in serious danger of falling further behind more competitive nations unless productivity improves and more processes are automated, warns a new report
A survey by NatWest bank showed many business leaders were not even aware of the government support available to help them innovate or expand overseas.
"The industry is being driven by new technology and the UK is well placed to take advantage of that," said Richard Hill, head of automotive and manufacturing at NatWest. “But mid-sized manufacturers are at a tipping point. We need to either really go for it in terms of mentorship and support or stagnate and be left standing still."
Britain trails much of the industrialised world in the use of robots in manufacturing, according to recent data from the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), illustrated in the graph below. 
Despite its advanced manufacturing economy, there are just 71 robots per 10,000 employees in the UK, compared with almost 500 in South Korea, about 300 in Japan and Germany, and approaching 200 in Sweden and Denmark.
“We face the challenge in the UK that we have a lower productivity than most of our major competitors and unless we address that, then ultimately our manufacturing industry will decline,” said Mike Wilson, general industry sales manager of Swiss robot manufacturer ABB Robotics, speaking to the E&T.
“We have a choice really going forward: we can either make people work harder and longer or we can apply latest technologies that work smarter.”
Automotive renaissance
Experts point to the UK’s automotive industry, which is currently undergoing something of a renaissance, for proof of what could be achieved with more money spent on automation. 
In car manufacturing, the UK’s level of automation is much higher than the norm, with 734 robots per 10,000 employees, putting it into the global top ten. “The UK’s automotive sector has been so successful because of its high level of investment in robotics,” says Patrick Schwarzkopf, managing director of Europe’s Mechanical Engineering Industry Association VDMA, in a presentation ahead of the trade show Automatica
Mr Schwarzkopf forecasts a 15 per cent annual increase over the next four years, in demand for robots, as countries race to automate manufacturing. And ABB estimates that by 2025 the share of tasks performed by robots will rise from the current global average of 10 per cent to 25 per cent across all manufacturing industries, allowing a 30 per cent increase in productivity.
According to a recent report from Barclays Bank – Future Proofing UK Manufacturing – investing £1.2bn into manufacturing processes to increase robotics and automation over the next decade could add as much as £60.5bn to the UK economy, which is equivalent to adding nearly two-fifths of today’s value of the manufacturing sector. 
However, between 2010 and 2015, the productivity of the UK manufacturing sector grew by only 0.6 per cent each year, whereas France has seen a growth of two per cent and the US an impressive nine per cent.
In 2014, the most recent year accurate data is available for, almost 230,000 new robots were sold, with five countries - China, Japan, the US, South Korea and Germany - absorbing about 70 per cent of the total.
Manufacturers in China bought 57,000 of them, more than twice as many as second-placed Japan. In comparison, just 2,094 robots were installed in the UK during 2014, placing it 14th in worldwide demand.
According to a study by the Copenhagen Business School, if the UK achieved the same levels of automation in each of its industrial sectors as the most automated countries, it would see its productivity increase by a staggering 22 per cent.
Perceived barriers
So, apart from the automobile industry, why is British manufacturing not jumping at the chance to reap these benefits?
The Barclays survey also interviewed companies about perceived barriers to investment in automation. The top three were: a perception that other projects should be prioritised (28%), a perception that there was a lack of need to invest in automation (21%) and a perceived lack of flexibility in automated and robotic equipment (25%).
In fact, lack of flexibility is something that robot manufacturers have been doing their best to address in recent years, with the introduction of flexible, lightweight robots which can work alongside people, such as ABB’s newest product Yumi (picture, above). Equipped with two hands, the robot can be easily trained to do almost anything from packaging toys and building kits to assembling electronic devices. 
Funding too is unlikely to be as much of a barrier as companies believe;  many banks are keen to fund investment in automation. Mike Rigby, head of Manufacturing at Barclays Bank, emphasises that automation is probably the most valuable investment companies can make.
“The economic analysis finds that a business can expect to see a return of £49 for every £1 invested in automation,” he told The Manufacturer. “The benefits are achieved by being more globally competitive and resilient.”
Firms are also concerned that investing in automation will result in job losses. Although, a moot point,  the consensus appears to be that, in reality, the reverse is true and automation can help firms to grow their business, and make better use of their staff across other areas.
Humanoid workers
There are also jobs that are too dangerous, dirty or difficult for human workers to do and some companies are taking steps to develop robots specifically for these types of tasks. Airbus, for instance, is exploring the feasibility of using humanoid robots for manufacturing.
The aerospace industry has yet to embrace the same levels of automation as the automotive sector. The technical intricacy and reduced economies of scale involved in aircraft assembly mean that the industry needs to develop it’s own solutions.
A four year project, a collaboration between Airbus and the Joint Robotics Laboratory (JRL), is developing algorithms on current robot models (such as the HRP-2 and HRP-43) and testing them on scenarios that fit the Airbus Group needs, namely civil aviation, helicopters, and space.
According to Airbus, humanoids helping out on the assembly line will carry out the most laborious and dangerous tasks, employing a new type of technology called multi-contact locomotion. This means  they will use their entire bodies to make contact with their environment rather than simply their feet, enabling them to enter confined spaces, climbing ladders, tighten bolts and remove metallic dust. As the project progresses, these robots could potentially help inform the first generation of humanoids built specifically for large-scale manufacturing.
Free automation
This scale of investment is out of reach for the vast majority of British firms. But the price of automation will inevitably come down and some believe that automation may even become ‘free,’ as the value model shifts to the ongoing support necessary for its effective deployment. 
This could result in a charging system much like the one that applies to current day mobile phones, with network operators providing a handset without upfront charge, in exchange for a contractual commitment to use added-value services.
But while the UK has one of the highest rates of mobile phones use in the world, the challenge of shifting the country’s lukewarm attitudes to automation remains. 
Two upcoming events provide an opportunity for UK manufacturers to discover the possibilities that automation presents: 
Automate UK – The Automation Advisory Board Thought Leadership Network’s annual conference takes place on 2 March 2016 in Birmingham and provides an opportunity to hear from industry experts and a technology showcase. 
On a larger scale, Automatica is the world’s largest showcase of robotics, assembly lines and machine-vision systems. The trade fair takes place every two years and the next event is in Munich, 21-24 June, 2016.  
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