“The spinning mule was a pivotal element in the industrial revolution... turning Britain into a textiles superpower,” wrote Andrew Bowman in the Financial Times last month. “But, when it comes to replacing human hands with machines, today’s British manufacturers have become the Luddites of Europe.”
He follows up this damning remark with some hard facts:
The UK car industry uses just 622 robots per 10,000 workers, compared with almost twice that in Germany and Italy, according to the International Federation of Robotics and the figures, if you remove automotive manufacturing are even worse. New robotics installations in the UK actually doubled in 2012 to 2,477, according to BARA data, but four in five were in the car industry. Elsewhere, installations have plateaued in recent years.
Deep rooted issues
With Asian wages rising, governments are seeking to strengthen domestic manufacturing. This, together with the decrease in building costs - due in part to open source systems like ROS - means that the field of robotics is generating renewed interest. But there are concerns that British companies are lagging behind. According to Christopher Buxton, chief executive of the British Automation and Robot Association, “the situation is desperate.”
So, why with science minister David Willetts having identified robotics as one of the UK’s “eight great technologies” that will share £600m of new funding do we have this situation?
The FT has identified a number of deep rooted issues holding back automation in the UK:
More than nine out of ten manufacturing workplaces employ less than 50 people, according to research from Manchester University’s Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change. Most robots sold in the UK cost between £30,000 and £50,000, putting them out of the reach of smaller companies.
In food, the UK’s largest manufacturing sector by employment, many blame supermarket buying practices for the UK’s slow move to automation. Their insistence on very short-term contracts and the high capital costs of installing automation, which take 2-3 years to recoup, make for an impossible situation.
There are also policy issues, with concerns that, despite recent investment, the focus is on the UK carving out high tech manufacturing niches, rather than helping normal companies adopt existing technologies.
A chronic shortage of skilled engineers compounds the problems.
Missing the boat?
With emerging markets rushing to automate (both India and Mexico bought more units than the UK in 2011), there’s a sense that the automated ship is sailing, without the UK fully on board.
But is industrial robotics the key after all? Some analysts believe it won’t be long before robot technology moves out of the manufacturing sector and into the service industry, fuelled by advances in IT as well as voice recognition and wireless technology.
If the UK is to secure a place here, much work remains to be done and the place for a large part of it may well be our schools and the newly revamped Design & Technology curriculum.
Research bears out that developing an interest in robotics at an early age can not only open the door to a career in technology but also aid learning in other fields. Other nations are taking full advantage of this. In April, Robotics Week was celebrated extensively in the USA, whereas in Britain we're lucky if there's a major exhibition once every couple of years. Surely, we can do more?