As we move towards 2020, attention inevitably turns towards what lies ahead in the new year. Tom Bouchier reflects on the state of automation over the last 12 months, and looks forward to what could be a pivotal year for UK manufacturing
A report published by the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee (BEIS) in September highlighted the disadvantageous position of UK automation. Falling behind its G7 counterparts in terms of robot density, Britain will struggle to keep pace with the productivity of international competitors if action is not taken.
If UK manufacturing is to realise its potential, it must overcome its apparent reluctance to automate. There is undoubtedly a superb base of technology and research in British industry, which, providing it can overcome the current barriers to automation, provides a fantastic platform for economic growth and prosperity. However, barriers remain, and the UK must work together to move industry forward.
The biggest challenge we face as a nation is to generate awareness around the benefits that robots and automation can bring to businesses. There are a number of misconceptions that must be addressed, which are ingrained into our society for various reasons.
One of the most damaging beliefs is that automation is expensive. This is particular prevalent amongst those that need it most, specifically SMEs that are ready to expand their business but perhaps feel they do not have the capital to do so. The fact is that automation is not out of the financial reach of many UK manufacturers, and the economic gains of introducing robots into a production line more than offsets any upfront cost.
In addition to the subject of expense, there is a general lack of awareness over the numerous applications that automation can be used for. With benefits for a whole host of industries, such as automotive, aerospace, food & beverage, OEM, and medical, there are a wide range of industries which could enjoy significant economic growth by adopting automation. Plus, advances in collaborative robots, or cobots, add another tool to a manufacturer’s armoury.
The way we, as an industry, educate the end user on the benefits of automation is crucial. Business owners are understandably protective of their company, and no one is interested in being lectured on how they could be improved. This year, FANUC hosted its first ever UK Open House, showcasing the potential of automation by providing manufacturers with a hands-on experience with the latest robots. These events are very important for industry, and manufacturers should endeavour to attend similar open days in 2020 and beyond.
Educate for tomorrow
Alongside upskilling those already working in manufacturing, we must provide pathways for those seeking to enter the industry. The most effective way to secure the future of UK businesses is to provide a stream of enthusiastic and automation-literate employees, capable of engaging with the latest technology.
There has to be a concerted effort to engage young people, and the best way to do this is to continue to provide strong apprenticeship programmes. The key is to take a cross-party approach to this, because the health of UK industry is too important to be politicised. We must look at how funding can be used to foster growth – for example tax breaks could go to OEMs to enable them to improve training and prioritise apprenticeships.
It is also important that organisations, such as WorldSkills, continue to inspire young people and develop their skills. It raises awareness over the need to address growing skills gaps, which we can see all too clearly in UK manufacturing. FANUC’s ongoing partnership with WorldSkills is part of its commitment to raise awareness of automation, and by equipping apprentices with the competencies and knowledge to take into the future, British businesses can continue to compete on a world stage.
Changing perceptions of automation and robots should not be limited to UK manufacturing – it is something that needs addressing on a much wider scale. Resistance to automation can largely be attributed to the distrust of robots that is inherent within British society. The pervasiveness of this mindset should not be underestimated, and everyday features as prevalent as ‘I am not a robot’ buttons on websites are indicative of the negative attitudes towards robotic technology.
By educating those outside of UK industry as well as those within it, we can break down some of the barriers to robotics by removing the stigma associated with the word. Rather than fighting against the introduction of modern technology, Britain should be pioneering automation, and changes to attitudes will help make this possible.
Encouraging people to talk about automation is a great start, but to foster inclusion within technologies is something which is beneficial to UK industry as a whole. The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) refers to the networking of devices for the purpose of interaction and data exchange, and is likely to be a major trend moving into 2020.
FANUC is introducing its own IIoT platform into the European market, known as the FIELD system, which stands for FANUC Intelligent Edge Link and Drive. It is great for breaking down barriers to automation within factories themselves, enabling communication between various machines and robots of different generations and manufacturers. This type of open platform technology can play a major role in encouraging a wider adoption of automation, and it is an exciting prospect for the year ahead.
This type of open communication can actually be applied to the way UK industry liaise with Government. Many, myself included, frequently call on the Government to be more decisive in leading the transition to new technologies, and to provide a platform upon which British businesses can grow. But a certain degree of responsibility lies with experts to support the Government, by providing a crucial base of industry-specific knowledge to support their efforts to influence a change in attitudes.
There is clearly room for improvement in the UK when it comes to adopting automation into manufacturing, and the low robot density compared with our G7 counterparts is worrying. However, there is sufficient appetite for progress and technological advancement to be optimistic that 2020 will be a pivotal year for British businesses.
Addressing misconceptions and tackling barriers to automation with a positive mindset is the key to improving productivity in UK industry, and by generating awareness and offering training, there is no reason to believe that the year ahead will be anything but successful.
Tom Bouchier is Managing Director at FANUC UK. At its state-of-the-art headquarters in Ansty Park, Coventry, FANUC UK brings together world-leading capabilities in industrial robots, machine tools and plastic injection moulding machines to facilitate the complete integration of factory automation systems for UK manufacturers.