The global site of the UK's leading magazine for automation, motion engineering and power transmission
18 May, 2024

Twitter link

The UK is falling behind its rivals in its use of automation

22 November, 2017

The UK is “falling seriously behind” its competitors in its uptake of industrial automation “based on pretty much every metric”, the recently published Made Smarter review has warned. “Given the UK’s pivotal historic role as the leader of the industrial age, it seems disturbing that we appear to be falling ever further down the list of automated, digitalised countries – yet that is just what is happening,” the report says.

The uptake of manufacturing automation in the UK is “disturbingly slow compared to most other developed nations,” the report cautions. Citing the example of industrial robots, it points out that the UK has only 33 robots per 10,000 employed, compared to 93 for the US and 170 for Germany – and the gap is widening. Germany, it adds, invests 6.6 times more than the UK in automation, although its manufacturing sector is only 2.7 times bigger.

The review, chaired by Siemens UK CEO Professor Juergen Maier, suggests several reasons why the UK is falling behind, including:

•  Public perception A fear by business leaders and the public that robots will take too many jobs, fed by media suggestions that human-like robots will replace people completely.

•  Lack of ambition Not enough businesses strive to be more than profitable. There is a lack of will to scale-up UK-based businesses to become movers and shakers on the world stage.

•  Risk-averse Too many companies have a strong preference to “sweat their assets” by repairing older equipment until it becomes obsolete or fails, rather than upgrading it to remain globally competitive.

•  Shortage of skills The shortage of skilled automation staff means that too many companies don’t have internal champions who are comfortable with adopting new technologies to do more tasks differently.

•  Finance With a lack of incentives from government, and a conservative financial sector unwilling to encourage investment for increasing competitiveness and productivity, it is too easy for companies to delay investing in automation – until it’s too late.

The report cites a recent study from Barclays which suggested that accelerated investment in robots could raise the UK’s manufacturing Gross Added Value by 21% over ten years. Another report, from Denmark, predicted that productivity could rise by 22% if the UK invested in automation in line with the “best in class” of its rivals.

“The reality is that while high-growth economies like China are seizing on robots as key to their future growth, the UK has so far failed to grasp the significance of embracing the future rather than denying it,” the review warns. “Action must be taken soon to change these attitudes, or the UK risks losing yet more of its manufacturing base.”

The review makes a series of recommendations to accelerate innovation and the adoption of robotics and automation in the UK:

Maier: the uptake of automation in the UK is “disturbingly slow” says his report

•  Establish template factories for SMEs  The UK should build a series of showcase automated factories across the UK. These “template” factories, producing real goods, would enable SME owners with little understanding of digital or robotics to invest confidently in digital factories by simply saying “I want one of those!”. Many of these model factories could be part-funded by Tier 1 companies wanting to boost sales of their automation equipment.

•  Create an automation task force with mobile demonstrators This force should reach out to manufacturers large and small, using the template factories as catalysts. It should also help businesses to raise the finance either to increase automation in an existing factory, or to build new highly automated plants.

•  Offer financial incentives to encourage the adoption of automation By incentivising companies that are willing to invest in automation, an ecosystem of businesses embracing automation could be created across the UK. Not only will this stimulate manufacturing, but

it will also create a growing, energetic and innovative network of specialist services and technology companies.

•  Establish an Interoperability Institute  Such a body, already proposed by the ElecTech Council in its response to the BEIS Industrial Strategy Consultation, would focus on ensuring that automation products communicate and co-operate with each other, regardless of supplier. This would ensure that when companies invest in automation equipment from different suppliers, they would be reassured that their investment would not be made obsolete if a component or supplier needs to be upgraded or replaced by another.

“The world won’t wait for the UK,” the review warns. “Industrial digitalisation and the upgrade of our manufacturing infrastructure is key for the future of the UK’s global competitiveness. Production costs are rising, and unless action is taken competitiveness will continue to drop.

“There needs to be greater strategic focus than simply ‘make more things in the UK’,” it adds. “Automation, robotics, and the ElecTech technologies and skills surrounding them, are an ideal focal point to rapidly build the UK’s position in the global economy as a leader in the practical application of advanced digital manufacturing for economic growth and global export success.”

  • To view a digital copy of the latest issue of Drives & Controls, click here.

    To visit the digital library of past issues, click here

    To subscribe to the magazine, click here



"Do you think that robots create or destroy jobs?"



Most Read Articles