At a time when robot adoption within the UK manufacturing industry is increasing, but still challenging in certain areas, we’re delighted to bring you some essential insight into the UK Robotics Industry from someone at the forefront of the industry.
Mike has over 40 years’ experience in successfully delivering the application of automation to manufacturing across a wide range of industry sectors.
As well as his role as Chief Automation Officer at MTC, he holds a position as Director of the Manufacturing Technologies Association and was Chairman of the British Automation and Robot Association (BARA), where he still maintains a council position. His book ‘Implementation of Robot Systems’ was published in 2014 and in 2018 he was recognised in The Manufacturer Top 100.
Established in 2010, The Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) is an independent Research & Technology Organisation with the objective of bridging the gap between university-based research and the development of innovative manufacturing solutions, in line with the Government’s manufacturing strategy. The MTC is part of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, supported by Innovate UK.
Housing some of the most advanced manufacturing equipment in the world, the MTC works in partnership with industry, academia, and its members to prove innovative manufacturing processes and technologies in an agile environment. The MTC’s areas of expertise are applicable across a wide variety of industry sectors, including Aerospace, Defence & Security, Power & Energy, Built Environments, Space, Food & Drink and Healthcare.
Our Director of Innovation & Engineering, Edwin Derry, recently caught up with Mike and asked him how he sees the UK Robotics Industry evolving.
So, grab yourself a cuppa and read on …
Mike: “The UK lags most of our major competitors for robot adoption. The International Federation of Robotics measures robot density, the number of robots per 10,000 employees in manufacturing industry. The UK currently ranks 24th on this table with a robot density of 111 which is below the world average.
There are a number of likely reasons for this situation including a general unwillingness to invest in capital equipment with short paybacks often being required and perceptions the technology is expensive and requires skilled personnel to operate and maintain.
The consequence of this lack of investment in robotics and automation technology has resulted in poor productivity in comparison with our major competitors and a deteriorating competitive position.”
Mike: “By far the largest user in the UK is the automotive sector with the Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) and their suppliers operating about half of the robots currently in use in the UK.
This sector has been the major market for robotics worldwide and has largely driven the development of robot technology. The relatively high volumes of this sector, together with the need for flexibility to handle different model variants, is very suited to the capabilities of robots.
The sector also has a skilled workforce and the engineering resources to implement and operate advanced manufacturing technological solutions.
Other sub sectors and applications where we have seen uptake in the UK include the plastics industry; largely injection mould machine unload, the bakery sector from tin handling to packing and welding across a range of sectors from yellow goods to furniture.
A significant sector that has been forecast to become a major user for many years is food and drink manufacturing. This employs more people than both automotive and aerospace combined and therefore has significant potential. In recent years adoption has increased but there is still the opportunity for significant growth.”
Mike: “As mentioned above the UK lags behind our major competitors in robot adoption. One factor influencing our adoption is the characteristics of our manufacturing sector. We do have a very large percentage of SMEs which have historically lacked the resources and skills to implement robot technologies.
Our manufacturing can also be generally characterised as producing lower volume, small batch and higher value products which is less suitable for any form of automation. Whereas other countries still have a significant base of higher volume businesses which have been more suited to robot automation.”
Mike: “Robots are becoming much easier to apply and use, addressing the issues identified above. In particular, collaborative robots (cobots) are making a significant impact. This is principally because they are easier to implement and operate. This is making robot automation more accessible to UK manufacturers.
At the same time, we are seeing significant labour shortages in the UK, driven by factors including Brexit and the COVID pandemic, which is increasing the interest in automation.
The general drive towards reshoring to increase resilience by building local supply chains and addressing rising costs, both in terms of value and carbon footprint, is also generating interest in automation.
The main challenge will be the availability of skills to deliver and implement these solutions, both within the supply chain, and also the end users.”
Mike: “One of the major challenges, as the adoption of robot automation increases, is the availability of people with the skills to implement and operate these systems.
The UK is facing a general shortage of engineers anyway so this will add to the problem. Educational courses are being developed at various levels to address the gap in robot automation skills. These range from L3 to L7 apprenticeships as well as degree courses.
The largest short-term gap will be at the technician level and to address this there need to be upskilling programmes developed to retrain the existing workforce. In the longer term we need to ensure a pipeline of engineering talent is provided. This requires greater engagement in schools to generate interest and enthusiasm for STEM subjects.
Key initiatives such as the VEX Robotics competitions and World Skills will be key to success and the robotics sector, by supporting these initiatives, can have a very positive influence.”
Mike: “At the MTC we have three clear areas of focus:
1. Industry support – by supporting industries by developing technology and solutions, where they are not available, to address the challenges of today and the future. This is about developing more agile robot solutions which are easier to implement and operate.
2. Automation Solutions development – continuing to help companies identify opportunities and specify, procure and implement automation solutions, to minimise the risk associated with any projects by providing the benefit of our experience.
3. Supply Chain Automation – supporting the development of the automation supply chain by helping to develop the skills and capability of the system integrators.
These activities include working with organisations, such as HowToRobot, to make robot solutions more accessible to SMEs, and VEX Robotics to increase the availability of talent for the future.”
Despite the UK lagging behind our European counterparts, we have seen increasing robotic appetite in some of our core traditional markets, such as Metals, where robot uptake has been lower compared to the likes of the automotive and consumer goods industries.
Seeing these traditional businesses start to embrace the numerous benefits of robots is encouraging to see for the future sustainability and future-proofing of their businesses, and indeed for their industry as a whole.
Mike is absolutely spot on in that the majority of businesses have historically lacked the resources and skills to implement robot technologies. That is still largely the case, and it’s where our iconsys robotics team comes in to add that value, expertise and skill to find the optimal robotic solution for any given business.
To ensure we stay at the forefront of developments in robotics, we are investing in building the iconsys Academy: to ensure our engineers now and in the future have the highest level of professional development, as well as offering enhanced training opportunities to our customers.
Many thanks to Mike at MTC for his time and insight-sharing, we highly value the relationship we hold with the MTC.
We have a team of experienced, friendly & knowledgeable robotics specialists ready to help you deliver the automation you want and need within your business.
We partner with the best-in-class robot manufacturers, including ABB, Kuka, Agilox & HiK: our platform independence means you get the optimal solution, tailored to your business needs.
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