Collaborate to Automate: Improving the UK's automation and robotics adoption


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May 07, 2023

Collaborate to Automate: Improving the UK's automation and robotics adoption

The UK is the ninth largest manufacturing nation in the world, with a

The UK is the ninth largest manufacturing nation in the world, with a substantial £183bn worth of output. But just how precarious could that top table seat be if the UK continues its slow adoption of industrial automation? The Manufacturer's Tom St John visited the FANUC UK headquarters in Coventry, where the proposed answers to this headache lie in building knowledge and future implementation into education programmes.

We visit all sorts of facilities across the UK and beyond, and we’ve seen some belters. FANUC is right up there. As we approached a row of stationary robots, behind a glass screen and coated in the trademark FANUC yellow, Brooke Tarrant, Marketing Specialist UK & Ireland said: "If you push that button the robots will start moving." In my excitement, I gave the button a hit, rather than a push, nearly knocking both it and the plinth it was sat atop to the floor. Thankfully, the robots started moving – the mechanical orchestra was fired up, taking the attention away from my awkward apologies.

The FANUC R-1000iA/100F caught my attention. This is a lightweight spot-welding robot with a compact body, which helps it to deliver fast cycle times while conserving energy. Like something out of Jurassic Park, it slowly simulates the welding of a component it was working on, before suddenly but smoothly arching its pincered head over to the other side, its movement accompanied by a satisfying burst of robot-like noises. FANUC, a Japanese company founded in the 1950s, is just about the world's biggest supplier of factory automation, making up 60% of the CNC market worldwide. It produces 10,000 robots a month, as well as various other machines. We were brought here not just to be impressed, but to learn a truth that FANUC wants the country to know – we must be better at automation adoption.

Let's start on a positive, The IFR World Robotics Industrial Robots 2022 report makes for interesting reading. The statistics show a strong indication that robotics is very much present across global manufacturing. A record 517,385 new robots were installed in 2021 – an impressive 31% uplift from 2020. While the usual automation adopters are typically the automotive, electronics, and metal and machinery industries, advances in robotic capability through digitalisation and AI have seen sectors such as warehousing and logistics jump on board with automated solutions. This is a trend that FANUC is seeing in the UK, as Tom Bouchier, Managing Director said: "We’re certainly seeing wider adoption. Interestingly, a lot is now in the areas of industry that we haven't historically had a presence in. More traditional manufacturers are now looking to adopt automation, which is great.

"Robots seem to be attached to most machine tools now – that seems to be the way forward in most factories. Many processes are trying to get more of a 24 hour run in by using the robot as a heavy lifter. This is incredibly satisfying for us. Many SMEs that thought automation was just for the big boys are now the ones that are looking at robotics." While Tom finds this encouraging, he circled back to the numbers in the IFR report, which don't make for pretty reading.

The report states that at 2,054, the number of new robot installations was down seven percent year-on-year, giving the UK an average manufacturing robot density of 111 robots for every 10,000 employees, which the report notes is ‘very low for a Western European country’. This figure is well below the global average of 141 and considerably under the top performing nation: Republic of Korea (1,000) and the European frontrunner, Germany (397). "That puts the UK at 24th in the world in robot density rankings," said Tom, shaking his head. "This makes us the only G7 country to sit outside the top 20." Indeed, other European countries such as Slovenia, Slovakia, Finland and Hungary are now outpacing the UK when it comes the adoption of robotics. Ouch.

"The UK's position as a leading manufacturing nation is unquestionable," continued Tom, "But we could increase our productivity levels significantly if we used more automation. To put it into context, many countries have a manufacturing industry that accounts for a similar ten percent GDP as the UK, like the US, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden, for example. But their productivity rates are higher than ours as a result of their greater investment in automation. "Astonishingly, a German worker is around 30% an hour more productive than a UK worker. We cannot expect to continue competing on the international stage unless we automate."

Earlier in the day, we’d attended the opening of the new Omnifactory at the University of Nottingham. There we caught up with Oliver Selby, Head of Sales at FANUC UK, and his take on how best to adopt automation is to build it in. Oliver highlighted that the announcement of a new factory typically focuses on the number of jobs it will create, rather than the long-term benefits such as productivity and sustainability. He said: "I believe that industry hasn't really committed to ensuring we have the right young people coming through with the right skill sets to adopt automation." He continued: "I would hope that industry and education work together to ensure that the gaps are identified and to make sure that we can work with those providers of education in the right way to fill those gaps.

"As a company, we ensure that we have a high emphasis on education within our strategies going forward. I’m sure we’ve got the right products, we can deliver the right content and we can help support those academies, colleges, schools and universities to deliver the education that improves the outcomes for young people. "Then, hopefully, they’ll come out of that education system confident in their ability to adopt automation and to actually suggest it to their future companies which will hopefully change the way we work now." This is a bridge-gapper, for sure. It's not that the bridge between education and industry doesn't exist, but it's a bit of a rickety bridge held together by creaking beams and worn-out rope. And too often the groups standing on different sides blame the other for not renovating it. This is a clear call for unity, and one that has benefited FANUC, with apprentices coming into the business having heard of the opportunities that exist.

Tom said: "We have some fantastic apprentices coming through now and it's because people in schools and colleges are being shown that it's a viable path. It's leading to more people applying." From the perspective of a young person leaving school, just look at what you could be working with. As we walked around the FANUC site we were introduced to a plethora of robots; even one that could open a fridge and grab a drink for you. There was another, a particularly cool addition to a factory floor, that was unbelievable at table football. Brooke told us she’d never seen anyone beat it; a small table football figure on the end of a LR Mate 200iD/7L – a long arm mini robot.

Watch the video on our trip to the FANUC HQ

I went 1-0 ahead, only to concede a quick equaliser, lose my head and crumble to a 3-1 loss. My colleague Lanna was soundly defeated 3-0. This thing could hit the ball a lot harder than the power we were able to generate from our feeble human hands. The point is that people want to be excited by what they do, and you don't get much more exciting than this. The chance to watch and interact with industrial robots is quite something – imagine controlling the systems they operate on. But of course, you must have the expertise, and the issue being raised by FANUC is there just isn't a large enough infrastructure to ensure this knowledge is bedded in.

"The content of university degrees is already changing to become more industry related," said Oliver. "School leavers now have the option of studying for degrees such as an MSc in Artificial Intelligence and Robotics and a BEng in Robotic Engineering. "However, we’ve still only got 30 universities in the UK offering undergraduate courses in robotics and automation. What's also alarming is that we can see a widening gap in the provision of post-GCSE technical education, where there is a need for more hands-on training in real life engineering settings."

According to ONS data, almost one fifth of all workers in the UK manufacturing industry is aged 55 or over. We’re all fully aware of the need for an influx of young people into the industry, but these figures put it in alarmingly sharp focus. Less than ten percent of the UK workforce is aged between 16 and 24 and over the next decade it's predicted that 20% of the workforce will retire, taking with them years of engineering and manufacturing expertise.

"That's a bit of a shocking statistic," said Oliver. "We do really need to correct that going forward by attracting the next generation, and indeed, people of this current generation into the sector." He continued: "If UK manufacturing is to remain internationally competitive, we need to prioritise the development of a skilled pipeline – that is, people who can design, build, programme, integrate, operate and maintain manufacturing technologies. We also need to heavily embrace automation as a route to countering unskilled personnel shortages and increasing productivity."

Tom added weight to this point when he pointed out to us: "The generation that is coming through now is more digitally aware anyway – they were born with this stuff. The use of technology comes easier to them than it does older generations. "Therefore, what we also need to be doing is upskilling the whole way through our supply chain. Whenever I go into companies and we talk about upskilling, everyone seems to think I’m talking about apprentices. I’m generally talking about the C-suite within the business. "Give people better jobs and the satisfaction within their roles. But also give them the information they need, give the decision makers the return on investment and the lifetime costs. And of course, give the engineers the knowledge of how it all works."

As mentioned earlier, this is a good example of bridging the disconnect between industry and education that we often hear about. And here is a company that has seen a gap within the industry and is supporting education to fill it. In the last 12 months, FANUC has supplied more than 25 robots to learning centres in the UK to support current and future education requirements. Oliver explained: "Our Training Academy at our Coventry HQ is currently undergoing independent validation, after which FANUC UK will become one of the first automation companies to offer accredited courses that can feed into mainstream education, with credits obtained against a particular skill.

"This will mean that students can gain hands-on experience in areas such as operating, programming, troubleshooting and integrating robots while securing credits towards their qualifications. This industry led methodology will greatly benefit the new T-Level awards, which have been designed to try and solve the ever-growing skills gap conundrum."

This engagement between education and industry mirrors the US model where FANUC has been rolling out certified education programmes for robotics and automation. I do get a strong feeling that this is the sort of collaboration that's needed; mutually beneficial cooperation between industry and education providers. FANUC believes this will be the key to the success of the new T-Level system and be precisely the direct intervention needed to attract younger people to manufacturing. You can't argue too much with the logic.

Once the fresh talent is in the business, the challenge turns to keeping it there. Interesting working environments with robots that will give you a game of foosball on your lunch break will help.

On a serious note, having systems that add real value and allow people to develop industry expertise becomes a source of competitive advantage. This is the message that FANUC is trying to get across, and what investment in automation is really about. It's not just buying a robot and waiting for it to pay back in the traditional labour saving sense, but more about establishing automation as a core function within business models. This is at odds with the idea, one that we’ve heard before, that certain tasks and processes should be outsourced to save costs associated with hiring and training new employees.

Oliver argued the FANUC side: "There are a number of benefits to building strong in-house automation capabilities As well as reducing reliance on third parties, this approach supports staff retention and promotes innovation from the inside. Companies can identify where the opportunities lie within their own businesses, understand how automation can enhance their facilities and use it to increase their productivity levels." As we mentioned earlier, productivity is something that the UK struggles with when compared to other European countries like Germany.

As we left the FANUC site, I looked back and noted how impressive the facility is (I also lamented how, if I’d been able to play with my favoured right hand, I may just have beaten the robot at table football). It's a huge site, and FANUC is able to invest resources into its equipment and training facilities. I wondered for a moment how an SME, with around 200 or so members of staff, would be able to bear the cost of such bold ambitions. Adopting automation will create fantastic opportunities and build first class expertise no doubt, but is it attainable for every business?

I then remembered what Tom had said and recalled the many UK manufacturers that we’ve visited in the last year or so that are trying to build automation into core processes. It's a journey, for sure, but it's achievable, as Tom also pointed out: "The target market for our products in the last few years has been SMEs. Everyone assumes the automotive sector gets all the robots, but that is not where our product is. A lot of our robots end up in the small to medium sized companies, because they really benefit from them."

In-house capability is probably a little further away from being realistic for every company. This is a trend playing out in the industries you would expect, such as automotive. Oliver added: "High-profile businesses are reaping the rewards of building internal automation teams. As the UK adopts more robotics and automation across different facets of industry and manufacturing, our prediction is that more companies will look at establishing their own internal automation teams." We will see. What has particularly pleased me about writing this piece is the scruff-of-the-neck action taken by FANUC to engage and collaborate with the education sector. Other companies may not have the same global clout, but they can certainly adopt the same forward-thinking attitude. Present schools and collages with something tangible, interesting and beneficial to the futures of their students, be it expertise in automation and robotics, or another one of the many facets that make up this fascinating industry.


Watch the video on our trip to the FANUC HQ KEY TAKEAWAYS