Industries in the UK are turning to robotics and automation to assist in the automotive, chemical, metals, and food and beverage manufacturing.
For over 40 years, ASD Lighting has been supplying lights to hospitals, airports, and offices in the UK. In 2018, the company’s workforce expanded by two with the addition of two robotic arms named Roberta and Robbie joining the company’s Rotherham factory production line to install panels on street lights. According to ASD, these robots can handle various repetitive tasks, which helps improve the company’s production rates and minimize risks associated with RSI.
According to Universal Robots, which makes the arms, the cost of the robotic arms is around £33,000. Mark Gray, the company’s manager for the UK and Ireland, said that the robots are quicker to pay than human workers.
In 2021, the UK had over 24,000 industrial robots on the job, which is about 111 for every 10,000 workers. Despite the increasing number of robots, the country is still below the global average and ranks 24th in the world. ASD Lighting’s case is a rare example of how the UK lags behind when it comes to the utilization of robots in the workplace.
The number of industrial robots in the UK has increased significantly over the past decade according to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR). Britain had around 24,445 industrial robots in service in 2021, or 111 for every 10,000 manufacturing workers. However, it is still below the global average and ranks 24th in the world, the lowest in the G7 and below the global average of 141.
The US has about 274 robots for every 10,000 workers, followed by Germany with 397, and South Korea with 1,000. According to the IFR’s annual update, the UK’s manufacturing industry has a robust robot installation count, but it’s low for Western Europe. Even in sectors where robots are commonly used, such as carmaking and manufacturing, the UK struggles, with 824 automatons per 10,000 workers, compared to Germany’s 1,500.
The number of industrial robots installed in the UK has gradually decreased over the past couple of years. From 2011 to 2021, the global installation count increased by over threefold.
The reduction in the number of robots is seen as one of the factors that contributed to the sluggish productivity growth of the UK. According to data released last week, the manufacturing sector contracted at its fastest pace in over three years. The ONS also noted that the country was the only one in the world that experienced a decline in productivity.
According to Gray, the UK is one of the worst performers among the G7 nations when it comes to productivity. If you look at the countries with the highest rates of productivity, such as Japan, Germany, and South Korea, you’ll notice that they have a lot of robots.
The UK’s productivity has remained almost 20 percent lower than that of the US.
A robot is a type of programmable mechanism that can be used for various tasks, such as welding and painting. It can be repurposed for different applications, making it an alternative to human labor in the workplace.
Today, about half of the industrial robots in the UK are in the carmaking industry, followed by chemical products, metals and food and beverage manufacturing.
According to Peter Williamson, the head of the Progressive Machinery Industry Association, the UK has been more resistant to the use of industrial robots than other nations. These first appeared during the 1970s to 1980s during an industrial dispute.
He noted that the country’s perception of robots taking jobs has been the same since the 1970s. Many car companies in the UK did not adopt robotics due to their concerns about demoting or affecting their workforce. This was the reason why the country was different from other nations when it came to the use of industrial robots.
According to experts, one of the main factors that contributed to the UK’s reluctance to adopt robots was its addiction to cheap labor. Williamson said that this was the reason why the country stuck with its low-cost labor model instead of adopting automation.
“We continued to think that low cost labor was the way forward, rather than actually adopting automation,” says Williamson. “So there’s a hangover from that.”
UK governments have pointed out the country’s low number of robots as a concern. In 2013, David Willetts, the science minister for the Coalition, claimed that it was one of the eight great technologies that could help boost the country’s growth over the next decade.
Willetts acknowledged that the country’s demographics had held back the investment in advanced technologies. He noted that the return of manual labor in certain industries, such as car washes, was an example of this.
In 2017, the UK Government released a comprehensive industrial strategy that highlighted the importance of robots. In 2021, a report estimated that the adoption of robots could boost the country’s economic output by around £6.4 billion.
The labor shock caused by Brexit is likely to lead to more investments in robotics. Rishi Sunak has suggested investing in projects that will help address staffing shortages in certain sectors, such as the NHS.
The IFR said that “robotic automation might compensate for the increasing shortage of low-wage labor while allowing the country to remain competitive”.
According to Gray, the company’s business has significantly improved two years following the UK’s exit from the European Union. He noted that due to the aging workforce, many people are now open to the idea of automation.
“We’ve got an ageing workforce – the average age of a welder now is 55. They’ve got 10 years before they retire. And we can’t replace that skill with young people quick enough. So we are seeing that turnaround. People are more open to robotics and automation.”