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Automation could boost UK productivity ‘dramatically’

18 November, 2021

Speeding up the adoption of industrial automation and robotics could lead to dramatic improvements in the UK’s manufacturing productivity, according to a major new report produced by the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) and Loughborough University’s Industrial Policy Research Centre (IPRC).

At present, the UK lags around 16% behind the average productivity of the G7 industrialised countries. And of the more than 130,000 manufacturers in the country (at least 96% of which are SMEs), only about 10,000 are using robots.

Called Robotics and Automation: A New Perspective, the report argues that the slow uptake of robots by British manufacturers, and a reluctance to invest in automation, are key factors in the UK’s poor productivity. It suggests that investment in automation, as well as reshoring manufacturing operations from abroad, could deliver major opportunities for UK manufacturers.

The 84-page report contains contributions from experts from a wide range of areas including technology, manufacturing policy, trade associations, finance, industrial relations and the media. There are also several case studies showing practical examples of the benefits of adopting automation technologies.

The UK currently lies 24th in the global league of robot densities (robots/10,000 manufacturing workers), contributing to its poor productivity, according to the report. But, it adds, the technologies to improve the situation already exist. The priority is to adopt them faster.

“While the UK was traditionally a leader in world manufacturing, our productivity has been surpassed by other countries and, if ignored, this gap will continue to grow,” warns MTC CEO, Dr Clive Hickman. “It is necessary to address the opportunities available within manufacturing to get back on top form and make advances available for businesses across the UK.”

The report calls for more support for UK businesses at all stages, from identifying opportunities, to selecting suppliers and ensuring that staff have the right skills, to finally implementing systems. It also wants knowledge to be shared across industry and the automation supply chain to develop, demonstrate, test and de-risk affordable and deployable automation – in particular targeting UK manufacturers who have under-invested in the past. Better training is also needed.

Mike Wilson, the MTC’s chief automation officer, argues that the Covid pandemic has exposed weaknesses in the UK’s extended supply chains, leading to a recognition that the resilience of UK manufacturing needs to be boosted by increasing local content and reshoring production capacity.

The new report argues that the UK needs to adopt automation faster if it is to improve its poor productivity

“A significant expansion of manufacturing capability cannot be achieved using the current methodologies, which are largely based on manual labour and obsolete equipment,” he points out. The Made Smarter Review calculated that automation and robotics could boost UK manufacturing by £183.6bn over a decade.

“The solutions are available and proven,” says Wilson. “The challenge in the UK is adoption, and also the education of the finance community so they understand and support investment.”

Professor Chris White of the Industrial Policy Research Centre believes that accelerating the use of robotics and automation and the adoption of new technologies “will create a revolution” in the way the UK thinks about manufacturing and its culture. “The future of work, and for that matter, the future of manufacturing, is about to change dramatically,” he says. “Its culture can no longer be described as ‘dirty, dangerous and dull’, but one that is clean, safe and as exciting as our imagination will allow.”

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