Robots are ready to lend a hand

jjs-2In the manufacturing environment, robots enable automation, increasing productivity and efficiency and driving down costs — benefits the UK sorely needs at the moment, says director of JJS Manufacturing, John Mayes.

There was a time when robots were the stuff of science fiction, yet now they have become an accepted part of the world in which we live, bringing with them great benefits. In the manufacturing and engineering sector, robots enable automation, thereby increasing productivity, efficiency and driving down costs.

Despite these advantages, the UK invests less in robots than others in Europe. According to the 2015 International Federation of Robotics report, there are only 31 robots for every 10,000 employees in non-automotive sectors in the UK, compared to 161 in Germany, 142 in Sweden, 117 in Italy, 74 in Spain and 71 in France.

It is increasingly clear that this will need to change, however, in order for UK manufacturing and engineering to grow and prosper.

Manufacturing challenges

The UK currently faces a number of challenges in its manufacturing and engineering sector: a skills gap, low productivity, and now Brexit, to name a few.

In March 2016, the manufacturers’ organisation, EEF, published its report: An up-skill battle. It found that the proportion of vacancies considered hard to fill in manufacturing stands at 35 per cent. Furthermore, the available candidates do not often possess the necessary skills, with only five per cent of Key Stage four school leavers going on to do an apprenticeship and a low uptake of science, technology, engineering and maths subjects across the board.

Additionally, the report found that productivity in the UK compares poorly internationally, with 49 per cent of manufacturers agreeing with the statement that “the productivity of UK manufacturing lags behind that of other major developed economies.”

These are a complex set of problems and there is no one, clear-cut solution, however, robots can play a role in improving the situation. Although they cannot replace human skill and creativity, they can enable manufacturers to increase their output while still relying on their current workforce.

Clearly the UK cannot compete as a low-skill, low-wage economy. This means automation has to take over the lower added-value functions, as well as those jobs that are dirty, difficult or dangerous. Mind-numbingly repetitive tasks are also well suited to robotic assistance.

Rise of the robot

Manufacturers making cars, planes and trains in the transport sector, where robots are already widely used, now produce 56 per cent more per hour than in 2009, according to The Economist. But what about the wider manufacturing and engineering sector?

A 2015 report by Barclays, entitled