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Why does the UK lag in its use of industrial robots?

25 October, 2016

The UK has one of the lowest uptakes of industrial robots in Europe. Why is this so, and is it likely to change? Contributing editor Tony Sacks reports.

The robotics industry has a yardstick that it uses to compare the uptake of industrial robotics in different countries – the number of robots installed per 10,000 people working in the country’s manufacturing sector.

Using this metric, South Korea has the world’s highest robot population density, with 531 industrial robots installed for every 10,000 manufacturing workers. Singapore is second in the league with 398 robots per 10,000 workers, followed by Japan on 305. Just behind, is Europe’s biggest robot user ¬– Germany – on 301, followed by Sweden on 212. The figure for the US is 176.

Languishing in 22nd position, behind countries such as Slovenia (with 110 robots per 10,000 workers) and Slovakia (79), is the UK, with just 71 industrial robots per 10,000 industrial workers. This puts it slightly above the global average of 69, but is one of the lowest scores for an industrialised nation. And, because the vast majority of the UK’s robots are in automotive plants, the figure for general industrial applications is just 31 – compared to 161 in Germany, 117 in Italy and 74 in Spain.

Several reasons have been suggested for the UK’s relatively slow uptake of industrial robots in non-automotive applications. For a start, many potential users associate robots with large, expensive automotive plants and assume that they are best suited to new production lines, rather than retrofitting to existing operations. They also assume that high levels of expertise are needed to operate these machines.

While these objections might have been valid in the past, robots are becoming increasingly affordable and easier to install and program.

Robots have traditionally needed costly safeguarding, including secure fencing, to protect people nearby. But a new generation of robots is emerging that are designed to work safely alongside humans without needing protective fences. These “collaborative” robots – or “cobots” – can sense when they are approaching, or touching, a person or object and can slow down or stop to avoid any injuries or damage. Cobots have other attractions, including being relatively easy to re-assign to new roles in a factory.

At the moment, cobots account for a tiny part of the industrial robot market, but their sales are predicted to skyrocket in the next few years. According to the analyst ABI Research, the global cobot market was worth $95m last year, but will exceed $1bn by 2020. Barclays Capital is even more bullish, predicting that the market will expand from around 2,500 cobots a year at present, to 150 million by 2020 – valuing the business at more than $3bn.

Another factor that has been blamed for the slow uptake of industrial robots in the UK is a lack of obvious Government support. A recent report from the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology lambasted the Government for a lack of leadership in this vital area.

In 2013, the Government identified robotics and artificial intelligence as being one of “eight great technologies” where the UK had the potential to be a world leader. But since then, little seems to have happened and the Committee found that there is “no Government strategy for developing the skills and, and securing the investment, that is needed to create future growth in robotics and AI”.

Similarly, the Government has not followed up on a promise it made in 2015 to set up a “leadership council” for robotics and autonomous systems. The Select Committee is calling for the council to be established “without further delay”.

Despite the lack of official encouragement or incentives, some UK SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) have taken plunge and decided to install industrial robots – often with surprising results.

Take, for example, the case of Suscom Industries, a Wigan-based business that supplies components to the office furniture industry. More than 20 years ago, it stopped all manufacturing in the UK, opting instead to buy low-cost components from abroad. These included generic chair bases bought from Chinese suppliers.

Now, following a £750,000 investment in facilities that include two 600-tonne Romi injection-moulding presses and three Kawasaki industrial robots, Suscom is manufacturing in the UK again. Two of the robots collect mouldings from the presses and deliver the sprues to a granulator for recycling, before placing the mouldings onto a cooling conveyor and inserting a slip-ring. The third robot unloads the chair bases from the conveyors and places them into a turnover jig, before choosing one of two sizes of castor, checking that is correct, and inserting it into the base. It then places the assembled bases onto another conveyor.

This relatively simple robotic application is delivering series of benefits for Suscom Industries. For a start, the company no longer has to rely on generic chair-base designs from Chinese suppliers. It is designing its own high-quality bases that, unlike the imports, do not need any further coatings or fillers. Suscom’s production manager, Joel Rockwood, believes that the new chair-base, which was designed for automated assembly, has given the company a far better product. “There are no surface imperfections, and they are overall a much stronger product,” he says.

“The cell is absolutely consistent and reliable in its output of 1,000 chair bases per 12-hour shift, which we manage with just two operators,” Rockwood adds. “The robot system has surpassed what is expected of it, both in speed and in maintaining a very clean and orderly environment.”

The system has also had a positive impact on Suscom’s customer service. “We could see prices rising in China, so creating our own in-house design made sense,” says Rockwood. “The payoff for customers is clear as we have maintained – and even lowered – prices, together with adding value such as assembling castors and delivering an all-round better product.”

There are many other UK SMEs like Suscom that could benefit by adopting robots. Another factor that deters some is the fear that their workers might see the arrival of robots as an attempt to axe their jobs. But robots often take on dull, repetitive tasks, freeing up workers to take on more interesting and challenging roles.

Statistics suggest that companies and industries and that adopt industrial robots, become more competitive and successful, creating new jobs in the process. For example, between 2010 and 2015, the US automotive industry installed 80,000 new robots, and took on 230,000 new employees. And in Germany over the same period, the number of robots grew by about 3% per year (more than 13,000), while the number of jobs grew by more than 2.5% a year (93,000 people).

A recent forecast by the International Federation of Robotics suggests that more than 1.4 million new industrial robots will be installed in factories around the world by 2019, taking the total number to 2.6 million. This represents an annual growth rate of at least 13%.

If post-Brexit UK is to compete effectively in the global market, it will probably have to expand its installed base of industrial robots at least as fast as the global growth rate.

Image: Collaborative robots can work safely alongside humans without needing protective fences

Source: Universal Robots

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