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We need more robots, not fewer

05 December, 2019

In an important – but, perhaps, under-publicised – new report, a committee of MPs has addressed the future of automation in the UK, and its vital importance to the economy. Contributing editor Tony Sacks has been looking through the report.

You might think that MPs have been doing nothing else but argue about Brexit in recent months, but this is not the case. In fact, the members of the House of Commons committee on Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy have been examining automation and its impact of the future of work in the UK, and in September they published a 63-page report* on their findings and recommendations.

In the course of their investigations, the MPs questioned 20 expert witnesses ranging from representatives from ABB, Siemens and Fanuc UK, to the minister for Business and Industry in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial strategy, Andrew Stephenson. They also received written evidence from 40 companies and organisations including Gambica, the MTC, and the British Automation and Robot Association, BARA.

The resulting report examines key issues surrounding the future of industrial automation in the UK in some depth, and includes some interesting discussion and conclusions. The bottom line is that the UK has not been quick enough in adopting automation to ensure that its industries remain globally competitive. “The UK’s problem is too few, not too many, robots,” the MPs declare.

“The risk we face,” they add, “is not a robot takeover of our workplaces, but that our lack of adoption and the reluctance of businesses and the Government to lead the way in the Fourth Industrial Revolution means other countries will seize the initiative and take the advantage of new technologies – not least the growth and jobs they bring – while we are left behind.”

They accuse the Government of not having addressed the potential for boosting automation to help tackle the UK’s relatively poor productivity and to improve living standards in the country. They recommend that, by the end this year, the Government should develop a UK Robot and AI Strategy to improve the take-up of automation and to support British industry.

They say it is “clear to us” that the future of manufacturing in the UK depends on higher levels of productivity. Robotics and automation offer the possibility to enhance productivity and thus to support higher production and more jobs in the UK.

The MPs say that some of the barriers to automation identified by UK businesses are real, and they offer suggestions on how they can be overcome.

But they also believe that some of the barriers are “issues of perception”. They suggest that the Government should work with the automation industry and with businesses who have introduced automation to make information and case studies on the costs and benefits of automation available to other businesses.

They believe that the Made Smarter initiative has the potential to boost UK productivity among SMEs by adopting new technology, and while the take-up of the North West pilot has been “impressive”, overall progress has been slow. They recommend that the Government provides a timeline for evaluating the North West pilot and that it commits to a fully-funded roll-out of the scheme across the UK, based on the results.

The MPs contend that a lack of awareness and understanding of automation is harming productivity, especially among SMEs. They condemn the Government’s decision to close the Manufacturing Advice Service in 2015 as “a mistake” which has contributed to making it more difficult for businesses to find help and advice. They recommend that the Government funds an impartial source of advice for businesses that want to invest in automation.

The committee calls for a UK robot strategy that should form part of the Government’s industrial strategy, and for robotics to be considered an integral part of the Grand Challenges it is pursuing. It regards the lack of focus on automation, beyond AI, in the Government’s industrial strategy as “a missed opportunity” which strengthens the case for a UK robot strategy supporting British innovation and encouraging the adoption of automation. Such a strategy should include actions to help UK automation businesses to grow and remain in the UK.

The MPs say that the Government, having ignored calls to support leadership for the automation sector, now has a chance to rethink its attitude. Using the sector deals approach, it can bring the industry together, drive investment, and demonstrate support for a sector in which the UK can be a world leader. They recommend that the Government establish a robotics leadership group, co-chaired by a minister and an industry leader, to bring together Government, business and academia in support of a robotics sector deal.

Another recommendation is that the government should introduce tax incentives to encourage investment in technologies such as automation and robotics, and should prioritise adoption of automation by SMEs. Such incentives would benefit both individual businesses and the economy as a whole.

Turning to the issue of UK technology businesses being bought up by overseas investors, the MPs recommend that the Government and universities should work with spinout businesses to offer an alternative to selling-off, including help with access to finance, networking and business advice.

On the topic of skills, the report says that unless, and until, the Government and business act to create a pipeline of UK researchers and workers who can support the domestic automation industry, we will need to recruit from overseas. The Government’s immigration policy should therefore provide certainty and ensure that as we leave the EU, we can recruit and retain researchers from around the world to support the sector, including where they earn below the £30,000 threshold recommended by the Migration Advisory Committee.

The MPs point out that automation research benefits from international collaboration, and while they welcome commitments to maintain and replicate EU funding when the UK leaves the EU, “this is no substitute for the collaboration that comes from joint projects”. They say that the Government should seek to ensure that the UK has at least associate membership of EU research projects and can collaborate effectively with neighbouring states.

The MPs believe that the Government’s optimism on the impact of automation on UK jobs is justified only if it works with industry to ensure that the most at-risk sectors and professions have the support they need to manage this transition. They recommend that the Government works with industry to identify the sectors and skills most at risk from automation and develops an action plan for how this transition will be managed.

The potential gains that automation can bring for the UK economy cannot be left to chance, the report concludes. Instead, the Government needs to bring forward a strategy to help businesses, workers and researchers to use the transition to deliver a change to how we live and work. If managed well, this transition to a more automated British workplace should make businesses more productive, improve the supply of high-quality jobs, and support working people to have more leisure time.

If the transition is managed badly, entire groups and regions could be left behind, British businesses could find themselves uncompetitive, SMEs will continue to form a long tail of unproductive businesses, and academics will be working in isolation attempting to catch-up with other nations’ technologies.

According to the MPs, the Government needs to take both the opportunities and risks of automation “more seriously … than it has to date”. It should not do so in isolation. Instead, it should collaborate with all those who want to harness automation to boost productivity and living standards, and it should not delay in doing so.

They recommend that the Government urgently brings together employers, workers, academia and automation developers to design a UK robot strategy on how it plans to promote and manage the transition to a more automated world of work.

Let’s hope that this important report is not lost in the furore surrounding Brexit.

* You can download the report from http://b.link/cmb630

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Making the UK a leader in service robotics

The House of Commons committee believes that the UK could become a leader in the market for service robots, with British universities collaborating with partners around the globe to provide new technologies that improve our lives.

The MPs believe that, given the success of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult focused on industrial automation and robotics, there is an untapped potential for a similar model for service robotics, “where the UK has a chance to lead globally by building on academic excellence”.

They recommend that the Government works with research institutions to consider establishing a service robotics Catapult. Located outside of London and the South East, such a Catapult could help to create a robotics cluster – ideally near a university or technical hub – to encourage public and private funding and to support British robotics businesses and others that could benefits from diffusing new technologies.

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