A critical juncture
This year has reignited a focus on the role
automation will play in improving productivity as
the industry recovers Contributor Tom Bouchier,
managing director, FANUC UK
Even before the tumultuous events of the past
year, there was an increasing awareness of
the critical role automation has to play in
improving productivity in UK manufacturing.
Numerous reports over the past few years by
the International Federation of Robots (IFR)
have highlighted how far behind their international
competitors British businesses are in terms of
automation, and the latest version (https://bit.
ly/35eDpIY) indicates this is a worsening position.
Around 21,700 industrial robots are operating in UK
factories, which is less than a tenth of the amount in
operation in Germany (221,500). Concerningly, the
number of new installations stands at a similarly low
level: 2,000 units in the UK, compared with 20,500
in Germany, 11,100 in Italy, and 6,700 in France. The
numbers in Asia and the USA are even greater, which
indicates the uphill task the UK manufacturing sector
faces in keeping pace with productivity.
Breaking the numbers down by sector, and while
the automotive industry faces a challenging period,
there is optimism around the increasing uptake of
automation within food and beverage. This is a huge
market in the UK, and one which has enormous
growth potential, but as the fi gures in the IFR report
indicate, there is still a signifi cant amount of work to be
done in this sector. It is also important to note that the
numbers outlined in the IFR report are refl ective of the
year prior to the events of 2020.
Impact of COVID-19
COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdowns presented
a signifi cant challenge for all manufacturers, many
of whom were faced with the task of adapting their
production lines to facilitate social distancing. In
countries with a higher degree of automation, this
was far more straightforward. In response to this, and
in a bid to maintain productivity, many UK businesses
have started to look at how
automation could facilitate
a continuation of key
without breaching social
Collaborative robots in
particular have received
a signifi cant amount of
attention over the past few
months, with businesses eager to explore how the
technology can ensure employees work at safe
distances from one another. It’s great to see that
automation is starting to enter the mindset of UK
manufacturers, though care must be taken not to
put all our eggs in the cobot basket. Collaborative
technology is brilliant when there is a genuine need
for robot-human interaction, but in many cases
industrial robots are still the best option – from both a
cost and productivity point of view.
These types of conversations are a positive
step, and as UK businesses look to adapt to life
after lockdown it is important to understand the
challenges we face in implementing automation.
Sadly, there remain a number of misconceptions and
issues which need to be addressed in order to allow
British businesses to fl ourish, and to ensure that UK
manufacturing can regain its prominent position on
the international stage.
Skills and training
The topic of skills and training is one that will
always be relevant when it comes to technological
development, and is true across all industries, but in
the case of automation this is absolutely critical.
First and foremost, we have to ensure that the
workforce of tomorrow is in a position to take
advantage of the automation capabilities that exist.
One of the keys to this is a production line of highquality
apprentices. We have to train people today to
be ready to contribute to UK manufacturing in fi ve
years’ time, which is why companies have a duty to
take on apprentices.
It can seem challenging in the current economic
climate, but FANUC UK has ensured its apprentice
intake hasn’t dropped, with a view to increasing the
proportion of apprentices in the business over the
next few years. Short-term thinking must give way to
a recognition that apprentices will positively impact
a business down the line, and facilitate e ective
adoption of the latest automation technology.