Boosting productivity with automation

Manufacturers that adopt automation will gain long-term success

By Tom Bouchier January 30, 2021

At a time when the impact of COVID-19 has presented significant challenges to a number of British businesses, we have also seen the resilience of those willing to adapt. Even under the shadow of the latest International Federation of Robotics (IFR) report on World Robotics, which highlighted just how far behind its international rivals the UK is in terms of automation, there are reasons to believe 2021 can be the year for British manufacturing to bounce back.

There are three key areas to focus on to propel UK manufacturing back to its prominent position on the world stage: perceptions of automation, skills & training and funding. By addressing these three issues head on and de-fearing automation in the UK, we can significantly enhance the productivity of existing businesses.

Perceptions of industrial automation within the UK have long been an obstacle to greater uptake, and a change in attitude of those within manufacturing is vital in instigating wider adoption. The impact of Covid-19 has, to some extent, had an effect on this, but there has to be an ongoing and concerted effort to educate on the numerous benefits of automation.

This is where skills and training become even more important. On a fundamental level, this relates to ensuring operators are skilled enough to work with the latest technology. It means creating an appealing and viable entry route for those interested in embarking upon a career in manufacturing, whether that’s through apprenticeship or higher education.

However, there must also be a focus on engaging with and training the existing workforce. There can be a fear factor among many working in manufacturing when it comes to automation and robotics, and this is something that can be addressed through education. Robots replace roles. They don’t replace people. Removing a labor-intensive element of someone’s job, with a new skill such as programming, will offer more long-term value and purpose.

Finally, even when perceptions and skills are at a level high enough to facilitate the adoption of automation, there needs to be the financial incentive to do so. The return on investment (ROI) of the latest equipment means that investment is paid back in productivity gains, but there needs to be a much broader access to funding for those that require initial financial support.

Tax breaks have often been the go-to method for encouraging investment, and while this is extremely effective for established companies, it does little to help business who are early in their lifespan. Cruelly, subject matter experts (SMEs) are also the ones who would benefit most from implementing automation, and yet struggle to raise the initial investment.

UK manufacturing will continue to face a number of challenges throughout 2021, not least with the ongoing impact of COVID-19 and the uncertainty surrounding Brexit. Addressing the three key areas outlined above will go a long way to ensuring the success of the industry in the short, medium, and indeed long-term.

Above all, it is absolutely vital British businesses understand they are competing on a world stage. They have to be capable of matching the productivity of manufacturers around the globe, and industrial automation is key to this.

This article originally appeared on Control Engineering Europe’s website.

Author Bio: Tom Bouchier is managing director at Fanuc UK.