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Robots: The missing link to UK manufacturing competitiveness?
The Department for Business, Energy and Industry Strategy (BEIS) has claimed that UK businesses need to spend more on robotics and autonomous systems, based on estimates that further investments could generate £6.4 billion ($8.7 billion in 2021 figures) for the UK economy by 2035 and part-solve the productivity puzzle. Similarly, the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) 2022 global report places the UK well down the list when it comes to robotics installations.
These worrying-sounding figures obscure the truth, however, that UK industrial applications have been making proper hay when it comes to timely robotics investments -- with most of the BEIS' expected gains to come from other sectors.
Cut critique to fit
The IFR lists the UK at fourth place among European countries and 0.5% of the global total for new industrial robot installations, but -- as Rob Pears, Vice President, Head of Automotive, Manufacturing and Life Sciences, UK at Capgemini, notes -- a lot of UK manufacturing focuses on luxury and bespoke.
"For Rolls-Royce and so on, robotics play a significant part for the base vehicle, but much of it must be customised, hand-finished with exotic materials," Pears points out. "The proportion of the product that can use those (robotics) technologies is by default, less."
UK manufacturers could be further ahead on sustainability in some ways -- with "much more of a reduce, reuse, recycle kind of drive", compared to the so-called global manufacturing leaders.
"I think the UK does lead on that," Pears adds. "Look at heritage which has popped up. A collective of people reimagining and mastering old techniques to refurbish and restore classic cars. People send their cars here from all over the world."
Outside of automotive and packaging, the UK market isn't geared up around huge amounts of mass production. Production of raw materials - like steel - too has been de-emphasised. That tends to skew some of those figures to places like China and even the USA where they are making more first-stage materials for production.
"Then, where we are engaged in more mass production, we're absolutely exploiting it. There's no shyness or backward thinking at all," Pears confirms. "We're very forward thinking on a real business-case driven basis."
For evidence, he points to auto manufacturers and packaging manufacturers for the likes of Amazon, businesses increasingly built on the ability to "do scale" with robotics and exploit the benefits in ways that ensure the numbers add up.
Skills as limiting factor
That said, the UK could benefit from investing in skills that can transform organisations in the first instance and ensure they can adopt new technologies and ways of working. The skills to be able to operate, maintain and make the most of those technologies and follow up with product design need to be fundamentally changed to developer "bigger ripple effects across the value chain", warns Pears.
The best combination of skills, business case, and understanding of organisational direction should deliver greater confidence for additional productive investments, backed up with quality feedback and understanding of the customer base, Pears continues.
For examples of robotics success benefiting UK manufacturing, the British Footwear Association referred The Manufacturer to Stephan Quade, Senior Sales Manager at EU-based robotics company Magazino.
"The IFR report is very focused on 'classical' industrial robots what means articulated, stationary robot arms," Quade says. "My personal feeling is that any industry can benefit from robotics but not every process is ready to be automated with the current level of technology and/or costs."
For footwear, that means looking separately at material transport, manipulations, assembly and storage processes. In footwear, the challenge with manipulation and assembly is the complexity of sewing or glueing the single pieces together, properly turned and arranged. Raw materials for shoemaking -- such as leather -- are flexible and can be highly variable both before and after processing.
"If the cutting process is always that good that the parts are loose, to pick up the components, you might need cameras to detect the correct picking position and quality inspection. And this will be a cost driver, for sure," explains Quade.
In footwear making, the low hanging fruit is material transport and storage. Transporting single components between the stations or storage can be facilitated by using standardised bins linked to a warehouse management system (WMS), making for reliable, intelligent and autonomous material flows.
"After the shoes are packed in a box, the transport and logistics can also be automated," he says.
On the one hand, many countries in Europe are expected to continue to suffer from a lack of available labour, rising over the coming years. However, business is cost driven, so reducing costs is often essential to be competitive. Robotics can enhance consistency and often even quality versus human employees -- and they don't need holidays or fall ill. But it's all dependent on specific industry, process and use case, Quade confirms.
"Another buzzword heard over the last weeks and months is 'de-globalisation'," he says, adding that regardless of country, it can be hugely challenging to find the right systems integration partners as they need to have a certain capability profile. Embedding the systems into the existing or planned environment means close attention and conformance across hardware and software alike.
"Of course it is more complex to deal with post-Brexit," Quade notes.
"As a high salary country, like the rest of middle Europe, US, Japan, Korea and a handful of other countries, the (UK) industry needs to focus on committing to very high quality, which somehow justifies the higher price, and dramatically reducing costs for non value-add labour."
Magazino's two robotics products, the Toru and the Soto machines, are used to help shoe producers, for instance, improve feeds to the production line or retail warehouse with automated transport platforms for picking and packing.
"Pick-up units can operate on different heights and contain up to 24 (shoe) boxes in the 'backpack' (transport platform). You don't have to go back and forth 24 times -- you just put everything in and bring it from the storage to the production line," Quade says.
Yet again, it all depends
Mike Dwyer, Director of Digital Engineering and Operations Transformation, Capgemini, underlines that robotics successes depend on manufacturer objective.
"What are you trying to get out the door? Is it a luxury yacht, mass-produced, or whatever?" Dwyer says. "The ecosystem is not just robots; it's all the other equipment that you need around it to create very high precision, very high end or very high efficiency manufacturing."
Multi-dimensional robots able to 'learn' and 'understand' their environment can help free up human capital to focus on innovation. Working cooperatively with robotic cells can make for an organisation that's agile and delivers more with less energy and resources, but working out exactly how to achieve this and work with the right level of complementary tech and customisation takes time, he says.
"We want to go faster, make it simpler for people to reprogramme, adapt and go to new products and scale. But it does come back to what's my objective, what's my business case," Dwyer confirms.
While educating people to understand what they can achieve with digital technology and where it fits in the whole puzzle, manufacturers can harness consultancy, right-sized for organisational need, or leasing partnerships, or even robotics as a service (RaaS).
The full version of this article was published in The Manufacturer's print magazine in March 2023. An online version was published at this link.