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Automate manufacturing to ensure UK's economic growth

BARA has reported that 2010 UK robot sales are up 65% on 2009 figures, reversing the declining trend in robot sales which the UK has seen year on year since 2005. A recent end-of-year robot sales comparison survey carried out by BARA, which is made up of 40 robotics and automation companies and includes all major UK robot suppliers, shows that the increase in robot sales was much higher than industry pundits initially predicted. "The 2010 figures, the best result since 2005, paint an optimistic picture for robotics and automation," comments Mike Wilson, president of BARA. 

Significantly, the survey shows that the automotive sector is declining, having taken 35% of sales in 2010 compared with 48% in 2006, whereas sales to late adopters of automation - sectors such as the food, pharmaceutical and aerospace industries - are all up. "Compared with 2006 figures, the food and drink industry is up by 228%, pharmaceutical, healthcare and medical has risen by 263%, and aerospace shows the biggest increase of all at 644%; we hope that these areas of growth can be attributed to an increase in robotics awareness within the UK market," enthuses Wilson.

One area of concern, given that the growth sectors are mostly made up of larger companies, is that this survey may indicate that SMEs still have a lack of automation awareness. And certainly in non-automotive sectors the UK invests far less in automation than other countries, falling a long way behind Germany, Sweden and Italy, and lagging some way behind both Spain and France. Yet the benefits of investing in automation are enormous, with improvements in productivity coming from increased yield, lower operating costs, improved utilisation of other equipment and better utilisation of staff. "There's a long way to go if we're going to be competitive, but there's also lots of potential," says Wilson. "In particular we have to invest to improve the efficiency of the equipment we've got. If we want UK manufacturing to be successful and profitable, then we have to be competitive with other countries."

Wilson is emphatic in his belief that investment in automation and robotics does not cost jobs. "Automation is one of the keys to making companies more efficient, helping you get more output from the same factory.  It improves quality, and reduces costs. Robotics can take over tedious, manual jobs, enabling people to be redeployed in areas where they can add value. All of this helps to make companies more profitable and more successful. And successful companies grow, and so employ more people."

BARA can point to a number of case studies that make a compelling case for investment in automation. Fosters Bakery in Barnsley is a producer of niche bread products for the catering industry. With business booming, it was thought that an additional oven might be necessary. Instead, the company invested in a robot to unload and reload its existing reel oven. The result was that oven capacity was increased by 80%, energy costs were reduced by 50%, and the cost of a new oven was saved. And there are many other stories to quote. So what, then, are the barriers to investment in automation technologies? Wilson believes there is still a lack of awareness of the benefits, of the range of applications, and of what overseas competitors are doing.  Further, he argues that UK manufacturing often uses very short term payback models that can make it hard to make a case for investment. "But the payback calculation is often based solely on the labour savings," he comments. "What we have to get across is that there are considerable spin-off benefits."

Wilson also sees a problem ahead in the form of skill shortages. "We've had a significant influx of cheap labour, but these people are starting to go home or to other countries. Certainly it's not a long term solution to our own skill shortages. Soon we won't have labour reserves available, and we run the risk of running out of trained engineers. It's a problem we have to address now."

To help SMEs better understand the benefits of automation, BARA is developing an awareness programme with a series UK Road Shows which will begin in March. This positive scheme which aims to stimulate interest in automation, was an outcome from the recommendations made in the recent Application of Automation in UK Manufacturing industry study, which developed an action plan of initiatives to stimulate growth. "These regional events will provide manufacturers with an excellent source of information and know-how so that they can overcome the obstacles suppressing their uptake of automation and consequently increase their competitive edge," Wilson concludes. 
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