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It's time for the UK to embrace robots

It's time for the UK to embrace robots
Nigel Platt, marketing manager for ABB's UK robotics business, explains why UK manufacturing companies should consider robotics and how they can encourage global competition on our shore.

The UK has been amongst the lowest adopters of robotic technology in recent years. In the UK, there are currently between 50-75 robots for every 10,000 workers, putting us substantially behind our competitors in France, Spain, Germany, China and Japan. But that looks set to change as manufacturers from all sectors are beginning to recognise the importance of delivering enhanced levels of performance and productivity. 

Historically, the reluctance to embrace robotic technology could be considered a consequence of the general uncertainty about manufactured goods in the UK, which in turn affects the willingness of manufacturers to make longer term investments. Without investment, businesses may be resigned to outsourcing overseas. However, the predictability of robotic technology makes it an ideal solution to this dilemma. By delivering consistent performance with minimal overheads, robots can help companies to more confidently predict factors such as cost of production, turnaround times, output levels and product quality, which can in turn be used to inform future investment. Financially affordable and offering long term savings, robots can fulfil a major role in helping boost the competitiveness of UK industrial companies, particularly SMEs. 

The International Federation of Robotics (IFR) and the United Nations Economic Commission Europe (UNECE) predicts the robotics industry will be worth £38 billion by 2025 creating an innovation-driven and export-orientated industry. So let's review some of the specific advantages to be gained by embracing robotics.

Reduced operating costs: Robots offer consistent performance with minimal overheads, helping companies to more confidently predict factors such as the cost of production, turnaround times, output levels and product quality. Taken together, improvements in these areas can result in a surprisingly fast return on investment. Consider, for example, that the cost of a six-axis industrial robot has dropped by 50% over the past 15 years, enabling robots to offer a typical hourly operating expense of just £5. 

Furthermore, with no requirement for minimum lighting or heating levels, robots offer a great opportunity to cut energy bills. Current estimates point to a potential saving of 8% for every 1degC in heating, and up to 20% by turning off unnecessary lighting.
Improved product quality and consistency: Robots provide inherent accuracy, and this repeatability means a high quality finish for every product is produced. This is further supported by less errors caused by human factors such as tiredness, distraction or the effects of repetitive or tedious tasks.

Improved quality of work for employees: By using robots in dusty, hot or hazardous environments, companies can improve the working conditions for their human employees. Teaching staff how to use the robots can improve staff motivation, as employees recognise the chance to learn valuable programming skills and carry out work that is more stimulating. 

Increased production output rates: Unlike human employees, robots need little supervision and can be left running overnight and during weekends. This enables manufacturers to achieve true 24 hour production to increase output levels.

Increased manufacturing flexibility: Robots can also introduce a new degree of flexibility to a production line. Once the processes you require are programmed into the robot controller, manufacturers can quickly switch from one to another. A massive financial benefit, this enables manufacturers to maximise the money they are spending on robotics equipment by ensuring the cells are used for more than one process.

Reduced material waste and increased yield: The improved accuracy from using robots ensures that companies can have more products finished first time to the standard required by the customer. As a result, the amount of waste produced because of poor-quality or inconsistent finishing is dramatically reduced.

Compliance with safety rules and improved workplace health and safety: With the ability to take over jobs in dusty, hot or hazardous environments, robots can take charge of unpleasant, arduous or health-threatening tasks currently handled by manual workers. Robots can decrease the likelihood of accidents caused by contact with machine tools or other potentially hazardous product machinery or processes. Robots can also help to eliminate staff ailments associated with repetitive or intensive processes, which costs UK industry over £300 million each year in lost productivity.

Reduced labour turnover and difficulty of recruiting skilled workers: Despite the UK having one of the highest employment rates in Europe, four out of 10 companies often find it difficult to recruit skilled workers. Highly skilled manual workers are now harder and more expensive to employ. Robots can provide an ideal alternative. Once programmed, robots can begin work with none of the costs associated with recruitment or ongoing training and can provide great flexibility. 

Reduced capital costs: With less manual labour needed, fewer costs relating to sickness, accidents and insurance are occurred. With robots, businesses can reduce the cost of consumables used and reduce wastage dramatically. 

Space savings in high value manufacturing areas: Robots can be placed on shelf systems, on walls or even on ceilings offering the most flexible solutions for save spacing in high value manufacturing areas. The robots can be programmed to work in confined spaces ensuring manufacturers don't lose valuable floor space.

Simple technology: Holding back the use of robots in manufacturing, is the belief that the technology is too sophisticated for most basic manufacturing applications. Robot technology is mature. It is well tried and tested and the variety of robots available means that virtually any manufacturing line can benefit from the technology. It is no longer the sole domain of large scale manufacturers like the automotive sector, but is now available to all businesses, including SMEs - who often do not realise they are potentially the greatest benefactor.

As robots become ever more affordable, ABB provides a range of alternatives to buying a brand new robot, including second hand refurbishment, leasing or applying for a grant to help financially. With companies across the world acknowledging the power of robotics to improve productivity, profitability and encourage long term sustainability, we are confident that the use of robots in industry, as predicted, will continue to expand.
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