The robot revolution that never quite happened...For Valentine's day, I offered my good lady wife a free choice of romantic movies at the Cinema, fully expecting to be dragged off to see The Invisible Woman, or Endless Love, or About Last Night, or Winter's Tale. In the event, the redoubtable Mrs Simms opted for the remake of Robocop. I wasn't complaining, although it does seem virtually impossible these days to do any sort of science fiction without some artificial life form or other. Actually, it wasn't a bad romp although, as Mrs Simms pointed out, it lacked a lot of the punch of the original. And she should know, having watched the 1987 version just the previous week while doing some ironing. It made me wonder how different things might have been if we owned one of those new ironing robots. My wife may never have revisited the original Robocop, probably wouldn't have been tempted by the remake, and I'd have lost two hours of my life in some celluloid period romance.
The ironing robot is the latest in a plethora of automated domestic servants to hit the high street. Just last week I was watching a demonstration of various lawnmower robots, vacuum cleaner robots, and even a window cleaning robot. Visually, they're a million miles away from the cinematic domestic robots of my youth, and it seems that these 21st century products aren't yet as good as the manual alternatives. But what they lack in capability they certainly make up for in desirability. It seems we have never been more comfortable with robots of all sizes and descriptions, never more aware of how they can make our lives easier, and never more willing to part with hard earned cash to bring them into our homes.
Which makes it all the more surprising that, according to figures released by the British Automation and Robot Association (BARA), UK sales of industrial robots actually fell by 7% in 2013. Now, granted, in the grand scheme of things 7% is not a huge drop, and a number of sectors did see an increase in robot installations, although the installed base in some of those sectors must be so small that any increase would represent a large percentage rise. Robot sales are still described as strong, and of course 2012 was a record year for robot sales in the UK. But with the various initiatives that have been running to raise awareness of the benefits of robotics in industry, I was expecting so much more.
Inevitably, capital expenditure was one of the issues. For example, BARA can point to a very real and very high level of interest from the food and drink sector, but found a distinct reticence to invest in automation because of pressures on margins, with prices being continually squeezed by the supermarkets. At the same time, though, many of the barriers to adoption have been removed, with far simpler integration, programming and control. And the last year or so has seen the introduction of a number of high profile, low cost robots, plus the seemingly exponential rise in the number of delta robots available. It is difficult to see what more the various robot vendors could do to highlight the benefits of their products. But if UK plc is serious about boosting its manufacturing capability, and indeed bringing some overseas manufacture back to this country, then robots must surely be the way forward.
Industrial Technology - NEWS