UK way behind Germany and Italy in robotics

The problems holding back automation in the UK are deep rooted, says Christopher Buxton.

New Statesman
Robotic arms assemble and weld the body shell of a Nissan car at a Sunderland plant. Credit: Getty Images.

The UK car industry uses just 622 robots per 10,000 workers, compared with almost twice that in Germany and Italy, according to the figures released by the International Federation of Robotics (IFR).

As per the figures, there are just 27 robotic units per 10,000 manufacturing employees in the UK, compared to 137 in Germany, 113 in Italy, and 59 in France.

Christopher Buxton, chief executive of the British Automation and Robot Association, says that the situation is desperate.

The UK is lagging behind several European and Asian countries partly because the number of small businesses in the country’s manufacturing sector employ less than 50 people, according to a research from Manchester University’s Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change.

In addition, most robots sold in the UK cost between £30,000 and £50,000, putting the smaller firms out of their reach.

 “If you’re that small you’re worrying about where the next order is coming from and whether you can pay the rent on the warehouse”, Buxton said. “[SMEs] are understandably very risk averse, and don’t always have time to research the technology”.

New robotics installations in the UK doubled in 2012 to 2,477, according to BARA data, but four in five were in the car industry. Elsewhere, installations have plateaued in recent years.

The UK food sector, which employs about 400,000 people, adoption of robotics is at a smaller scale. According to IFR, there were 100 shipments of robots to UK food companies in 2011, compared to France’s 270, Spain’s 308, Germany’s 442, and Italy’s 658.

Bob Hinchcliffe, managing director of robotic automation systems provider Quasar, said his customers are increasingly under pressure from more efficient continental competitors.

Hinchcliffe told the Financial Times: “In fresh and chilled food, a lot [of manufacturers] thought that strip of water between us and Europe was enough to prevent that type of product coming in, but with improvements in wrapping material you’re getting a longer shelf life. An extra day is enough.”

David Jahn, director of automated packing manufacturer Brillopak, told the Financial Times: “Food manufacturers have been dominated by a few large supermarkets, who put constant pressure on [supplier] margins. The challenge for manufacturers is they want to invest in automation, but this means high capital costs which they recoup over 2-3 years . . . but the supermarkets insist on very short-term contracts.”

Mike Wilson, a UK-based sales manager for ABB, said that British food manufacturers have got by on cheap and flexible labour allowing them to achieve productivity growth without automation. Wilson said: “It’s a vicious circle, because we [the UK] don’t have a large automation base, we don’t have a large supply chain, and therefore we don’t have the strength and expertise to develop the technology.”

In January 2013, science minister David Willetts pledged £35m of investment in robotics centres of excellence to link universities and industry. He identified robotics as one of eight great technologies that will share £600m of new funding.

Japan has the highest operational stock of industrial robots in the world. IFR valued the global market for robotics at $25.5bn in 2011.