The Future is Robotic

This month’s First Friday Editors’ Briefing took place last week, with a special focus on robotics. Four presentations made for a packed schedule, and it was fantastic to get so many people with an interest in robotics all under one roof. While each presentation dealt with a different aspect of the emerging technology, there were some prominent themes that will be of interest to anybody with an interest in British industry:

British manufacturers have been relatively slow to robotise their factories

Statistics presented by Mike Wilson from the British Automation & Robot Association showed that the ratio of people to robots in British factories is shockingly low. In French factories there are more than twice as many robots per person than there are in the UK, and in Germany there are five times as many. There seem to be all kinds of reasons for this, but perhaps the most intriguing was revealed by one attendee: “When I visit factories in Germany the owner will show me all the new machines, and boast of how modern all the hardware is. When I visit factories in Britain they show me the oldest thing in the building and boast that it’s still working after twenty years of use.”

Barriers to robotisation are falling

The high cost of robotics has traditionally kept all but the biggest manufacturers out of the market. The costs are now falling quickly, meaning that SMEs are starting to find robotic solutions at their price point. This is true in the UK but it’s also true elsewhere in the world, and is going to cause significant disruption to China’s manufacturing model in the years to come. The increasing availability of affordable robotics can help close the UK’s productivity gap to its largest rivals, but only if the investment comes sooner rather than later. If it doesn’t, the gap will only get larger.

The government can always do more

The fate of British manufacturing is in the hands of British manufacturers, but government also has a role to play. Industry needs a sensible Brexit that causes minimal disruption to supply chains and it also needs real solutions to the skills gap. The high-tech factories of the future will be built elsewhere if the skilled workers are not here to run them.

The overall feeling from the event seemed quite clear: The future of British manufacturing will be bright if industry invests in itself and if government works hard to help create the right circumstances. The alternative is to watch a tremendously impressive part of our economy with enormous growth potential wither away, which would be a terrible shame for the entire country.



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