Automation leads to innovation

Fanuc UK aerospace
Fanuc UK aerospace

With automation and industrial robotics playing an increasing role in helping the industry grow and change perceptions, FANUC UK’s managing director, Tom Bouchier looks at what we can expect in 2019.

As it stands, Brexit is still the great unknown and, while we expect a period of uncertainty when the UK eventually leaves the EU, we see it as an opportunity for manufacturing.

In order to compete with leading countries, the UK is going to need to manufacture more and adopt new technologies. Manufacturers will therefore need more support in understanding how the adoption of automation, as an example, will help their business and how to make the important first steps.

Current estimations state the UK is going to remain behind other leading manufacturing nations until 2022, with the likes of Germany presently having a higher production rate of 30% per hour. According to the International Federation of Robots (IFR), there are just 71 industrial robots per 10,000 workers in the UK. That positions the UK behind 14 other European countries. In contrast, Germany – Europe’s most automated country – has 309 units, whilst the Czech Republic, the closest European country to the UK, has 101 units per 10,000 workers.

The UK is the only G7 country with a robot density below the world’s average. Currently, there seems to be a stigma attached to the use of robotics and automation and linking it to unemployment, but many manufacturers are missing an opportunity to upskill their current staff.

FANUC UK’s managing director, Tom Bouchier

Rise of the co-bots

Collaborative robots represent a step-change in industrial robots. They are already in use in certain processes in the UK, particularly within the aerospace industry.

With built-in sensors and vision systems, FANUC ‘co-bots’ can be used for operations, such as thread-tapping, whilst the human operator performs other tasks. They can be used to lift struts and spars – indeed, everywhere throughout the entire aircraft production and assembly process. Where our robotic products have an advantage over the competition is that underneath the skin, it is an industrial ‘production-ready’ robot, rather than a collaborative robot that has come from an academic, R&D background.

However, collaborative robots are yet to go fully into mass production as there seems to be a wider reluctance to accept them as a safe process. They have been more widely used in the US, and approved as safe in most European countries, including the UK. However, in the UK there is still a preference for traditionally guarded robots. Guarding can take-up up a considerable amount of space, and every factory knows it is floor space that costs money.

The more efficiently we use that space, the more efficiently our factories can work, the more productivity rises and the more we earn from manufacturing.

As the name says, collaborative robots work with people – they are not replacing people. If we can use them to fulfil parts of the tasks humans shouldn’t do, can’t do, or are not good for them to do, that can only be positive. We need to upskill people. There will always be a need for people in production processes but skills have to change and adapt as they always have. We have as many people in manufacturing now as we did 20 years ago but with a lot more automation.

Upskilling and apprentices

There is a clear upskilling opportunity where automation is concerned. FANUC, for example, has a dedicated training academy at our Coventry headquarters which engineers can use as part of the bedding-in process, both pre- and post-sale. Introducing automation and robots to a plant can mean engineers can learn how to programme and maintain the machines which could, in turn, lead to greater productivity rates. Programming can take as little as four days, meaning the number of skilled engineers could increase sharply across the UK.

Collaborate with less weight: FANUC’s medium-sized 'co-bot'

2018 has seen some positive improvements for UK manufacturing, especially linking with automation. While it isn’t directly linked to the Autumn Statement, we are seeing manufacturers slowly starting to adopt new technology and more automation. This trend, which was started by other countries a decade ago, is an important step, but there are still those that hold negative views about automation and the role it can play to assist their processes. This perception needs to change in 2019 if the UK is going to catch up with the rest of the world.

One of the changes our industry needs to focus on in 2019 is the perception of automation within manufacturing. ‘Robots’ is a global term and it is very easy to be misunderstood and Government and industry bodies need to work together to change its perception. Whether it is the widely claimed links between automation and job replacement, or the general perception that manufacturing is not seen as a viable career choice at a young age, 2019 needs to be the year this changes.

Additionally, the perceived costs often wrongly associated with industrial robotics can often play a role in UK manufacturers choosing not to adopt new technology in their plants. However, industrial robots are not as expensive as people think and, on many occasions, the return on investment can be recouped in as little as 18 months.

As automated systems can be reprogrammed, industrial robotics offer manufacturers a long-lasting solution that goes beyond first use. If this is then coupled with the training of engineers to be able to programme robots, it has even more benefits than originally thought.

The image of manufacturing to young people also needs changing. The industry needs to be more of an attractive proposition to those who are starting their career journey and, with the role that automation is going to play in UK manufacturing, it is possible for this to change.

It would be good to see the delivery of apprenticeships slightly change. It is important that apprentices in manufacturing spend time learning the entire process of how a plant works, rather than focusing on one or two departments. Having this clear vision of the different processes will help train young people and keep them engaged that a career in industry is more than just one process.

Final thoughts

As we look forward into a new year, it is clear that UK manufacturing has an opportunity to grow and change its perceptions. Automation and industrial robotics can play a big role in achieving these goals, but the industry must work hard in changing the views of how it will impact productivity, budgets and employment. If attitudes change and more support is provided, then 2019 could be the year that sees the UK increase its productivity and re-establishes itself on the global manufacturing map.

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