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Opinion: Why UK manufacturing needs to embrace robotics and automation
Jeremy Hadall is Chief Technologist for Robotics and Automation at The Manufacturing Technology Centre. He is speaking at Subcon next month about ‘the benefits of embracing robotics and automation’ and he explains why we are many moons away from robots being responsible for mass unemployment in the UK manufacturing industry.
Much has been written about the rise of the machines recently with doom and gloom about mass unemployment and the ‘hollowing out’ of the middle class. However, the reality of previous industrial revolutions and new technologies is that the nature of work changes. For example, according to the Office for National Statistics farming and fishing accounted for 22 per cent of jobs in 1841, yet today with the introduction of mechanisation to feed a growing population the industry supports just two per cent of the UK’s workforce. However, in the same period, overall employment rates have risen and new jobs (that farmers in the 19th century couldn’t imagine) have been created.
So yes, the nature of work will change and robotics and automation are likely to have a significant impact on manufacturing employment. But it’s unlikely that the effect will be mass unemployment for several reasons.
The first is that the UK is far behind other nations in the uptake of robotics and automation. In the UK, we have around 33 robots per 10,000 manufacturing jobs yet in Germany this is greater than 150 and in South Korea is higher than 300. At the same time, those nations that have embraced robotics have higher productivity rates and are increasing the number of manufacturing jobs. Until UK industry recognises that robotics and automation are good for us, the UK is likely to struggle to compete with other industrialised nations.
The second reason is that although we may well replace human workers with robots, those robots will need maintenance and supervision. This means that the nature of work undertaken by humans will change to become higher value and knowledge based. There is good evidence from the introduction of new technologies in the past to prove this. For the UK, this means ensuring we are training and equipping our workforce for this situation.
The final reason is simply that despite great strides in technology, widespread, reliable autonomous factories are many decades from becoming a reality. There are examples where this has been achieved but in reality, the nature of many manufacturing jobs is that they require a level of skill, adaptability, dexterity and intelligence that today’s technologies cannot achieve. A good example of this is the assembly of cars. Most modern vehicles are welded together in a seamless ballet of robotic welders yet when it comes to fitting the nervous system of the vehicle (i.e. its wiring harness), several people have to manipulate a heavy, flexible and complicated item into small apertures in the welded body. As yet, no robot can achieve the level of dexterity, adaptability and problem solving for this application that a human can. There are many applications we can use robotics for, but there are just as many that the technology will not be able to complete for many years and where humans will still be needed.
So, whilst we do need to increase the use of robotics and automation in our manufacturing industries, the reality of mass unemployment is unfounded. Perhaps the real risk to long-term manufacturing employment comes from not installing robots rather than the robots themselves.
You can find out more on the speaker lineup at Subcon 2017 by following the link below