Plant & Works Engineering
Talking Industry: Developments in robotics and automation
Published:  06 December, 2023

Held on 14 November, the last Talking Industry of 2023 revisited one of its most popular topics of robotics and automation, chaired Andy Pye.

Until now, UK businesses have failed to capitalise on the opportunities presented by automation with industrial robots in the UK. Recent research by Boston Consulting Group identifies a significant gap between the ambitions of companies to implement robots and the actual implementation of systems.

But the robotics and automation industry in the UK is still fast-growing, despite the on-going shortage of workers with competent skills to meet industry demand. Our expert panel explored the trends and implications of this growth and the necessary focus on academia and younger generations through STEM networks to help encourage interest in robotics and automation.

Our Panelists were: Nikesh Mistry Sector Head Industrial Automation, GAMBICA; John Mackey Digitalisation Sales Specialist, Siemens; and debutant Gary Livingstone. CEO of LG Motion.

As the UK distributor for Techman Robots, Gary has many open conversations with companies looking to integrate robot technology into their business. While what he calls the information-to-implementation gap can be significant, he feels it is closing fast: “LG motion are designers, manufacturers and integrators of motion control systems across a wide range of industries, from the film industry to medical development, to space and everything in between. So in short, we make things go in and out, up and down, round and round.” He continued: “Automation and robotics has been my career since I started as an engineering apprentice in 1986.

“Robotics, autonomous and automation systems are increasingly crucial for the UK economy, with the potential to bring significant opportunities to reduce costs and improve efficiency. Often, the big thing we’re uncovering is a huge gap from information to implementation. Robots are not a silver bullet to solve every application, so to bridge the gap between ambition and implementation, it is crucial for businesses to conduct a thorough cost benefit analysis, particularly investing in employee training and upskilling. The key thing is to foster a culture of innovation and adaptation to overcome resistance to change. Given the UK’s reported low productivity, the shortage of workers across all sectors, why is there this seeming reluctance for the UK to invest in automation?”

As Chair, Andy Pye highlighted the importance of ensuring that government should understand the importance of automation to the UK economy. He suggested that at some stage in the relatively near future, we’re going to have a change of government. So should we keep our powder dry for six months, or be putting a lot of effort into talking to the current government?

John Mackey highlighted Siemens’ role in supporting customers in industry to adopt digitalisation technology – that may be simulation, artificial intelligence, or edge computing. A big part of this is automation and robotics. Siemens does not make robots but is at the periphery of an awful lot of them in manufacturing facilities: “As Gary has mentioned, there is this dichotomy of the skill set needed to get robots applications up and running, versus potentially where the robots are then coming in to do potentially low skilled work, in essence, repeatable tasks. But there’s an awful lot of challenges that immediately can be addressed that we’re seeing in industry with the adoption of robotics.

“To touch on Gary’s point, the robot density in the UK (robots per 10,000 workers) is an awful long way behind every other G7 country – we are 24th in the world, well below the worldwide average. There’s a really good study – the World Robotics Report – which looks at the industry verticals where robotics are used. And it’s exactly in the glamour industries of electrical/electronic manufacturing and automotive. But at Siemens, we’re starting to see some wider demands, in particular on the back of Covid. In industries such as food and beverage, the potential for robots is massive. However, the adoption of robots in this vertical is around 5% of worldwide robot usage. It’s really important for us to try and lower the barrier to entry and pave the path for robots to be more widely adopted, not just within the glamorous verticals, but across all sectors.”

Nikesh Mistry Sector Head Industrial Automation of GAMBICA added to the discussion: “I was going to talk more about the STEM skills side from the GAMBICA perspective, but the things you [John Mackey] mentioned have given me another idea to talk about as well, that coincides with that. GAMBICA is a UK trade association for industrial automation process, instrumentation and control, and test and measurement.

“Within our membership resource of around 230 companies, many come to us for ideas on best practice – we help to set precedents for the industry and show what our members are doing and where the industry should be going. In this respect, Siemens is one of our most active members! There are several different reports out currently, of which John mentioned one. It coincides with what Andy mentioned about influencing governments. GAMBICA was involved a very recent one, produced by the MTA which is all about recommending to the government how to equip our workforce for the future green economy and Industry 4.0.

“There are actually 10 recommendations within that report, which we cannot share today, but very soon we will be able to. We are providing SMEs with higher incentives to deliver T levels, and funding campaigns towards STEM subjects. We want to roll out better use of the apprenticeship levy to help support wider investment in education and training. Those are key areas, which we need to address as an industry to ensure that those skills are where they need to be and to make sure that our workforce has the right skills for the future.”

In this short report, we cannot cover everything in the discussion, but readers can access the on-demand version of the discussion here. It will also be made available in our series of Podcasts. The discussion went on to discuss many other aspects of the subject, including the specific shortage of robot programmers, and the “middle-management-mindset” of seeing robots as a cost, rather than a relatively small (in many cases) productivity investment with a return in 12-18 months.

The session concludes by answering a range of specific questions from the audience. Automation is entirely compatible with the needs of the planet going forward, and contributes to energy saving and net zero, so its future is bright and essential to capitalise on.

Talking industry is sponsored by the Drives & Controls exhibition, taking place next year on 4-6 June 2024 at the NEC in Birmingham, in association with Smart Manufacturing and Engineering Week 2024.