Talking Industry panel discussion – Robotics, automation, investment support and Net Zero
Smart Futures’ Andy Pye reports on another highly successful Talking Industry discussion on robotics and automation in the UK. Are we seeing the first signs that the lag in investment is finally beginning to turn?
Robot density is a metric used to compare different levels of automation in different economies. Globally, the average robot density has almost doubled in five years to 126 units/10,000 employees in 2020. But the UK is the only G7 country with a robot density below the world average. The five most automated countries in the world are South Korea, Singapore, Japan, Germany and Sweden.
However, current circumstances, pressures and incentives may see the UK begin to move up the league table.
Our first speaker, Mike Wilson of the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC), set the scene for this panel discussion with an assessment of the awareness of the potential and possibilities in the UK. What educational and financial support is available?
Like the speakers who followed, Mike highlighted the importance of developing an automation strategy, in the same way that you develop a business plan. Figure out where you want to be in 10 years, and how to get there, not only in terms of the equipment you’re going to use, but also how are you going to develop the workforce, develop the skills, and so on and undertake that as a business improvement strategy.
The second speaker was Martin Kidman, Product Manager (UK & Ireland) – Safety Solutions at Sick (UK). He emphasised that, for robotic applications, each safety concept is unique. The robots provide the muscle, but think also about the brain – the safety related parts of the control system. We all know that robots can be more productive than humans, they can work faster 24/7. But they’re also dangerous. So historically, we’ve always locked them away in a cage. But this all really changed when we started seeing the introduction of these Cobots, and all of the new features on new robots. So instead of putting them in cages, we started seeing them being deployed next to people.
We have lots of so-called Type C standards to tell you exactly how to make that machine safe. However, with collaborative robots, applications are becoming more complex. So although you’ve got Type C standards, you still have to perform a full risk assessments and consider each design individually, which in some ways goes against what a Type C standard should be.
Combatting labour shortages
The third presentation by Stuart Coulton, Area Sales Manager of Omron, focussed on how robotics can address the pressing issues of labour shortages, and recognise that with Cobots (collaborative robots), it is often an end user leading the installation, rather than an experienced industrial user.
“As an organisation, Omron is investing in helping manufacturers solve this issue. When I’m talking to the market, particularly the food and auto sectors, we are invariably told now that the biggest constraints on their business growth is the availability of workers.
“Robotics provides a really fantastic opportunity. Whilst there is a shortage of workers, a lot of things are making the problem even worse. COVID is the obvious one – the Omicron variant means there is not a single plant that I’m not aware of that hasn’t experienced shortages of workers because they’re self-isolating with relatively mild symptoms. The post-Brexit migration of foreign workers is also increasing the demand for robots.
“Realistically, we don’t have enough people in industry, to deliver the business growth in manufacturing that this country is capable of. Tasks like that are ideal candidates to be automated. And the investment risk actually isn’t that high.
Support available in the UK
The Government is also promoting modernisation of the manufacturing industry through a massive tax incentive, called “Super Deduction” – from April 2021 to March 2023, companies can claim a 130% capital allowance as tax relief for investments in plant and machinery.
R&D tax credits
Prompted by comments in the chat, Mike Wilson covered further information on R&D tax credits. “These have been around for a long time, but are generally perceived as being something that’s only applicable to the development of a new product. Accountancy firms will help you apply for those. If you’re investing in the design of that product, you can offset your costs, in terms of the amount of time that you invested and any finance against your tax bill. If you’re an SME, you can get 130% – getting more back than you put in! If you’re developing a new automation solution, because you’re performing some R&D activity in terms of the development, it qualifies. And your suppliers can do the same thing. You can then collect that information together and submit as part of the company’s tax return to claim some R&D tax credit. In effect, that reduces the overall cost of the actual installation in the first place.”
The session ended with a discussion amongst the panel of how robots can help with achieving net zero targets. Automation has a significant role to play in terms of achieving net zero targets, partly through ensuring that our manufacturing is as efficient and effective as possible. So that energy use is reduced. Waste is reduced rework, so ensure the benefits from using the automation.
Brexit and COVID have highlighted some of the issues now in terms of our supply chains. Over the last 20 to 30 years, we have off-shored an awful lot of our manufacturing, and COVID in particular has demonstrated that those long supply chains are a problem. We shouldn’t necessarily rely on those going forward. We are going to start to see more and more re-shoring and manufacturing, which I think is good for us anyway.
But re-shoring will also provide positive impact in terms of Net Zero, when we’re when we’re looking at our carbon footprint as a country, we can’t offshore all our manufacturing and then pretend it doesn’t matter.
We need to look at the whole carbon footprint of everything that we do. Shipping things all the way around the world is not necessarily a good thing to do in terms of carbon footprint. So we need to make more of what we use local. And to do that competitively, we need to use more automation. So automation will have a positive impact on our net zero future. And just while we’re touching on that,
Net zero is also a focus at the National Manufacturing Summit (NMS 2022) – https://www.nmsummit.co.uk/
Hosted by the Coventry-based MTC, it takes place at the MTC in Coventry on 8 and 9 February. DFA Manufacturing Media has been appointed as official media partner.
This year’s themes are
- Field to Fork
- Factory to Door
- Fossil Fuels to Renewables
The UK Government has made a strong commitment to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, increase renewable energy sources, and create plans for a green infrastructure.
These themes provide a clear focus to the event, with the conference sessions focused on the achieving a more sustainable future across a series of key industrial sectors that, combined, will have a major bearing on our net-zero future.
Mike Wilson, one of our speakers at this Talking Industry, is heavily involved, and Chair Andy Pye will be chairing selected sessions during the event.
Further information and networking opportunities
Our Talking Industry website www.talkingindustry.org carries links to this and the archive of past Talking Industry episodes. Readers can also register for the future events scheduled for 2022.
Drives & Controls Exhibition (NEC Birmingham, 5 – 7 April 2022) is the UK’s leading event for drives, power transmission and motion control. 2022 will see the return of a live Robotic Demonstration Area reflecting this dynamic and fast-growing sector representing robotic technology across the industrial landscape.