For a long time, it seemed the prospect of widespread automation was a science fiction pipe dream, but advances in the last decade have made the prospect arrive sooner than many had anticipated. Research by PwC projects that up to 15% of jobs in manufacturing could be automated, rising to between 35 and 50% by 2035. But what are the benefits of automation and is it worth the investment? With the British manufacturing industry currently in an uncertain position, could an increased focus on technology help to secure its future prosperity?
Reducing the skills gap
The skills gap has long been a concern of manufacturing in the UK, but with Brexit uncertainty resulting in a fall in migration, the industry is being forced to look to other solutions. For many workers in low-skilled jobs, voting for Brexit may have been a decision made to try and prevent jobs being lost to cheaper labour coming from Europe. But the reality is that the low number of skilled British workers coming into manufacturing is not enough. Government estimates say that reducing the gap would require 186,000 new skilled recruits every year until 2024. Meanwhile, the average age of manufacturers is rising, meaning that the skills of a large number of people could eventually be lost to retirement.
By implementing automation to compensate for a lack skills, companies are likely to experience increases in efficiency. While this is expected to result in job losses, it is more likely that workers find their roles changing so that they work alongside machines, rather than being replaced by them.
Despite UK manufacturing’s traditionally strong global standing, the general public do not appear to have optimism about the industry’s future. In a 2018 survey, only 19% said they would encourage their children to work in the sector, with many citing low pay and production line work as reasons for their answer.
This perspective is increasingly looking dated in the face of what has been named the 4th industrial revolution. Rather than reduce opportunities, automation is expected to create more jobs than it replaces and is projected to add $15.7 trillion to the global economy. Many manual jobs are expected to be completed by robots in the future, which means people will be required to move away from the ‘shop floor’ and into new roles maintaining and programming the machines, including the creation and editing computer-aided design (CAD) files.
Growth in automation around the world
While the pace of automation is growing, as much as 30% year-on-year in 2017, much of Europe lags behind Asian nations. Data from the International Federation of Robotics revealed that, as of 2017, South Korea lead the world with 710 industrial robots per 10,000 manufacturing employees.
A significant factor behind this growth is likely to be financial. As the cost of labour continues to rise, an automated alternative continues to become increasingly viable, with the cost of robots expected to drop 65% between 2015 and 2025. This could create a tipping point in the next decade where automation is more cost effective than hiring and training people.
How automated is the UK’s industry?
As fast as adoption is taking place around the world, according to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), the UK is far behind with just 74 robots per 10,000 employees. Even so, PwC estimate that the UK’s GDP could increase by 10.3% directly from the benefits of automation. Of course, nations with higher rates of implementation are already seeing these benefits, but this demonstrates how crucial automation is to the future of manufacturing in the UK.
One type of machine in particular is expediting the evolution of manufacturing. Computer Numeric Control (CNC) machines, which were first introduced in the 1940s have become increasingly technical, allowing scaled manufacture and the ability to create high-quality prototypes using Computer-Aided Manufacturing (CAM).
UK-based foam converter Technical Foam Services has been using CAM machines for the past two decades. Managing Director Duncan Geddes believes their use is fundamental to the industry’s evolution.
“CAM is not only quick and consistent; it is also efficient in terms of cost and waste reduction. The machines can outstrip any other form of production available to us, while also freeing up the capacity of our workers to focus on creative thinking, research and development for future innovations.”
Currently, the UK manufacturing industry is at a crossroads. Future planning is being slowed by uncertainty around the future, while international competitors are breaking new ground in the adoption of automation. There is already a gap to be made up, but the future of British manufacturing is far from bleak.
As the cost of robots continues to fall, the gap in adoption rates is likely to close quickly. With a level playing field in terms of the technology available, it will be the creativity and innovation of the people in the industry that will unlock the future success of the UK’s manufacturing sector.