DAC February 2022

n TALKING INDUSTRY Is the tide turning for automation spending in the UK? Andy Pye reports on the first Talking Industry online panel discussion of 2022, which focussed on robotics and advanced automation in the UK. Are we seeing the first signs that the lag in investment is finally starting to turn? 26 February 2022 www.drivesncontrols.com R obot 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 robots per 10,000 manufacturing 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 start to move up the league table. The first speaker at the recent Talking Industry Webinar on robotics and automation was Mike Wilson, chief automation officer at the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC). He set the scene for the 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, Wilson 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 ten 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 skills, workforce and so on, and undertake that as a business improvement strategy. Safety issues The second speaker was Martin Kidman, Sick UK’s product manager for safety solutions. 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, and that they can work faster around the clock. But they're also dangerous. So historically, we’ve always locked them away in a cage. But this all changed when we started seeing the introduction of collaborative robots (cobots), and added new safety functions to traditional robots. Instead of putting robots in cages, we started to see them being deployed next to people. There are lots of “Type C” standards that tell you exactly how to make a machine safe. However, with collaborative robots, applications are becoming more complex. So although we have Type C standards, you still need to perform full risk assessments and consider each design individually, which in some ways goes against what a Type C standard should be. Labour shortages The third presentation, by Stuart Coulton, area sales manager of Omron, focussed on how robotics can address the pressing issue of labour shortages, and recognise that with cobots, it is often the end-user leading the installation, rather than an experienced industrial user. “As an organisation, Omron is investing in helping manufacturers solve this issue,” Coulton said. “When talking to the market – particularly the food and automotive 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,” he continued. “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 that there is not a single plant that I’m 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,” Coulton concluded. “Tasks like that are ideal candidates to be automated. And the investment risk actually isn’t that high.” Prompted by comments in the chat area, Mike Wilson turned to the subject of r&d tax credits. The UK Government is 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