19 July, 2024

Automation and the COVID-19/Brexit effect

29 June, 2021

Automation has much to offer industrial and mobile companies from the perspective of, for example, improved productivity, increased accuracy and traceability and – largely as a consequence of these benefits – reduced costs and a fast ROI. Nevertheless, the finger has been pointed at the UK regarding its relatively slow uptake of the automation technologies available when compared with certain European nations and the US. It would appear things are moving in the right direction, however, spurred on by a couple of key drivers.

During his introduction to automation strategy at DFA Media’s recent Talking Industry webinar titled Robotics & Advanced Automation, Professor Sam Turner, chief technology officer at HVM Catapult, made the point that during the past 15 months or so the UK has witnessed a marked upturn in the level of interest in automation – likely due to COVID-19 from a global viewpoint and Brexit from a more national perspective. He started to see this upward trend around 12 months ago when HVM Catapult was supporting companies in getting back to production with less members of staff on site due to the restrictions put in place because of COVID-19.

Professor Turner has also seen an uplift in investment in industrial robots within the UK. “In 2020 there was a 5% increase but that is still only 10% of the investment made in Germany, for example,” he says. So, we are still behind in terms of investment in automation solutions, but Professor Turner maintains there are huge opportunities to accelerate the deployment of automation in the UK, and he is seeing some positive moves that direction. He reflects that there has been some major investment in automation in parts of the world where the skills to deliver the needed manufacturing processes aren’t there. “So, turning to automation is a way of delivering repeatability of manufacturing processes,” he says. Professor Turner adds that productivity and repeatability are some of the key motivators behind automation, along with achieving greater levels of flexibility – for example working together with the human workforce.

Professor Turner reflects that many companies recognise the need for automation, but, understandably, they want to focus on what is the most appropriate business case for their particular operations. “They recognise automation is a good thing, but they ask themselves why do they want to automate, what is their motivation and where do the opportunities lie,” he says. Automation in manual tasks certainly has been a starting point on the shopfloor, in Professor Turner’s view. He adds that automation inspection is also becoming increasingly important, combining industrial robotics with things such as analytics and artificial intelligence.

Another trend Professor Turner is witnessing is the use of automation for manufacturing engineering tasks, systems that can more rapidly produce products and solutions through the shopfloor. HVM Catapult is guiding companies in the triage process, helping them to identify what is the most appropriate solutions for their needs, signposting them to partners who can help and trying to pull together clusters of user groups because, as Professor Turner explains, peer-to-peer sharing of information is very valuable, seeing where others have addressed similar issues.

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