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Can UK manufacturing raise robotics uptake by learning from Europe?

10 June 2024

As part of addressing the UK’s reluctance to automate, it is worthwhile to look at best practice in Germany and Scandinavia, suggests Bob Struijk

THE BENEFITS to UK manufacturing of robotics and automation technology are greater than ever, helping us to meet net zero targets, boost productivity and underpin our key industries. And with an estimated 70,000 vacancies in manufacturing, robots are also alleviating the longstanding labour shortages which have only worsened since Brexit and COVID. 

In regard to automation uptake, it is certainly an improving picture. The government recently announced a £4.5bn package of support for British manufacturing. And led by the automotive sector, UK robot installations were up by 3% in 2022, with operational stock growing by 7%. But at just 98 robots per 10,000 workers we are still well behind European leaders Germany (415). Given this, the question remains, should we also be looking to our European neighbours for some automation inspiration?

Germany: Prioritising precision and innovation

As the VP of FANUC Europe, Bob Struijk believes there are a variety of reasons why certain nations are further ahead of the UK on their automation journey.

"Germany is the clear European automation powerhouse and owes a large part of its success to a profound respect for engineering and manufacturing," he explains.  

Bridging the gap between industry and academia is one factor which has helped to boost German innovation. "In Germany, collaborative efforts between industry and academia contribute to a continuous cycle of research, development and implementation, creating an ecosystem that thrives on technological advancement. The German apprenticeship system also provides a seamless flow of skilled labour into industry, at low cost. The UK can learn from this by cultivating a similar synergy between its educational institutions and industrial sector to breed a culture of continuous improvement." 

In this regard, FANUC UK is working hard to help develop a pipeline of manufacturing talent through a range of different initiatives. The company’s Training Academy at its Coventry HQ offers accredited courses that feed into educational programmes, giving students hands-on robotics experience; it recently held its first-ever Work Experience Week, for young people aged 16-18; and the 2023 FANUC UK Open House played host to the finals of the WorldSkills UK Industrial Robotics competition.

However, for a nation built on SMEs, Struijk is also clear that UK government support is critical to future success: "The penetration of robotics and automation in the UK is especially low among small and medium-sized enterprises. Government tax breaks or accelerated depreciation of robots could certainly help to change this."

Nordic nations: A supportive business environment

At sixth place in the global automation league table, Sweden boasts an impressive 343 robots for every 10,000 workers. Neighbours Denmark have 274, Finland has 168 and Norway has 103 - all sit higher than the UK.

"With their realistic approach towards return on investment (ROI), the Nordic countries have successfully integrated automation into their industries," outlines Struijk. By looking at TCO rather than just ROI - considering indirect cost savings such as reduced energy bills, less waste, higher productivity and increased production capacity - investing in automation could be a far more attractive proposition to UK manufacturers than it is today. 

But again, the importance of government support cannot be overlooked, says Struijk: "While the UK could draw inspiration from the Nordic model by fostering an environment where companies can confidently invest in automation, this must also be backed by supportive government policies and incentives," he states. "In the Nordic countries, robust government initiatives have provided financial support and created favourable conditions for the adoption of automated solutions."

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