How cobots will save UK engineering

31st January 2020
Joe Bush

The UK industrial sector, alongside other elements of the UK economy, is undergoing a challenging time. While the decisive result of the general election has lifted much of the uncertainty around Brexit, there are still big unknowns regarding the future trading relationship with EU partners. 

Here, Richard Mawson, Specialist in End of Arm Tooling & Collaborative Applications at OnRobot explains the role cobots are likely to play. Historically low levels of unemployment make recruiting good employees more difficult and the announced increase to the national living wage could increase costs at a time when manufacturers are battling to be competitive on a global scale.

A remedy to these issues widely suggested by politicians and industry experts alike is an increased adoption of robotics. The fact that the UK has one of the lowest robotic densities (the number of robots deployed per 10,000 workers) of any western country is often presented as a negative.

However, it also leaves huge untapped potential if we can quickly move the UK’s SME manufacturers to similar adoption levels as their US and European counterparts.

There’s a lot to be gained but it does depend on engineering and manufacturing businesses taking the steps now to transform their operations. Here is why now is the right time to make the leap.

Mitigating the labour shortage

While factors such as fluctuating customer sentiment and political changes are not to be overlooked, industry experts argue the key challenge the engineering sector faces today is labour shortages. After all, workers are a business’s most valuable resource - a lack of skilled employees can hinder efficiency and productivity to an unsustainable extent. It’s not surprising then, that one-in-two UK engineering firms are concerned that the skills gap in this sector is a threat to their business.

There’s no point beating around the bush - Brexit, or the UK’s upcoming goodbye to the EU, has undoubtedly played a part in this phenomenon. EU net migration has recently dropped to a ten-year low, with the number of migrants departing from Britain to return to central and eastern Europe greater than that of those arriving. It’s clear that the possibility of a weaker economy - as well as the perceived risk of having to go back to their home countries for visa reasons - has impacted EU nationals’ decision of moving to the UK. Without EU citizens to rely on to mitigate the shortage of workers, maintaining the status-quo isn’t an option.

A solution, however, is just within their reach. While sourcing talent is still crucial - the sector needs to recruit around 186,000 engineers each year until 2024 - turning to technology may be the best way to ease the pressure on these businesses. Today’s nimble collaborative robots can easily be integrated in production lines, thereby filling in the gaps in the workforce and increasing output per worker. It’s the quickest route to guaranteeing production capacity and freeing up human workers to adopt the roles where they can add most value.

Intelligent and cost-effective automation 

In times of political and economic uncertainty, investing in avant-garde technological tools can feel intimidating. Customer demand is unpredictable, workers from overseas may or may not leave the company, therefore the business’s needs can shift unexpectedly. That’s why leaders of engineering businesses should choose cost-effective, versatile robotic solutions to automate their processes and streamline their operations whilst maintaining a certain degree of flexibility.

Fortunately, cobots are a highly proven technology that have already demonstrated their value in other markets. Just look at Denmark which is at the forefront of automation. First off, modern cobots couldn’t be more different from large and expensive traditional industrial robots, but are small and affordable - making the investment far safer and more realistic. Leveraging automation, manufacturers can do more with less and speed up production, thus maximising profit. As the production levels required change, companies can continually tailor their strategy and implement robots where needed, avoiding surplus or lack of product.

Furthermore, these robotic arms can be accompanied by robotic end effectors - which can vary from grippers to sensors and more - meaning the same cobot can perform a series of functions, infinitely increasing its value. This also means that, in engineering establishments which handle a diverse range of products - some that need to be assembled, some transported to a different area of the establishment, some more delicate, some more sturdy - cobots equipped with end effectors and tool switchers can adapt their grip according to the item at hand and action required.

An ally, not a threat

The rise of robotics certainly has many champions – from business leaders to technology aficionados – who feel enthusiastic about the future.

However, the excitement around welcoming robots within the workforce is clouded by the workers’ fear that they might consequentially lose their employment and source of income. Luckily, due to the very nature of the machines gaining popularity in engineering and manufacturing, this is unlikely to happen.

Global collaborative robotic applications have seen an impressively upward trajectory in recent years, and are forecast to grow by 41% each year until 2026. Cobots won’t take away people’s jobs as they inherently require the presence of a human to oversee and work alongside them. A collaborative robot isn’t a threat to the employee’s livelihood, it’s an indispensable ally, an invaluable aid able to complement their skills and ease their workload. Cobots can carry out low-value tasks which don’t require a human’s intellectual input, thereby freeing up workers to focus on more interesting activities.

With machines taking care of repetitive, tedious jobs, employees finally have time to dedicate to organisation, strategy, management in order to think of innovative ways to leverage technology to improve processes. Additionally, by being juxtaposed to robots, workers are presented with the opportunity of learning new, useful skills and evolve from, for example, machine operators to robot programmers. This has the potential to hugely enhance these employees’ job satisfaction.

The perceived safety issue 

Part of the scepticism around using robotics in manufacturing and engineering has to do with health and safety risks. Going back to traditional industrial robots, these machines were so large and potent that they were believed to be dangerous to share a working space with – in fact, they were typically segregated to a separate environment where personnel weren’t allowed. Things have changed.

Modern day robots don’t present these challenges as they are designed to work side-by-side with humans. Equipped with sensors, they have the capacity to perceive the presence of objects – and humans – in their surroundings, so as to avoid contact. Furthermore, these robots, cobots in particular, are significantly smaller and lighter than their predecessors so, even in the rare case of collision, they would be far less dangerous.

This being said, the issue of robot safety in engineering applications is more complicated. It’s not merely about modern robots being safer than traditional ones, it’s also about workers being spared the unsafe aspects of their jobs, thanks to robots. Deploying robotic equipment in a clever and effective manner means delegating hazardous tasks, and making sure humans are exposed to less danger. Robots can, for example, take care of the heavy lifting, thus avoiding injuries and repetitive muscle strain. Robotic arms fitted with end effectors can also handle chemical products, preventing workers from coming into contact with harmful or toxic substances.

Ultimately, an increased robotic adoption can improve employees’ quality of life in the workplace, enabling growth opportunities and sheltering them from monotonous or else dangerous activities – resulting in a happier, inspired and more productive workforce for engineering firms.
It’s not difficult to imagine that political instability and other commercial challenges are making engineering business leaders anxious about the future. However, if companies wake up to the countless benefits robots can bring and adjust their strategies and budgets accordingly, they have nothing to fear.

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