Could UK manufacturing optimism spark a new wave of automation?
Manufacturing in the UK has gained renewed momentum following a turbulent year. The UK has overtaken France as the world’s eighth-largest manufacturing nation, and the majority (52.7%) of manufacturers now view the UK as a more competitive place to locate their activities according to a new survey from Make UK. Just one year ago, only 31% of manufacturers had the same outlook.
Attitudes have improved despite past years with inflation, labour shortages, and general market uncertainty. Manufacturers are now weathering the storm and considering their next moves – which for many may involve investments into robotics and automation.
Automation is a vital strategy to address some of the most pressing concerns for manufacturers. Rising input costs are a key risk in 2024, highlighted by 47.3% of manufacturers surveyed. As the cost of labour has shot up, with unit wage costs increasing 26.3% in the last three years, robotics and automation will be a growing consideration for those manufacturers looking to save costs.
Labour shortages also keep challenging manufacturers, with 34.1% citing access to domestic labour as a key risk this year according to the survey. This again highlights the continued need for more automation to support production and fuel further gains in global competitiveness.
Low robot density highlights the broad need for automation in the UK
The need for automation in the UK becomes even more crucial when considering the level of robot adoption in the manufacturing industry, also known as robot density. The UK is still far behind comparable manufacturing nations such as the US, Germany, Italy, and China, with 98 robots per 10,000 people employed in manufacturing in 2022 – below the world average of 151 – according to the International Federation of Robotics.
The UK has historically relied heavily on manual labour, but with the ongoing labour shortages and growing labour costs, how many can afford not to invest in automation? With 63% of manufacturers planning to invest in capital equipment over the next 24 months according to Make UK’s survey, automation and robotics should be a high priority.
The relatively low level of robot adoption in the UK, however, also presents an opportunity. Given the vast range of tasks that have yet to be automated, it should be straightforward for many businesses to find effective and proven solutions that carry little risk and a potentially significant return. The UK is home to no fewer than 480 robot and automation suppliers, including 311 integrators, according to HowToRobot’s latest market overview of the sector. This also means that many businesses should have ample opportunity to find a provider for the type of automation solution they need.
Changing costs of robotics technologies call for regular price checks
One of the key priorities for manufacturers this year will be how to keep costs in check – for automation and everything else.
Leaving a year marked by inflation behind, it may not be surprising to see that “cost control” is the business strategy that most manufacturers (48.5%) consider this year according to Make UK’s survey. This underscores how automation must be approached in a cost-conscious manner.
For the past two years, price increases accelerated for most things, including robotics components. Now that inflationary pressures seem to be easing, the trend will likely reverse according to estimates from Interact Analysis. The cost of critical components used in industrial robots, including motors, drives, gearboxes, sensors, end effectors, and more, is projected to decline by 1% each year from 2023-27. Additionally, the growing global demand for automation generates a wider range of proven and cost-effective technologies and solutions every year. Overall, this points towards automation becoming more affordable for a broader range of businesses.
It also suggests that businesses should regularly check up on the market rates, as the cost of a robot solution is not necessarily what it was a few years back or more. Also, new and more affordable types of solutions may have become available in the meantime.
Historically, it was typically larger businesses that had the capability to conduct this type of market research on a regular basis. HowToRobot sprung out of exactly this dilemma, giving all companies – no matter their size – a platform to specify their automation projects and get a range of solution proposals from relevant suppliers, simple and fast. As HowToRobot partnered with the Manufacturing Technology Center, businesses can even get assistance if the market cannot provide an obvious solution.
With these barriers removed, 2024 looks promising for UK manufacturers looking to automate and invest in robots.
Søren Peters is the founder and CEO of HowToRobot.com – a global platform that makes it quick, safe, and simple to get started with automation. HowToRobot provides a structured process for businesses that want to automate, helping them specify projects and get a range of solution offers through its global network of vetted robot and automation providers.