Manufacturers are facing an unprecedented set of challenges that are increasingly affecting their ability to produce, deliver and sell goods and meet rising customer expectations. All these are driving the need for the deployment of automation.

It’s predicted that by 2030, over 85 million positions will be unfilled, hampering economic growth and presenting challenges for organisations to find new ways to plug gaps in workforces. Other economic factors like Brexit, component shortages, supply chain disruptions and the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are exacerbating the problems. This is bringing into sharp focus the need for industry in the UK to embrace robotics and automation.



Marc Segura, President of ABB Robotics

More than ever, businesses are needing to find new ways to build their resilience to cope with unforeseen changes. ABB Robotics has identified three major trends that are likely to shape the demand for robots over the next 12 months and beyond which highlight the need for more specialist partnerships between industry and educators to close the robotics and automation skills gap.

Here, The Manufacturer speaks to Marc Segura, President of ABB Robotics, about these current trends and asks where the UK currently sits in the race for robotics.

Labour shortages

There are several circular trends that constantly impact robotics and automation. A key challenge, and one that is set for the long-term due to unstoppable changes in demographics, is the labour shortage. This is being amplified in the current climate, with less young people opting for careers in manufacturing and engineering.

Management consultancy, Korn Ferry, has predicted that of the 85 million positions likely to be unfilled by 2030 (as mentioned above), more than ten percent (eight million) will be in the manufacturing sector. The issue is not isolated to the UK and is becoming more present in mature economies in Europe, the US and Asia. Germany, for example, has embarked on very active campaigns to attract talent and in the US, the American Welding Society predicts that there will be a shortage of 400,000 welders as soon as 2024.

“When we are talking to certain types of customers, the conversations continue to be around increasing productivity, quality, safety and so on. But right now, many companies, especially SMEs, are also talking about just staying in business,” Marc commented.

Competition for talent is of course, increasing rapidly, not least because of the types of skills now required by manufacturing. Along with traditional capabilities such as CNC machining or welding, manufacturers are now crying out for a range of digital skills not required by previous generations.

On the one hand this presents the sector in a more modern light to younger generations and perhaps disassociates manufacturing from the traditional stereotype of hard hats and dirty overalls.

However, it also pits the sector directly against others who are also fighting for those same digital capabilities. While there are certainly plans and initiatives in place to change the perception of the sector and attract more people, Marc stressed that a diminished labour pool is something that manufacturers will have to get used to.

He added: “More people are retiring and not being replaced so the natural development of the labour market, the perception of the industry and demographics mean it’s going to be really hard to fulfil certain jobs in the future. And that’s going to be the situation, period.

“There are plans to incentivise certain education paths but fulfilling those positions with manual labour from a cost, sustainability and staffing perspective, is going to be very difficult.” One possible solution to this labour shortage is of course, automation, and one that will become increasingly prevalent over the next few years.

“We need to help change the perception of what it is to work with technology; in a collaborative manufacturing environment with automation, cobots and robots. Employers and companies also need to plan ahead and realise the volume of people going forward is not going to be available and therefore, will need to rely more on automation.”

Reshoring

The second trend that is contextual at this moment in time, and looks set to remain for the coming years, due to the geopolitical situation, is the push for reshoring and nearshoring. Companies emerging from COVID were all rethinking their supply chain and resilience, and many now have plans in place to de-risk their value chain.

“In 2022 we conducted a survey of 1,500 executives in the US and Europe,” Marc continued. “We spoke to them about their plans for operations, and 74% confirmed that they were planning to reshore or near shore.”

These plans will usually mean relocating from a low to a higher cost labour country and as such, will be impacted by labour availability. Therefore, investment in automation is a must to make these plans viable. “We’re having lots of conversations with industries like textiles and electronics where we’re seeing manufacturing coming back to Europe,” Marc added.

Technology adoption

The third trend is driven more by technology, and specifically artificial intelligence applied to robotics. Marc continued: “AI is not new, but we’re reaching a tipping point in certain industrial applications.”

ABB robotics currently has two examples being deployed in the market. The first relates to Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs). Previously this was the domain of Autonomous Guided Vehicles (AGVs); a simple machine that followed a magnetic tape on a predefined path.

Applications like this are now entering a totally different era using advanced technology. ABB is using Visual SLAM (visual simultaneous localisation and mapping); an advanced technique that allows autonomous robots to navigate around an environment, utilising cameras and machine learning to process images.

“They know exactly where they are and how to make intelligent decisions in a factory or a warehouse,” Marc added.

“This is opening up new possibilities of automation for mobile robots.” On the manipulators side of robotics, the holy grail has been autonomous grasping, using cameras and AI to pick and manipulate never before seen items without any training. “This is now accelerating in warehousing where we have robots doing mixed case depalletising of pallets, boxes and parcels – all without programming,” said Marc.

Marc explained that this marks the first step of moving from programming to instructing robots, and from instructing to full autonomy. With Visual SLAM and autonomous grasping all powered by AI, there will be more opportunities for robotics to foster growth in the coming years as they open up new applications and tasks that they weren’t capable of before.

Sustainability

An additional trend that is a constant across the whole subject area is the push for sustainability. And here many companies will likely be driven by their corporate shareholders to have real and credible ESG plans. A key factor here is to make existing installations more sustainable.

“We have a lot to offer here, with our new OmniCore controller, which is cutting 20% of the energy costs of our robots. It is important to remember that energy costs represent 80% of the lifetime CO2 emissions of a robot,” Marc added.

Secondly, manufacturing needs to be an enabler of a circular economy. Robots need to be repurposed, refurbished and have an extended life. To that extent, ABB Robotics has centres in the US, Europe and Asia to do just that and last year alone, the company refurbished approximately 2,000 robots.

Marc explained that manufacturers need to show they have plans in place to reduce waste and increase efficiency, which is hard to do manually. Automation is required if the goal is to use less energy and create less waste. All in all, having higher rates of automation is an unavoidable decision for boardrooms.

How is the needle shifting in terms of robotic adoption in the UK?

Unfortunately, in the UK the needle is not moving in the right direction. The latest data from the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) shows that the UK is still in 24th place in terms of the number of robots deployed per 10,000 workers. In addition, the country is still the only G7 member with robotic deployment lower than the global average.

ABB has found there to be a general lack of experience and knowledge around how to use robots and how automation can help manufacturers. Of course, it’s a different picture in the automotive sector specifically, but in terms of what would be called general industry, the average level of awareness is below other countries.

There’s some uncertainty about how to introduce automation as well as a lack of expertise to calculate the return on investment. Therefore, people are still ceptical about the numbers, and it’s hard to get across the other associated consequences of automation that can have a positive impact on businesses.

Marc added: “There’s a lot that needs to be done around education, at all levels. We’re not lacking funding and the talent is out there. The main issues lie around awareness of how important automation is for manufacturing and what is possible in the UK. Others are doing it, so why not here?”

In terms of where the UK currently sits, a number of countries in Southeast Asia are progressing with automation and in North Asia, Korea and Japan are at the top in terms of robotic deployment. In Europe, countries like Italy, Spain, France, Benelux, Switzerland and Sweden, are all ahead of the UK.

In addition, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam (traditionally low-cost countries) are now receiving a lot of reshoring from China. “Don’t think that because they are low-cost, that they have low levels of automation,” Marc continued.

“We’re not seeing that. The companies that are moving back to Southeast Asia are doing so with full automation, because they have reaped the benefits previously in mainland China. In those countries, automation is growing alongside the reshoring process.”

There are great examples of robotic adoption among general industry, but still, the common denominator is that, until now, many companies in the UK have managed to find alternatives. However, the data indicates there is an invisible ticking bomb, where in one year, companies may not have enough people to be able to run their businesses.

“There are no productivity improvements that can help with that; companies will just need to transform. However, there’s currently no sense of urgency, so the UK needs a wakeup call,” added Marc.

Automation can help companies address the very dynamic and challenging environments of today and a buzzword across industry in recent years has been ‘resilience’. Designing a factory or network of factories in previous years would have undoubtedly involved an element of predictability in terms of demand, product mix and potential channels to market. However, that has all changed and there are now uncertainties around all those elements, not to mention geopolitical disruption and new legislation coming into place etc.

Marc added: “This is a huge conversation we’re having with many customers who are saying they need robotics, but in a different way than in past decades. We can design flexible factories, warehousing etc, where we can scale up fast when there is success, scale down when there is a crisis, diversify and repurpose or create a new channel to market. Robotics are helping our customers become more resilient, so they can react in real-time to changes.”

Going forward Marc added that a lot needs to be done around the education piece, with more aggressive policies in defining mandatory robotics and automation subjects. The industrial sector needs people at all different levels and skills of automation. It’s not just about management roles.

There also needs to be support for companies to understand automation – to be incentivised positively to have plans for change and transformation. “There needs to be automation programmes and incentives that are rewarding and supportive of the companies that are on the journey to transform themselves, so they become viable for decades to come. For the ones not on that journey, the challenges are obvious – and doing nothing won’t help.”

Key takeaways

  • It is predicted that there will be eight million unfilled positions in manufacturing by 2030
  • Investment in automation is key to making reshoring strategies viable
  • AI is opening up new possibilities for mobile robots
  • To align with the agenda of the circular economy, robots will need to be repurposed, refurbished and have an extended life
  • At present there is no sense of urgency in the UK

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