Time is now ripe for robot investment

By Rick Pendrous

- Last updated on GMT

Falling costs and ease of use should boost robots in UK food manufacture
Falling costs and ease of use should boost robots in UK food manufacture

Related tags Robot

Food and drink manufacturers in the UK have been urged to invest in robots and automation in their operations as labour costs continue to rise, robots become easier to use and their cost falls.

“We are facing quite a challenging environment and there is lots of uncertainty around,”​ said Mike Wilson, chairman of the British Automation & Robot Association during a presentation in London last month.

“One of the biggest challenges we face is our productivity: we are employing lots of people, but we are not being as productive as major competitors.”

Across manufacturing, the UK fell well behind most of its major competitor nations, said Wilson.

“Our productivity has not grown very much over the past few years – just 0.6% a year from 2010 to 2015 – and our growth has been achieved by employing more people rather than investing in capital assets,” ​he said.

Challenges facing manufacturers

Other challenges facing manufacturers were rising energy and raw material costs, and also a skills shortage, which is on the horizon, Wilson added.

“Unless we address this, we are going to have a big problem.”​ On top of this, he added, the introduction of the National Living Wage, the Apprenticeship Levy and pension provision requirements were driving labour costs up.

With Brexit also on the horizon and future access to non-UK EU labour uncertain, now was the time to invest in robotics, claimed Wilson, “particularly in sectors like food”.

If that wasn’t a good enough reason, “technological advances in robot automation are making systems easier for people to use”, ​he added. “Ultimately now, we are getting systems that smaller manufacturers can more easily apply and more easily afford.”

While the ‘density’ of robotic numbers in sectors such as automotive in the UK were similar to those in Germany, “the biggest challenge we face is outside the automotive sector”.​ In Germany it is 170 robots per 10,000 employees, while in the UK it is just 33, he explained.

‘Certainly not the most automated’

The food industry in this country, by contrast, probably isn’t there yet, but it is getting very close to it because of the rise in labour costs,”​ said Wilson. “We may be the ninth largest manufacturing nation in the world, but we are certainly not the most automated and we are not close to all our major competitors.”

Technological advances that were reducing the price of vision systems and gripper systems that could handle more delicate foodstuffs, should also make investment in robotics more attractive to the food sector, he added.

“There are an awful lot of developments going through that are making it easier to apply automation to the food sector,”​ he said.

“Having said all of that, there are still lots of applications that can be done that haven’t been done: in the packaging and palletising operations, there is still a significant number of people being used to literally just move things around.”

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