Clinging to old machines holds back UK automation

By Gwen Ridler

- Last updated on GMT

The UK food industry’s desire to keep old machines running for as long as possible has hampered its progress on automation compared to European neighbours, an expert panel at last month’s Foodex claimed.

Speaking at the Panel ‘Stealing our jobs: Can robots solve the skills crisis?’​, Mike Wilson, business development manager at ABB Robotics, said the UK had a long way to go before it caught up with its competitors across the continent.

“We currently have 39 robots per 10,000 workers in the UK in general manufacturing – Germany has 181,”​ said Wilson. “They’re a long way ahead of us, as are France, Spain, Italy – all of our major competitors.

‘Keep our old machinery running’

“I think the main reason for that has largely been cultural. We tend to keep our old machinery running, rather than investing in new equipment and new technology. So there’s a great opportunity to utilise the latest technologies.”

This gap could easily be closed by utilising machines and automation more effectively, argued Wilson.

“It’s not about doing really clever things that are pushing the edge in terms of technology, it’s about utilising solutions that already exist, simple things like palletising. We still have people on the end of production lines putting boxes on pallets and maybe that’s a job that ought to be automated.”

Upgrading their systems

However, a number of manufacturers are now opening up to the idea of upgrading their systems and machinery in the wake of Industry 4.0 and smart manufacturing.

Rockwell Automation industry sales manager Gary Kirk said that while manufacturers wanted to make their existing assets “sweat​”, they were now more conscious of newer technologies.

“There seems to be a lot more willingness to look a bit further ahead,”​ said Kirk. “Rather than just upgrading and sticking with a very similar level of performance, they are looking at what can be done, with a view to a much more effective smart manufacturing solution.”

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