Introduction

Manufacturing industries have been using robots since the first industrial robot was developed during the 1950’s with General Motors installing the first Unimate UR1 (considered to be the first industrial robot) in 1961 to provide a level of consistency and performance that a human operator was not able to achieve (1). Since the advent of microprocessor controlled robots, their use has become more widespread with the automotive industry taking the lead.

However, whilst other nations have embraced industrial robots the UK lagged behind with only the automotive industry firmly embracing industrial robots. In this paper, we aim to examine the current state of the UK market place for industrial robots in terms of sales and the industries that dominate those sales. In doing so, the paper will attempt to show the disruptive influence that certain industries are having both on the number of robots installed but also the ability of other industries to access systems integration capability to install their own robots.

Background

The focus of this paper is the specific use of ‘industrial robots’ for manufacturing and industrial applications. Industrial robots are defined as “a re-programmable device designed to both manipulate and transport parts, tools or specialised manufacturing, implemented through variable programmed motions for the performance of specific manufacturing tasks” (2).

Figure1

Figure 1: Global Sales of Industrial Robots vs ‘Service’ Robots in 2015 (3) & (4)

Although industrial robots dominate current sales by unit volume statistics (Figure 1, above), many recent reports on robotics have focused on ‘professional service’ robots. However, defining what constitutes a professional service robot continues to be a topic of much discussion but in general they can be defined as robots that aid mobility, provide aerial delivery services, work on farms, provide healthcare, carry out domestic chores or medical procedures. This is a rapidly developing field and will undoubtedly become a significant factor in our day-to-day lives in the coming years. As these robots have the direct ability to affect our lives, naturally they attract a lot of public and media attention. However, in the near term, industrial robots will continue to dominate sales volumes and more importantly play a direct role in the growth of a nation’s industrial productivity.

The economic and social arguments for an increase in the use of robotics in industry and the subsequent effects on national productivity, wealth, employment or the future nature of work are not covered by this report as they are addressed in detail elsewhere. In particular;

  • Graetz & Michaels (5) highlight an increased annual growth of GDP and labour productivity between 1993 and 2007 by about 0.37 and 0.36 percentage points respectively across 17 countries studied, representing 10% of total GDP growth in the countries studied.
  • Sproul, Knowles-Cutler & Lewis (6) who developed a statistical hypothesis created by Frey & Osborne (7) argue “while technology has potentially contributed to the loss of over 800,000 lower-skilled jobs (in the UK) there is equally strong evidence to suggest that it has helped to create nearly 3.5 million new higher-skilled ones in their place”.
  • Barclays Bank (8) concluded that an investment in automation of £1.24 billion over the next decade could safeguard 73,500 UK manufacturing jobs and create over 30,000 jobs in other sectors.
  • Boston Consulting Group forecasts productivity improvements of 30% over the next 10 years, spurred in particular by the uptake of robots in Small-to-Medium-Sized Enterprises (SMEs) as robots become more affordable, and adaptable (9).

Current UK Market Situation

Overall, the UK has seen an increase in the number of industrial robots installed over the last sixteen years as the figure below illustrates. As with most nations, there was a significant slowing in the installation rate during the financial crisis of 2008/09. The years following the financial crisis saw significant growth led by the automotive industry, although in recent years there has been a significant drop off in installations.

Figure 2

Figure 2: UK Robot Installations since 2000 (10)

Indeed, when the figures for the last three years are examined in more detail it becomes clear that there has been a significant slowing in the rate of installations across all industry segments (as illustrated below). Despite the automotive industry taking the lead in new installations, even here there has been a dramatic decline in the rate of new installations. This slowing is likely to result in a position where in 2016 the UK will have installed fewer robots than countries including Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

The long-term prospects for installations does not appear to be showing any improvement in the sales figures (and hence installations). As the figure shows, UK sales figures have been bolstered by a strong performance by the automotive industry in 2013 and 2014. However, through 2015 and 2016 there have been no significant vehicle programs and hence little investment in robots. With no significant vehicle program in the near future, this situation is likely to continue for several years.

Figure 3

Figure 3: UK Sales Since 2013 split by Automotive & General Industry (10)

If the UK robot supply sector is to remain buoyant, there must be growth in ‘general industry’ (the term used for any industry not related to automotive manufacturing). However, here there has been a modest increase year on year with an average of only 600 robots per annum installed. If the UK is to counteract any drop off in automotive activity whilst increasing productivity levels in general industry segments allowing the country to remain globally competitive, growth in the general industry segment must be significant (doubling at least).

UK in the Global Market Place

When set in a global context, the UK clearly lags behind many of its major industrial competitor nations with a low level of robots installed per 10,000 persons employed in manufacturing (Figure 4). Although this figure only shows the latest year of data available, further examination of the data shows this situation has not shown any improvement over recent history. Indeed many observers are warning of a significant worsening of the UK’s position as other nations continue to industrialise their manufacturing processes. Of particular note are the rapid increase in robot installations in China, South Korea and Eastern Europe (3).

Figure 4

Figure 4: Robots per 10,000 Manufacturing Employees (Non-Automotive Industries) (3)

Effect of the Automotive Industry

As mentioned, the UK’s automotive industry has played a significant role in the adoption of industrial robots. The figure below repeats the UK installation data from the year 2000 to present day but is annotated with MTC’s estimation of the installation dates of assembly lines for major new automotive programs.

Figure 5

Figure 5: Estimation of Major Vehicle Program Installations (11)

This figure clearly shows how a major new vehicle program and the subsequent re-tooling of its assembly line (and supply chain) has a major effect on the number of robots installed in any year. Further, as a major automotive program has such a distorting effect on the rate of installations, it is reasonable to expect that this has a negative impact on the number of installations in general industry.

‘Fast Followers’

With a resurgent sector producing over 1.6 million vehicles a year (12), the dominance of the automotive industry in the use of robots is unlikely to change. But as the data clearly shows (see Figure 3: UK Sales since 2013 split by Automotive & General Industry (10) (8)), reliance on one industry is a dangerous strategy and as such it is vitally important to support the wider ‘general industry’ uptake of robotics. Several ‘fast follower’ industries will require support if the UK is to increase its uptake of robotics and increase its industrial productivity as a result. Below are three example ‘fast follower’ industries that will benefit from an increased use of industrial robots:

Food manufacturing. This sector is facing a challenging set of economic pressures that will greatly affect its productivity in the coming years. Notwithstanding Brexit and its effect on labour availability, the industry relies on low paid, low skilled manual work but with the introduction of the National Living Wage, its profitability will be hit hard. A possible alleviation to this would be the introduction of robotics as the cost and scarcity of labour resources increase.

Aerospace. The UK aerospace industry is the second largest globally behind the United States. However, to maintain this position the industry will need to invest in modern manufacturing facilities that are agile, yet reduce the reliance on human ‘craft’ skills. Pockets of this investment are already taking place with companies such as Rolls-Royce and others utilising robotics to replace scarce and expensive skilled labour in their manufacturing operations.

Construction. For many years the UK construction industry has suffered from poor productivity and high costs. With the creation of major infrastructure projects and demand for housing there is a recognition that this situation cannot continue. As a result, there is an increasing interest in the use of robotics to improve the productivity and profitability of the construction industry.

So far, fast follower industries have found it difficult to implement robotics. There are many reasons for this (many outside of the scope of this paper), however a key component is the capability and capacity of the UK systems integrator base.

The Role of the Systems Integrator

Systems integrators are (typically) small organisations who advise, design, install and in many instances, provide long term support to end users. Typically, the end user relies on a system integrator to provide a range of services, skills and capabilities such as:

  • Fully understand the requirements of the specific application
  • Select and specify the appropriate robot and ancillary equipment (including end of arm tooling, process equipment, sensor systems, fixturing, safety system, control systems)
  • Design of bespoke elements, e.g. grippers, fixtures
  • Prepare a layout/simulation of the proposed cell to prove feasibility
  • Procurement of equipment
  • Construction of the system on site
  • Installation and commissioning
  • Training (operator and maintenance)
  • Preparation of operating manuals
  • On-going support

Given the range of activities delivered by a systems integrator, the British Automation and Robotics Association (BARA) see their role as “becoming more important as the number of robot installations increases” (13).

Traditionally systems integration was carried out by the robot manufacturer themselves, however in the last twenty years they have concentrated their efforts on their core competencies. This allows the robot suppliers to concentrate on the design and manufacture of robots rather than cover the broad range of activities that a systems integrator covers. Further, systems integration carries a level of risk that the robot manufacturers are unwilling to carry. As integration of this nature is often bespoke for the individual application, the level of cost, complexity and risk is typically higher than a robot product manufacturer could accept. The exception to this is in the automotive sector where the demands and risks are well understood based on experience gained by robot manufacturers and the automotive companies themselves. As a result, the automotive industry is well served by a number of global companies often owned by a robot manufacturer and based overseas (e.g. Kuka and Comau).

As a result, there is a gap in the market for smaller independent systems integrators to focus on fast-follower applications which are typically smaller in size but often more complex. Indeed, BARA see these smaller independent systems integrators as a vital component to “satisfy the requirements of the new adopters who may themselves not have the expertise to bring about a successful robot installation” (13).

Systems Integration Capability in the UK

Given the relatively poor uptake in industrial robots it is unsurprising that there are no large, global systems integrators based in the UK. Instead, UK industry relies on many small integrators that are typically focussed on specific, non-automotive (fast follower) industry segments.

As these companies are small, they generally do not develop large-scale installations such as automotive body shops which may contain over 200 robots per installation. Instead, their focus is on smaller installations (typically one or two robots per installation) which allows them to be more agile and have a more consistent workload than an organisation focused on the automotive sector (see the figure below).

Figure 6

Figure 6: Level of System Integrator Activity Based on Industry Served (14)

As noted above, most UK systems integrators are small, falling into the SME category. As such there turnover is generally low (under £5m per annum) with a small workforce (typically less than 50 employees). This puts these companies at a significant disadvantage when dealing with larger organisations, who have the ability to impose unfavourable purchasing terms with little or no resistance. Similarly, these organisations lack the marketing and business development capabilities to grow their market share. Likewise, the development of new capacity or capability is limited as there is little or no room for risk taking.

If the UK is to reduce its reliance on the automotive sector, then general industry sales and installations need to increase. Whilst most systems integrators are reporting healthy order books, the data available shows that there is little growth taking place. This is the result of several factors but one of these is a lack of depth in the UK’s systems integrator community’s capacity and capability to support those fast followers investigating the use of robots. The danger with this situation is that fast followers will be discouraged from investing, invest overseas or poorly implement robotic systems themselves. As such, increasing the level of systems integrator capacity and capability (both in terms of skills and technical ability) will be vital to support the next generation of robot users.

Conclusions

This paper has examined the latest data available both nationally and internationally to determine the UK’s uptake of robotics and the knock on effect this is having on the capability and capacity of the UK’s systems integrator base. Information available from BARA and the International Federation of Robotics clearly show that the UK is lagging behind many of its international competitors in the uptake of robotics, with current projections showing that this position is unlikely to change and indeed worsen. This is particularly bad news for the UK economy given the large body of evidence presented by others that shows the beneficial impact that industrial robots can have on industrial productivity.

The paper has also shown that the UK robot market is largely driven by the automotive industry. This industry has taken the lead in implementing robotics but as our analysis shows, this industry is highly dependent on new vehicle programs. Of further concern, much of the systems integration capacity in this industry is based overseas.

Beyond the automotive sector, uptake in ‘general industry’ has been limited and is particularly worrying. There are several factors that drive this low level of uptake but of particular concern is the lack of capability and capacity in the systems integrator community to support the ‘fast-follower’ adopters. These adopters often have ‘riskier’ applications that require specific skills and technologies to solve. Increasing the capability and capacity through targeted support and community-building will be vital to support the next generation of robot users and indeed the automotive industry in the long term.

Recommendations

As this paper has presented, there are a number of challenges to address to increase the number of industrial robots in use if the UK is to stay competitive with its industrial rivals. Thus we suggest the following as a plan to address these challenges:

  • Develop success stories that allow for wider understanding and dissemination of the positive effects of industrial robotics on fast follower industries
  • Build a community of users, systems integrators and technology providers who can share best practice, success stories and collaborate on future challenges
  • Provide access to funding for fast follower industries (particularly SME organisations)
  • Develop the UK skills base and capacity to support an increased level of systems integrator activity. An increase in skills is required at the technician, engineering and managerial levels.
  • Following an increase in capacity and capability of skills, an equivalent rise in technical competency will be achievable supported by organisations such as the High Value Manufacturing Catapult and backed up by…
  • Continued support for the development of breakthrough technologies by academia and entrepreneurial start-ups.

Following this roadmap, it is our belief that UK industry can reap the benefits of industrial robots and increase the number of robots installed annually across industry regardless of the cycle of development within the automotive industry.

Acknowledgements

The authors are grateful to Mike Wilson of the British Automation & Robotics Association for proof reading and suggesting improvements to this paper.

References

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