Much has been written about the rise of the machines recently with doom and gloom about mass unemployment and the ‘hollowing out’ of the middle class. However, the reality of previous industrial revolutions and new technologies is that the nature of work changes. For example, according to the Office for National Statistics farming and fishing accounted for 22 per cent of jobs in 1841, yet today with the introduction of mechanisation to feed a growing population the industry supports just two per cent of the UK’s workforce. However, in the same period, overall employment rates have risen and new jobs (that farmers in the 19th century couldn’t imagine) have been created.

So yes, the nature of work will change and robotics and automation are likely to have a significant impact on manufacturing employment. But it’s unlikely that the affect will be mass unemployment for several reasons.

The first is that the UK is far behind other nations in the uptake of robotics and automation. In the UK we have around 33 robots per 10,000 manufacturing jobs yet in Germany this is greater than 150 and in South Korea is higher than 300. At the same time, those nations that have embraced robotics have higher productivity rates and are increasing the number of manufacturing jobs. Until UK industry recognises that robotics and automation are good for us, the UK is likely to struggle to compete with other industrialised nations.

The second reason is that although we may well replace human workers with robots, those robots will need maintenance and supervision. This means that the nature of work undertaken by humans will change to become higher value and knowledge based. There is good evidence from the introduction of new technologies in the past to prove this. For the UK, this means ensuring we are training and equipping our workforce for this situation.

The final reason is simply that despite great strides in technology, widespread, reliable autonomous factories are many decades from becoming a reality. There are examples where this has been achieved, but in reality, the nature of many manufacturing jobs is that they require a level of skill, adaptability, dexterity and intelligence that today’s technologies cannot achieve. A good example of this is the assembly of cars. Most modern vehicles are welded together in a seamless ballet of robotic welders yet when it comes to fitting the nervous system of the vehicle (i.e. its wiring harness), several people have to manipulate a heavy, flexible and complicated item into small apertures in the welded body. As yet, no robot can achieve the level of dexterity, adaptability and problem solving for this application that a human can. There are many applications we can use robotics for, but there are just as many that the technology will not be able to complete for many years and where humans will still be needed.

So whilst we do need to increase the use of robotics and automation in our manufacturing industries, the reality of mass unemployment is unfounded. Perhaps the real risk to long term manufacturing employment comes from not installing robots rather than the robots themselves.

In Conversation

  • Please sum up your conference session in one sentence:
    • I guess it’s a bit of myth busting on two fronts; first about how robotics and automation are not just for big companies and second that we’re not even close to replacing every manufacturing employee with a robot.
  • What practical tips will visitors pick up from your presentation?
    • How to work out what automation is right for them and how to build a case for it.
  • What’s the biggest challenge facing the industry this year?
    • Probably dealing with uncertainty. There is so much around at the moment, BREXIT, Government’s Industrial Strategy, etc., etc.
  • And the biggest opportunity?
    • See above! Seeing the uncertainty as an opportunity and seeking out ways to become more productive (perhaps through automation!) is perhaps the biggest opportunity in 2017.
  • Is leaving the EU good or bad for UK manufacturing?
    • It’s far to early to tell yet, but loosing access to research, skilled engineers and influence over standards could be very damaging.
  • Do you think the industry will suffer if leaving the EU restricts free movement of labour?
    • Almost certainly. We are already seeing some skilled and semi-skilled people leaving and if leaving the EU restricts free movement this can only get worse.
  • Do you think the Apprentice Levy is a good thing?
    • Again, it’s probably too early to tell its long term benefit, but creating more skilled technicians and engineers can only be a good thing.
  • If you were in Government, what would you do to encourage more women and young people to work in the engineering and manufacturing industries?
    • I am not sure it’s purely the role of Government, it needs all of us in the engineering and manufacturing industries to showcase what a diverse and engaging career choice these industries can be. I’m not a fan of quotas or programmes to encourage people into engineering, it’s far better to enthuse more women and young people to join the profession than create (sometimes) false incentives.
  • What are your thoughts on Industry 4.0?
    • It’s a great idea that’s been around for years! But it’s only now that we have the computing power, the software tools and the automation to harness the data available to enhance manufacturing processes. But more companies need to engage and understand the technologies and upskill their workforces to really benefit from it.
  • What are you most looking forward to about Subcon 2017?
    • This will be my first time at the event, so looking to take it all in and make the most of the experience.