Robotics and automation (R&A) is becoming an indispensable part of production, offering advancements in productivity, worker welfare, and production output capabilities. This is evident when looking at global spending figures which project investment of £43bn by 2025, an increase of £34bn from 2010.
Currently, manufacturers are beginning to harness collaborative robotics, one of the highest areas of growth in the next year, and we’re already seeing heightened demand within the automotive industry. Soon engineers will be working hand-in-hand with these products every day, especially as the technology becomes more readily available and accessible from suppliers.
One of the major advantages of collaborative robots are improvements made to the welfare of employees, removing the need for external safety devices such as metal fences and creating a safe environment for humans to work in. This new way of working also helps manufacturers to eliminate the large costs associated with the amount of space needed to house both on the plant floor.
However, following the rise of robots and automation something that many have questioned is: Will the machines take our jobs?
This is a commonly held belief, but one which lacks tangible evidence. Yes it is true that automation has removed hazardous tasks from workers, improving health and safety and reducing working hours, but this is coupled with the generation of jobs within other areas of the business including design, engineering, machine maintenance, marketing, and logistics.
A 2015 study by the London School of Economics dispels myths around job losses, providing new empirical evidence that indicates countries which invested significantly in automation between 1993 and 2007, such as Germany and Sweden, experienced fewer job losses compared to countries that made lesser investments.
Robotics and automation are changing the nature of the workforce, and businesses need to consider how to retain and attract talent in order to evolve. The reason behind why work force retention has remained healthy in countries investing in R&A can be attributed to successful employee up-skilling, with manufacturers placing more emphasis on investment in people.
Robotics and automation deployment is also creating jobs with the recruitment of specialists. Manufacturers are beginning to engage young talent through educational initiatives to attract the next generation of engineers, such as apprenticeships, internships and university partnership programmes. Europe is currently facing a serious science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills shortage - particularly when it comes to women, whose engagement in STEM qualifications continues to lag.
Currently, Rolls Royce are leading in this area pledging to reach 6 million people by 2020 through their STEM education activities. Similarly, LEGO has developed MINDSTORM - a range of robots to assemble and program using an icon-based interface. These come with "curriculum packs", which include problem-solving activities that follow a design engineering process as used by engineers in various industries. These call upon science and mathematics skills, creative thinking, problem solving and teamwork to encourage and inspiring young people to think of STEM careers in a fun and challenging light.
The full impact of robotics and automation will likely take a generation before it is truly measurable. The research available today is the result of years of cumulated data, and reflects the impact of automation since the 1990s. Robotics and automation has boosted global GDP and overall productivity, while transforming the manufacturing workforce.
The challenge for companies now is to attract and retain the best talent, while at the same time, investing in emerging technologies. That dual approach can keep them ahead in a tough manufacturing landscape.