We must invest in robotics technology because, right now, the UK isn’t anywhere near the podium
The UK is languishing far down global rankings that measure robot density – a metric used by the International Federation of Robotics to measure the number of robots per 10,000 workers in an industry.
Robots play a fundamental role in manufacturing and an increasingly important role in other sectors. The fourth industrial revolution is well underway, and we must not be left behind. I believe the government must act urgently to invest in automation technology and reverse this decline which is why I am calling for a robot taskforce.
I have tabled an amendment to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill calling on the government to consider a taskforce “to increase effective use of robotics and automation and reduce disparities between geographical areas in this regard”.
This is not about the rise of the robots coming for our jobs – far from it – this is about policy makers understanding that to make the most of the opportunities of future technologies we need to work out how to work with robots – or perhaps we should say ‘co-bots’.
Despite the UK’s strong manufacturing industry, we have low (and falling) annual robot installation counts.
Not only are our robot density statistics (how many robots per 10,000 employees) incredibly low in global rankings – in all categories – but we are also bucking the trend of constant growth seen elsewhere.
Latest data from the International Federation of Robotics show that annual installations of industrial robots in Europe has nearly doubled from 43,826 in 2011 to 84,302 in 2021 in a fairly steady upward trajectory. In the same period in the UK annual installations more than doubled between 2011 and 2012 – from 1, 514 to 2,943 – but has fallen since then to 2,054 in 2021, down 7% on 2020 figures.
In the manufacturing industry robot density was 111 robots per 10,000 employees in 2021, which is very low for a Western European country and the lowest G7 country. In comparison: the Republic of Korea had 1,000 per 10,000 employees, Singapore 670, Japan 399, Germany 397, China 322, and the US 274.
Again, despite our tradition as a distinguished manufacturer of automobiles, in 2021, robot installations in the automotive industry were down by 42% to 507 units and we had just 824 robots per 10,000 employees in operation. In comparison: Germany had 1,500 robots per 10,000 employees in the automotive industry and at number one the Republic of Korea has 2,867 robots per 10,000 employees.
In general industry there were only 60 robots per 10,000 employees. All other Western and Northern European countries, except Portugal, Spain, and Norway, had more than 100 robots per 10,000 employees. In Other comparative data is stark: the Rep of Korea had 805, China 298, Sweden 258, Germany 233, and Denmark 230.
The UK has a productivity problem and is facing a massive labour shortage. Instead of viewing robots as a threat to jobs we must understand that we need to learn to work with them as co-bots. Robots are ultimately productivity creators and job makers. We desperately need to invest in skills and both the automotive and general industry need to invest in automation technology.
The top five global robotics trends in 2023 are: increased energy efficiency, reshoring (such as relocating microchip production back to the US and Europe), easier to use for non-experts, AI and digital automation and second life for industrial robots. These trends emphasize both the opportunity and the necessity for being far more proactive with regards to robotics in this country.
In responding to my proposed amendment during the debate in the House of Lords, the Minister agreed with my assessment of the problem and spoke about some initiatives in this area:
“It’s perfectly true that the UK lags behind the global average when it comes to adopting robotics technology and this is holding back UK manufacturing and productivity.”
The Minister also said…
“I am in full agreement with my noble friend in wanting more manufacturers to adopt technology that will improve productivity and stimulate growth, such as robotics and automation, and we have programmes that support them to do this.
“This includes the Made Smarter programme, which has committed almost £200 million in funding to manufacturers—large, small and medium enterprises—to develop new technology solutions and adopt existing tech, including robotics and autonomous systems.
“The £24 million Made Smarter adoption programme is available to manufacturing small and medium enterprises in the north-west, the north-east, Yorkshire and the Humber, and the east Midlands and West Midlands regions. The programme provides expert advice, grant funding and leadership training to SMEs to help them adopt robotics, automation and autonomous systems, as well as other industrial digital technologies that can improve productivity and growth.
“We convene a Robotics Growth Partnership, chaired by Professor David Lane and Paul Clarke, which works with robotics and autonomous systems sector leaders across academia and industry to put the UK at the cutting edge of the smart robotics revolution ambition, turbocharging—as we would like to call it—economic productivity and unlocking benefits across society.
“Last year the Robotics Growth Partnership published a vision for cyber physical infrastructure, and the Government will shortly publish their consultation response on that subject.”
Whilst I was grateful to the Minister for his response, and for reminding us of some positive moves by the government, it is not enough.
We need a target because we should be on the podium. I will continue to call on the government to do more because the robots aren’t coming, the robots are here, and we must step up and be part of the future that is happening now.