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2020: What’s in store for robotics?

Author : Enrico Krog Iversen, CEO at OnRobot

02 December 2019

The UK’s relationship with industrial automation has been somewhat troubled – yet fascinating. In the 18th century, Great Britain became the world’s principal commercial nation, taking the lead in the First Industrial Revolution. Fast-forward to the modern day, where industrial robots have taken global factories by storm, and some countries are embracing automation more enthusiastically and successfully than others.

While still a business powerhouse, the UK is lagging behind when it comes to robotic automation – it is the least automated of the G7 nations and ranks 22nd worldwide in terms of robotic density. The UK’s slow robotic adoption is believed to be at the root of the manufacturing funk the country finds itself in today, and is forecast to jeopardise the prosperity of whole regions.

But not all is lost – 2019 has seen a 30% year-on-year increase in robotic applications in Britain, following from for the previous two years’ continuous growth. Whether this transformation continues or not, 2020 is set to be an exciting year – here are the trends we expect to see:

Brexit and the labour shortage 

People are no doubt at the heart of the robotics “problem” – the UK has always attracted international workers and its businesses consistently preferred hiring people to increasing the number of machines. However, this resource could soon no longer be available. Firstly, many EU workers have already left the UK to return to their home countries, fearing they’ll eventually be forced to do so. Secondly, the prospect of a weaker economy and stricter movement regulations brought about by Brexit has inherently made the UK a less attractive place to work – contributing to the labour shortage. In 2020, British manufacturers will have no choice but to turn to automation to overcome this challenge.

New game, new rules

In the UK, as well as abroad, workers have long feared the advent of autonomous machines as a threat to their jobs – in September factory workers were found to deliberately sabotage robots for this very reason. This fear is, naturally, unfounded. The UK’s robot density is growing and will hopefully continue to grow, thereby helping the nation join its more automated counterparts. What many fail to consider is that, for every newly implemented robot, multiple members of staff will have to be appointed to manage and operate the machine. 

2020 will see new professional roles emerge, with factory workers learning new skills and leaving behind monotonous physical tasks, free to employ their creativity and strategic intuition more than ever before. 

A little help from my friends

The terror that the machines will leave workers unemployed is also unsubstantiated because of the exponential rise of cobots. The collaborative robot market has recently seen impressive growth and is expected to exceed $11B by 2030, as uncovered earlier this year by ABI Research.

Next year, workers won’t find themselves jobless, but merely juxtaposed with mechanical helpers – and that’s where the magic will happen. Businesses will seek to strike the perfect balance between automation and the human touch, thriving thanks to the enhanced efficiency and productivity; and risking less by sparing humans dangerous tasks or situations where they could contaminate the product – think of food or pharmaceuticals. 

Agility above all

As well as user-friendliness, another key characteristic robots will require to really take off in 2020 is agility. Investing in automation is an intimidating perspective for many businesses but being able to deploy this costly investment in multiple applications helps mitigate this anxiety. Flexibility of uses and diversity of applications will be indispensable features for robotic solutions next year: end-of-arm tools are a great example of this, as they can be fitted to any robotic arm, allowing it to complete a variety of different functions, seamlessly turning the cost of the robot into immense value. 

A change of heart

Embracing automation is not just about approving budgets and integrating new equipment in production lines. It’s about truly appreciating the benefits it can bring to the business, understanding that these greatly outweigh the costs and, most importantly, comprehending that workers have everything to gain from having more robots around.

In 2020, the triumph of robotics in the UK will go hand in hand with a change in mindset which can’t simply come from above. In order for robots to be successfully implemented, the entire company culture needs to change, starting from the bottom. Manufacturers looking to draw real value from automation need to work on inspiring staff and creating enthusiasm around how automation can make their lives better – free them up to learn and grow by taking over tedious manual jobs. Once the workforce is on board, the rest will be a smooth ride to success.

The UK is going through an unquestionably testing time, with political changes impacting all aspects of peoples’ lives and businesses dealing with complex challenges. Automation could be the answer to some of these difficulties. Next year, UK manufacturers and companies across all sectors could find themselves realising their full potential and experiencing tangible growth, if they are able to identify areas of improvement and address them with the help of cleverly implemented robotics.

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