According to a recent survey, only 16% of UK manufacturing firms classed as small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) have started to use robots. With only 13% saying they plan to start using robots in the near future, this leaves over 70% of small UK manufacturers with no plans to introduce robots into their workforce.
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Is the UK Missing Out on Robot Benefits?
Introducing robots to industrial processes can create significant advantages for businesses in nearly every sector, and barriers to entry in terms of cost, technical expertise, and long-term servicing and software support are being lowered every year.
Recent analysis from robotics services firm HowToRobot predicts that manufacturing SMEs in particular, can now access once experimental robot technologies that just a few years ago would have been prohibitively expensive.
The research found that robots could represent a feasible option for over half of UK SMEs as a result of global trends in so-called “proven robotics,” a new approach that seeks to reduce both costs and complexity in robot implementation projects.
Analysts described three main causes behind this potential rise in robot adoption:
- Maturity in robot technology development
- Falling prices for robot technology
- Increasing supply and availability of suppliers
Søren Peters, HowToRobot’s CEO, said:
“Many new robot technologies have reached a level of maturity and price point where they can be standardized, meaning lower cost and quicker implementation. SMEs can now adopt these technologies on a larger scale.”
New technologies that are now becoming commercially available include autonomous mobile robots that can move freely around their workspace and alongside humans and which have flexibility built in to take on a range of logistical tasks.
Similarly, pick and place robot technologies that used to be the sole domain of extremely large warehousing and supply operations are now advanced enough to work with the smaller batches and quantities that make up SMEs’ bread and butter.
Collaborative robots – those that are designed to safely work alongside humans in the same place at the same time – are also coming to maturity, making robot assistance much more accessible for a wider range of industrial processes.
But many businesses are still capitalizing on these technological advances. Peters said:
“Very few businesses are fully aware of what’s available in the market today, hence the same solutions are often reinvented through expensive and time-consuming development projects.”
What Do SMEs Think of Robotics?
In another survey, commissioned by a UK government body, small business owners were asked about changes they expected in their business in the next 10 to 15 years.
Four out of five businesses surveyed said they expect to use robots or some kind of artificial intelligence (AI) by 2035.
Just over a third said robots would be used for tidying, 39% said they would perform hazardous tasks, and 46% said they would do entertainment. Less than a third expected robots to manufacture new products.
Fflur Lawton, a spokesman for the government body carrying out the research, said:
How businesses operate day to day is changing and the advancement in Robotics and AI is an exciting prospect for many.”
New Project to Make Robots More Accessible for UK SMEs
A new project has been launched by the UK’s Loughborough University to make it much easier to hire, deploy, maintain, and adapt robots for UK SMEs.
The Loughborough Intelligent Automation Centre will host the three year initiative, funded to £1.4 million ($1.7 million), named Industrial Robots as a Services (IRaaS) – Resilient and responsive manufacturing systems enabled by rapidly deployable mobile robots.
Robots as a service (RaaS) is a new business model based on the everything as a service movement that is based on software as a service (SaaS) concepts of subscription fees, no upfront costs, and high-quality services.
It is envisioned that switching to RaaS business models will increase the adoption of robotics technologies across the industry, but especially for SMEs, startups, and manufacturers operating in dynamic and changing markets.
But the present crop of RaaS offerings tends to favor supply chain and logistics operations, where robot needs are less complicated and easier to translate between different business settings.
Manufacturing equipment, on the other hand, tends to be highly specialized and is often integrated with the entire manufacturing system to ensure high throughput rates. For RaaS to work in this sector, robots will need to be developed that are fairly cheap, flexible, and simple to repurpose and redeploy to suit changing needs.
Dr. Niels Lohse, director of Loughborough Intelligent Automation Centre, said:
Covid-19 has highlighted how recent large-scale disruptions can de-stabilise workforces and damage productivity. Automation will have a key role in safeguarding UK manufacturing. More responsive automation will provide better adaptability to both changing consumer needs and resource availability, maintaining the viability of onshore production, protecting jobs, and securing UK supply chains.”
To achieve these important aims, the initiative will undertake a number of strategic and ambitious objectives.
Research will make it easier to deploy and redeploy automation systems in a matter of minutes. It will also enable more collaborative teams of robots and humans to work together on complex tasks efficiently.
Robot systems’ contextual awareness and sensor capacity will have to be improved to achieve this. Similarly, responsiveness and resilience in manufacturing systems have to be improved.
The researchers are committed to testing and validating the outcomes of this project in real-life manufacturing facilities and will share and disseminate its learnings widely with the UK manufacturing sector to maximize positive outcomes for the UK economy.
References and Further Reading
16% of UK SME Manufacturing Businesses Have Adopted Robots. (2019) [Online] Business News Wales. Available at: https://businessnewswales.com/16-of-uk-sme-manufacturing-businesses-have-adopted-robots/
Findlay, K. (2022). The robots are coming – SMEs predict more hands-on AI in the workplace. [Online] Press and Journal. Available at: https://www.pressandjournal.co.uk/fp/business/scotland-business/4071899/the-robots-are-coming-smes-predict-more-hands-on-ai-in-the-workplace
New Analysis: Mass Robot Potential for US Manufacturing SMEs in Next 3 Years. (2021) [Online] Automation.com. Available at: https://www.automation.com/en-us/articles/october-2021/new-analysis-mass-robot-us-manufacturing-smes
SMEs looking to the future with robots and artificial intelligence. (2022) [Online] Smart Energy GB. Available at: https://www.smartenergygb.org/resource-centre/press-centre/smes-looking-to-the-future-with-robots-and-artificial-intelligence
Warzynski, P. (2021).Researchers aim to make robots more accessible to small and medium-sized businesses with new £1.4m project. [Online] Loughborough University. Available at: https://www.lboro.ac.uk/news-events/news/2021/june/new-project-will-boost-manufacturing-robots-smes/