In Conversation with Mike Wilson

Automation is a positive cycle

The British manufacturing industry is heading in the right direction, according to Mike Wilson, MD of KUKA UK & Ireland and Chairman of BARA, who recently visited CNC Robotics in Aintree and had a conversation with Madina Barker,  owner/director, CNC Robotics about the most pressing challenges facing manufacturers today.

Mike Wilson and Madina Barker

Awareness is improving, but there’s work to be done

As one of the leading automation solutions providers in the world, KUKA represents the cutting edge of the industry. Recent advancements in digital technologies through Industry 4.0 have made getting robots into the factory easier than ever and Mike is encouraged by the recent increase in interest by manufacturers in automation, saying “manufacturers are starting to generate interest in bringing in more robotics and automation, but a lot of them are struggling because they don’t really know where to start and how to go about it.”

As it stands, Britain is a long way behind its major competitors. The International Federation of Robotics published data on robot density and the UK is currently 22nd in the world, whereas we are the 9th largest manufacturing nation. Even so, Mike says “there are reasons to be positive as many of the British manufacturers we work with are starting to recognize that they need to improve productivity.”

There’s a labour shortage – not a job shortage

A lot of the manufacturers who contact robotic solutions providers are struggling to find people. Mike attributes this to recent changes in the workforce, saying “a few years ago, there was an influx of workers, from Eastern Europe for example. Britain was an attractive place and they came for work, bringing skills with them. Now that situation has changed.”

Brexit seems has been a major influence, Mike thinks, saying “we [the UK] are starting to see people leave and that has generated a labour shortage. Many businesses are starting to realise there is no longer a readily available labour pool. In order to solve this issue, we must find alternative ways of manufacturing. Robotics and automation are an obvious solution to this problem.”

Robots will create better jobs

Typically, robots are used for dull, dirty and dangerous jobs. “Manufacturers,” notes Mike “should be using robots where robots are best suited and using people where human skills have value. If somebody is working like a robot then a robot should be doing the work. There are lots of opportunities to use people more effectively.”

Throughout his years of experience, Mike has seen countless businesses put robots in and expand as a result. “Jobs don’t disappear when robots come in. Companies get more competitive, they gain more business, they grow and employ more people. These new jobs are better paid and more interesting. It’s a win-win for everybody.”

Automation can appear complicated, but help is out there

Acknowledging that “robotics and automation can initially appear complicated,” Mike says, “if it’s a company’s first foray into automation, we must acknowledge that it can appear to be a steep learning curve. However, robotic suppliers like KUKA and systems integrators like CNC Robotics are here to help manufacturers along their entire automation journey.”

“The key,” according to Mike, “is to invite people to come walk around the factory floor and begin by identifying opportunities for automation. People need to start on simple jobs. If you put in a simple system, you can develop your internal expertise, prove the system works and then move onto the more complicated jobs.”

The automotive industry – a success story to learn from

There are precedents we can follow, though. Mike points to the automotive industry, saying “the car industry automated years ago and has been very successful. When a new car plant is built, it’s not a question of if robots will be used, it’s how many. The rest of the manufacturing industry isn’t there yet but is ready to begin on the journey. New technology is easier to use and less expensive, so automation isn’t as risky as some manufacturers still perceive it to be.”

Change is happening, but it needs to be quicker

Mike credits the UK’s lack of pace to a “make do and mend” mindset in the UK. “Some of this is down to our attitude towards long-term investment. Countries like Germany don’t look at investments over one year, they think ten years ahead and how they’re going to get there. The danger of thinking short term is that you don’t spend money, you don’t invest, and you only survive another year. The danger we face is falling behind and becoming less competitive.”

If in doubt, start simple

British manufacturers are waking up to the fact that we need to address some serious problems, including low productivity, lack of automation and an impending skills gap. “The best thing to do,” concludes Mike “is to start with a simple process then upscale. If you automate in bite-sized chunks, that has knock-on effects, the workforce becomes more efficient and productive, that productivity then leads to more savings which pays for the next round of investments. Automation is a positive cycle.”



Further information

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