Do we ignore innovation or get ahead and shape it?

With Google preparing a fleet of driverless cars, Amazon planning to use drones for deliveries and Uber developing flying taxi trips, the future Sci-Fi promised is starting to become reality. The rise of robots and automation technology is changing every aspect of our lives and soon will transform all sectors from agriculture to healthcare.

Technological advances continue to see the automation of tasks which will significantly change the way we work and live, and the future success across all industries will be defined by the ability of UK firms to adapt their infrastructure and exploit related technologies. The fourth industrial revolution is here, but are we prepared for it?

All economists agree that the anticipated automation changes will be of a scale and scope that is unprecedented but the question remains will the increase of robots revitalise Britain’s industrial heartlands? or will it create mass unemployment?

Each time a new wave of technology is rolled out, there are fears that employees will be unable to find alternative work. There is no historical evidence of technology being detrimental to overall employment levels, indeed history shows that technological changes create jobs rather than destroying them.  This latest development of robotics is comparable with the large-scale use of IT. The increase of computers within organisations did make many repetitive jobs redundant – such as the switchboard operator or the typing pool – but all analysis shows that the implementation of IT systems have increased employment across the globe and traditional roles have morphed into new requirements. People who work in industries where there has been significant increase in automation remain employed but their roles have changed to be more skilled.

Robots can perform tasks that humans cannot do, they can work in challenging conditions and hazardous areas with consistent precision. As robots can take away the repetitive tasks which allow employees to be upskilled there is a strong argument that workers become more valuable and highly paid because the intelligence is in the programming and managing of robotic systems.

And yet across manufacturing, the UK continues to fall well behind other major nations in terms of output. Why?  Because historically only large companies have embedded automation into their production processes whilst SMEs account for 70% of manufacturers. The low adoption rate for installing industrial robots in small UK businesses means productivity has been limited to the increase in human resources. General industry needs to modernise, embrace new technologies and increase productivity in order to improve efficiencies and become more competitive.

According to the British Automation and Robot Association (BARA), there are just 71 robots per 10,000 employees in the UK, versus 189 in USA, 309 in Germany and 631 in Korea. The UK has the lowest density of robots to employees in the EU.  Robot density in German manufacturing is the third highest worldwide, and all analysis shows that the increase in automation has not reduced employment figures, but that new tasks have been created for the existing workforce as they work alongside machines.

The International Federation of Robotics predict that more than 3 million industrial robots will be used in factories around the world by 2020. With more machines deployed in British industry over the coming years, the demand for qualified engineers able to work closely with the next generation of robotics is set to grow. These technological changes mean that targeted training and educating young people in the right skills is more important than ever. The fast-moving development and creation of new jobs to support automation makes it a challenge for many companies and educational institutions to predict both medium and long term needs and according to the Manpower Group, 65% of jobs that today’s children will perform do yet exist!

So the future problem automation poses is not disappearing jobs, but unfilled job openings due to lack of matching skills. Lack of qualified employees will hold back growth, not lack of jobs and opportunities. The Government’s Industrial Strategy urges the setting up of a world class technical education system, with a plan to spend an additional £400m on maths, digital and technical education. The aim of the strategy is that by 2030 the UK will have transformed productivity and earning power, to become one of the world’s most innovative economies.

Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) are vital to the economic future of the UK, and STEM skills are more in demand than ever in the work place. Closing the skills gap and adapting the education system to focus on creativity and STEM subjects will be key if the UK wants to reposition itself.  Schools and collegesneed to continue to work with industry to ensure formal education is directed towards supplying specific ‘in demand skills’ rather than outdated modules. A PWC report in 2017, found that only 5% of people between 16-24 are currently employed in STEM industries.Companies need to embrace technology-based learning programmes to ensure existing workers can continuously up-skill and have satisfying and rewarding careers.

With this in mind, we have developed a Robotics Training Academy which is designed to equip young people with the skills to install, operate and repair these complex machines of today and the future.It is our aim to work with education establishments to adapt the curriculum to best reflect the needs of industry, to give insight and to inspire young people in technology and to encourage proactive learning.

The skills deficit is just one challenge for UK firms competing on the global stage, investing in automation can transform the output of manufacturers and robots are now cheaper and easier to manage. Customer demand for greater product variety is rising and despite uncertainty surrounding the Brexit negotiations, manufacturers have an opportunity to repurpose production facilities and embrace the use of automation. They can take advantage of and service consumer needs within the UK and at the same time be more productive and profitable. The potential benefits can’t be underestimated, according a Barclays report, if the UK became as automated as the other G7 countries it could boost UK productivity by as much as 22%… now that is an exciting proposition!

Madina Barker

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