Satisfying the supply versus demand balance in any service industry is a mammoth task at the best of times. But when that supply chain is compromised, as the handling element within an operation is impacted, lack of throughput can be catastrophic to a business.

If C-19 has taught manufacturers anything, it is that whilst a manual workforce might in some instances be cheaper, it is susceptible to external hazards which can immobilize an operation at the drop of a hat. Such vulnerabilities have therefore encouraged business owners to re-evaluate how automation and robotics can supplement their operational processes, supporting output continuity, and business longevity.

The UK has consistently fallen behind its European competitors in the adoption of automated processes, the reason? Simply an unwillingness to invest, a worrying statistic supported by a 3% drop in robot installations in 2018. So, have attitudes changed in view of C-19? We’d certainly like to think so, though as the dust settles it is becoming apparent that manufacturing as we know it, shall never be the same again.

Other factors that are discouraging manufacturers from investing in automated technology include an unwillingness to change production processes. A startling statistic when the alternative is, as the result of a reluctance to invest, potential liquidation when demand cannot be met as supply chains fail. This trend could lend itself to a lack of understanding of the solutions and applications that are currently available, that are designed to fit within an existing operational footprint. Collaborative robots are a fine example of just how automation can be adopted without the need for expensive footprint reconfigurations. These robot models can also address the current issues surrounding social distancing. Gone are the days of operators stood shoulder to shoulder on a production line, and this, a key consideration for manufacturers who are ironically having to change production processes. Designed to work safely and efficiently alongside their human counterparts, some collaborative models are HRC compatible (human robot collaboration).

Standard cells are also readily available. These compact operating systems have relatively small operational footprints and afford minimal installation disruption, meaning they can be easily integrated into existing operations, such as conveyor systems, for immediate commissioning. Such cells are a cost-effective alternative to large scale robotic applications and systems, that require a significant amount of operational restructuring, such as large Tier 1 turn key solutions. Manufacturers should be aware of the benefits of standard cells, as an operational add-on, such as end of line. Many logistics and picking, packing and palletizing lines require a lot of A to B product placement. Consider palletizing applications. Whilst these can be undertaken through manual means, who wants a job doing just that, eight hours a day, six days a week? And we should also factor into that consideration, what happens when that manual element is sick. Struck down by a virus, for example? Down time shall certainly feature and consider the cost implications of paying someone sick leave, and another to undertake the task at hand. Accuracy of task execution is also imperative within an end of line application. Mishandling of products i.e. mis-stacking, inconsistency of product placement etc. can lead to damages and costly returns.

One interesting factor that spurred a reluctance to invest in automated processes, was a reliance upon existing machinery and a concern that embracing automation could lead to industrial action. There currently exists a skills gap within the UK manufacturing sector. The UK has an exceptionally established, but ageing workforce. The skills these individuals possess make them extremely desirable as skilled employees. But the key here is the gap. Our millennials who are now in higher education and looking towards their futures don’t want to pursue careers or training in traditional crafts and/or industries such as welding or forging. Globally we are operating within the digital age. Students these days want to learn about coding, robotics, and computers. In 2018/19 engineering, and computer sciences were the second and fourth most popular university course applied for in the UK (87,000 and 78,940 respectively). Business must adopt automated technology to future proof themselves. Why? Post graduates shall be looking for dynamic, innovative and progressive employers who embrace technology, thus making themselves more attractive to potential apprentices, employees etc. If a business is reluctant to invest in automated technology, but still wants to support and ageing workforce, what happens when those operators retire? The chances are that there shall be so few skilled candidates, they shall be exceptionally expensive, and able to attract the highest of salaries because of the skills they possess. So, whilst a vacant position exists, the task at hand is not being undertaken and a gap within your supply chain now exists – you’ve a serious problem.

The simple answer to all conundrums is to automate, to protect the heritage that is associated with manufacturing in the UK. Whilst the execution of some tasks might be completed by robots, the processes remain the same, and manufacturing can continue as businesses are convinced of the value of automation. Until that time, another pandemic could visit our shores and again cause widespread operational disruption. Will those who failed to see the value in automation survive…?