Research by the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) into the world robotics market raises interesting questions about their use in the UK. In the table of robot density per 10,000 workers by country, the UK ranks only 22nd worldwide. Moreover, fifteen of the countries ahead of the UK are in Europe.
The UK is one of the world’s ninth-largest manufacturers, so when production robot installations in most industrialised nations are increasing, why are they falling here, even from a low starting point? Do we know something they do not, or is UK manufacturing missing an opportunity to improve productivity and competitiveness?
According to the British Automation and Robot Association (BARA), the UK has been adding robot automation at a lower rate than our main competitors in all manufacturing sectors outside of automotive. They suggest that over time the UK has attracted workers from other countries, with businesses preferring to hire people rather than invest in capital equipment.
What do the numbers mean?
It is important to put the numbers into perspective otherwise they are easy to dismiss. In the case of robot use, we focus on European countries as they are like the UK.
The IFM report considers three factors. First, the existing installed base, second the number of new installations per year, and finally the robot density. Robot density is the number of operational production robots relative to the number of workers. It allows a comparison between countries with different economic sizes.
European robot market 2019
The European installed base for 2019 was up 7% at 580,000 units. Of these, Germany is the main user with 221,500 units. This is three times greater than Italy with 74,400 units and five times greater than France with 42,000 units). More significant is that this is about ten times the UK stock of 21,700 units.
Annual robot sales are a sign of current manufacturing trends. Within Europe, the largest number of installations in Germany with about 20,500 new robot installs. This is 23% below the previous record year but similar to earlier years. Sales in Italy increased by 13% to 11,000 units with France up by 15% with 6,700 units, and the Netherlands increased by 8%. In contrast, robot sales in the UK were 2000 units, a fall of 16% from an already low level.
Whilst sales to the automotive industries have an impact, they are often smaller numbers of large value robots used for welding and material handling. This becomes clear when reviewing the robot densities by country, where Europe has the most automated production robots.
The density of production robots by region
By robot density, the world’s top ten most automated countries by robot use are. Singapore (1), South Korea (2), Japan (3), Germany (4), Sweden (5), Denmark (6), Hong Kong (7), Chinese Taipei (8), USA (9) and Belgium/Luxemburg (10). Nine other European operators feature higher robot densities than the UK. They include Italy, Netherlands, Spain, Austria, France, Slovakia, Switzerland, Slovenia and Finland.
A UK user survey by SWMAS finds production robots improve quality and repeatability and lower operating costs. Others that they speed up production and improve safety. Applications range from machine loading to assembly, cutting, painting, glueing, testing and more. Despite them becoming easier to use and integrate into production processes, many potential users are reluctant to make this step.
Automation enables manufacturers to retain production in developed economies without sacrificing cost-efficiency. The range of industrial robots continues to expand from caged types for large payloads to collaborative robots (cobots).
Although it is still in its infancy, the market uptake for cobots is growing fast (11%). From the outset, cobot design was for use near humans. They are easy to use in a wide range of tasks yet achieve repeat accuracy of sub-3 microns and simple control by local staff.
Cobots are harmless to human operators as they adapt their speed and acceleration when sensing operators are close. This means humans can work in safety alongside collaborative robots in production areas, even without protective barriers.
There are many cobot features available that improve and simplify their integration into manufacturing systems. For example, vision systems using artificial intelligence reduce the need for product orientation in complex multi-workpiece production. Longer service intervals, auto-tuning, and preventative maintenance diagnostics improve productivity, and the use of digital twins improves setup and programming. This also allows users to visualise and prove their operation without a live system.
Prices for industrial robots are less than the annual cost of a worker and do not need to socially distance. Furthermore, tasks that are repetitive or that operators find unpleasant are a good place to start, and help is close at hand.