How can we secure the future of automation? Education, expertise and sustainability

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By Oliver Selby, Head of Sales at FANUC UK

According to ONS data[1], almost one fifth of all workers in the UK manufacturing industry is aged 55 or over. Less than 10% are aged between 16 and 24. Over the next decade, 20% of the workforce will retire, taking with them years of engineering and manufacturing expertise.

If UK manufacturing is to remain internationally competitive, we need to prioritise the development of a skilled pipeline – that is, people who can design, build, programme, integrate, operate and maintain manufacturing technologies. We also need to heavily embrace automation as a route to countering unskilled personnel shortages and increasing productivity.

Despite having a strong manufacturing industry, the UK lags behind other industrialised nations in its uptake of automation. According to the International Federation of Robotics’ 2022 report, robot density in the UK manufacturing industry was 111 robots per 10,000 employees in 2021, which is very low for a Western European country (Germany, in comparison, has 397 per 10,000 employees).

I believe that together, investment in education and expertise can accelerate our adoption of automation and go a long way towards addressing the problems facing UK manufacturing.

Industry-relevant qualifications for Gen Zs

FANUC firmly believes that education is the key to securing and nurturing a pipeline of new manufacturing talent. The content of university degrees is already changing to become more industry related, and school leavers now have the option of studying for degrees such as an MSc in Artificial Intelligence and Robotics and a BEng in Robotic Engineering. However, there are still only 30 universities in the UK offering undergraduate courses in robotics and automation. In addition to this, we can see a widening gap in the provision of post-GCSE technical education, where there is a need for more hands-on training in real life engineering settings.

We are deeply committed to supporting automation education at lower foundation level through both our Training Academy and the delivery of robotic equipment to training locations such as schools and technical colleges. In the last 12 months, we have supplied more than 25 robots to learning centres in the UK to support current and future education requirements.

Our Training Academy at our Coventry HQ is currently undergoing independent validation, after which FANUC UK will become one of the first automation companies to offer accredited courses that can feed into mainstream education, with credits obtained against a particular skill. Students will gain valuable hands-on experience in areas such as operating, programming, troubleshooting and integrating robots whilst securing credits towards their qualifications. This industry-led methodology will greatly benefit the new T-Level awards, which have been designed to try and solve the ever-growing skills gap conundrum.

This new engagement between education and industry, which will launch in the UK in the coming months, will mirror the US model where FANUC has been blazing a trail in the roll-out of certified education programmes for robotics and automation. It is hoped that fostering a close, mutually beneficial cooperation between industry and education providers will be the key to the success of the new T-Level system and be precisely the direct intervention we need to attract younger people to manufacturing.

Building in-house automation resource

But attracting new blood to the industry is just one part of the challenge. Developing that talent into real industry expertise that becomes a source of competitive advantage is equally important. And this is what investment in automation is really about – not just buying a robot and waiting for it to pay back in the traditional labour-saving sense but establishing automation as a core function within business models.

There are a number of benefits to building strong in-house automation capabilities. As well as reducing reliance on third parties, this approach supports staff retention and promotes innovation from the inside. Companies can identify where the opportunities lie within their own businesses, understand how automation can enhance their facilities and use it to increase their productivity levels; something which the UK currently struggles with on the international stage (a German worker is around 30% an hour more productive than a UK worker).

This trend is already starting to play out in industries such as automotive production and the distribution and e-commerce fulfilment sector, where high-profile businesses are reaping the rewards of building internal automation teams. As the UK adopts more robotics and automation across different facets of industry and manufacturing, our prediction is that more companies will look at establishing their own internal automation teams.

Demonstrating our sustainability credentials

As manufacturing companies embark on net zero roadmaps to meet the Government’s 2050 ambitions, sustainability is higher than ever on the agenda. Therefore, if automation is to play a key role in addressing the labour crisis, it needs to demonstrate that it represents a sustainable solution and can feed into net zero efforts.

In this respect, FANUC is a vanguard. We have been making our own servo drives for over 50 years and have now reached the point where we have achieved best-in-class energy efficiency. For example, our ROBOSHOT series of electric injection moulding machines uses up to 70% less energy than hydraulic machines and up to 20% less than other electric machines, thanks to servo technology and intelligent power regeneration capabilities.

FANUC also takes a circularity-driven approach to innovation and after-sales care in order to maximise resource use by prolonging the useful life of equipment. As a company, we operate a lifetime promise that as long as a machine is still in service, we will provide customers with original spare parts for a minimum of 25 years. As well as this long-standing commitment, our research and development team focuses on improving the lifespan of our products to reduce waste. One example is our CRX Collaborative Robot – with a heritage of nearly one million industrial robots, FANUC has designed the CRX to outlast its competition, with very minimal maintenance needed across its lifespan.

Automation systems: agents for change

Automation presents a solution to several challenges facing manufacturers today, from unskilled labour shortages and increasing product quality to waste reduction. However, realising its potential will require a serious joint commitment by the manufacturing and automation communities to build skills and nurture the next generation of engineers. Here at FANUC UK, we are determined to be a key driving force for change.