Robotics and automation: what lies ahead?

28 May, 2024

author avatar
Robotics and automation: what lies ahead?

The UK is the 8th largest manufacturing nation, however, the UK comes in at number 25 on the robot density league table. What are the barriers to adoption and what opportunities does robotics and automation open up?

Joined by Mike Wilson from Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC), our host Alex Edwards leads the conversation on the current state of robotics and automation in the UK, changing perspectives, and emerging technologies on the horizon.


  • What is the current state of robotics and automation in the UK? (00:52)
  • What is preventing adoption in the UK? (02:57)
  • What is the impact of automation and robotics adoption? (05:53)
  • How are the MTC supporting adoption and education? (08:00)
  • Has there been a cultural shift in perspectives due to labour and skills shortages? (10:48)
  • How important is education to facilitate adoption? (12:38)
  • Is it easier for SMEs, compared to larger enterprises, to adopt the technology? (17:39)
  • How can technology support with recruiting younger generations? (21:36)
  • What emerging technologies should we be excited about? ? (25:05)

The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of any entities they represent or Protolabs.

Items referenced in this episode:

MTC Robotics

→ MTC Robotics & Automation Conference

→ MACH Automation & Robotics Knowledge Hub

UK Automation Forum

Never miss an episode!

Register to be notified when each episode goes live and keep up to date with our latest news.

Subscribe here

Episode transcript

Alex Edwards 00:05

Hello and welcome to the Protolabs inspirON exchange podcast, the show for engineers and designers to connect with industry leaders and academics to learn more about what's happening in the industry, how to innovate, and the opportunities that lie ahead.

Today, I’d like to focus on robotics and automation. I’m joined by Mike Wilson, Chief Automation Officer at The Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC), Chair of the UK Automation Forum, and a Director of the Manufacturing Technologies Association. With over 40 years of experience in the application of automation and robotics into manufacturing. Great to have you on the show today Mike!


Mike Wilson 00:41

Thank you Alex.


Alex Edwards 00:43

So let’s jump right in, in your opinion what is the current state of robotics and automation within the UK?


Mike Wilson 00:52

We have a number of challenges, the UK has not been historically one of the leaders in terms of the adoption of robotic technologies. To be fair, we’re currently 25th on the Robot Density league table, which is a relevant measure because it’s the number of robots per 10,000 workers, so it enables us to have a good comparison for how we are doing against our major competitors around the world. We’re actually, as I said, 25th, despite being the 8th largest manufacturing nation. So we are behind in terms of what we are doing compared with our major competitors.


Alex Edwards 01:35

That’s quite surprising. We are 25th but as you said, we’re 8th in terms of manufacturing but then there’s quite a bit of a gap there. Who are we falling behind too? Who are those other 24 leading the way?


Mike Wilson 01:54

Well they are all of our major competitors. I suppose you’d expect to see countries like Germany, Japan, and South Korea being ahead of us, but we’re also behind countries like Denmark which I find quite surprising. Also, you know, all of our major European countries, and the reason I mentioned Denmark in particular is I think most people know the that the automotive sector is a leading user of robots and they also know that the electronics sector is now using lots of robots as well. So China is now one of the leaders in terms of the adoption of robots and they are installing more robots than any other country in the world. But I mentioned Denmark in particular because Denmark doesn’t have an automotive sector and it doesn’t have an electronics sector. They’ve put all their robots into more general industry; medical devices, food manufacturing, and so on. It just goes to show what can be done if we in the UK decide that we want to do it.


Alex Edwards 02:57

Yeah that’s really surprising. I know there are 24 ahead but I wasn’t expecting Denmark to one of the ones that you pulled out then. It’s interesting to hear that they’re diversifying into some of the non-typical sectors that you’d expect to see using robotic technology.

So what do you think is preventing us from being further up that table? What challenges around implementation are we facing, particularly within the UK?


Mike Wilson 03:23

There are a number of issues, but I think the biggest one is probably largely around culture. We have a culture really where we under invest in capital equipment in our manufacturing sectors, not just robots but all forms of capital equipment, and robotics is just a consequence of that. There’s a report that I particularly like to quote which was produced by the All-Party Parliamentary Manufacturing Group, so a cross party group in the Houses of Parliament and it was produced about 8-9 years ago now, but they looked at the culture of UK manufacturing and they deliberately called that report Making Good. I like to summarise the output of that report in a couple of sentences, which basically says that in the UK we’re very proud that we keep all of our old machines running, whereas in Germany they’re very proud that they buy new ones. I’ve said that lots of times over the last 7-8 years at conferences and so on, and I get lots of smiles and nods, and I’ve never had anybody disagree. And I think that’s kind of the challenge, we don’t invest in the latest equipment. There are other issues, we tend to apply very short return on investment criteria which makes it difficult to justify the purchase of equipment. When the Eastern European countries joined the European Union, we were one of the European countries that allowed complete free movement of labour and as a consequence we brought in a lot of workers from Eastern Europe and they did a great job, and I’m not saying they weren’t useful, that they didn’t add value, but what it did mean is that we were able to bring people in to do jobs whereas other countries in Europe - Germany, Italy, France, etc. - didn’t have that same kind of freedom and they had to automate rather than bringing people in. So there are a number of factors that have got us to this position where we are now significantly behind in terms of the adoption of robot technology and as a consequence of that, we’re struggling in terms of productivity. Our productivity is lower than most of our major competitors and unless we do something about that, we’re going to struggle to compete on world markets going forward.


Alex Edwards 05:53

In terms of that, productivity and efficiency, is that the primary area where you see automation and robotics can make an impact?


Mike Wilson 06:04

It’s certainly an area where robotics will have a significant impact on our industries. Historically, that’s how most of the robot businesses have been promoting robots, in that you can improve productivity, you can improve the utilisation of other machines that you’ve got by using automation to load and unload those machines. Automation is consistent, you get consistent quality, you reduce re-work, reduce scrap, and so on. Basically you get more out of what you put in. But the real challenge I think was that that message didn’t quite get home in terms of UK manufacturing, they were using people to undertake a lot of tasks and I think the situation has now changed. Where we are currently, so issues for example like the Covid-19 pandemic leading to a lot of people retiring rather than coming back to work, Brexit reducing the availability of labour with a lot of our Eastern European workers now having gone back to their home countries for example, we now suffer in terms of a labour availability challenge. There are something like, based on what MAKE UK tell us, 70,000 vacancies throughout UK manufacturing and there are lots of other vacancies in lots of other industry sectors as well and therefore businesses now can’t just go out and hire people, they’ve got to look at alternative ways of making things and so they’re now starting to look at automation as an alternative to those people that they can no longer get. That’s probably become the biggest driving factor rather than improving or making us more productive, it’s how do we just continue to operate and make what we currently make.


Alex Edwards 08:00

So I suppose it’s almost a perfect time for you at MTC and the work that you do there, what types of support are you providing? Is it around adoption and implementation of the technology or is it more educating people how they should be using the technology, or is it a bit of both?


Mike Wilson 08:22

Well it’s those and others to be honest. So yes, one of our key activities is helping those businesses, particularly SMEs where they’ve not utilised this kind of technology before, helping them both develop their skills but also to help them to procure the right kind of solutions. It’s like buying any form of capital equipment, if you’ve not done it before then you can make mistakes and we at the MTC are there to try and help people avoid making those mistakes. As you mentioned in the introduction, I’ve been doing this for 40 years and yes, I’ve made an awful lot of mistakes in my time. Hopefully I’ve learnt from a lot of those and now I want to pass on that knowledge to SME’s so that they don’t make those kind of mistakes, so they automate the right kinds of applications, they buy from the right suppliers to suit their needs, and most importantly they learn how to specify what it is they want to buy because a lot of businesses when they look at automation, they don’t specify in detail what it is they want and if you don’t do that, you don’t necessarily get the answer that you’re expecting. So yes, we do an awful lot in terms of trying to help SMEs buy the right kind of equipment, the right kinds of solutions. We also provide training through apprenticeships and also short courses so that we can make people better able to adopt these kind of technologies. We also undertake some R&D type activities, so we do also work on challenges where there might not be a commercially available solution, so if somebody wants to automate a particular task and they can’t buy that currently in the marketplace today we can, through our R&D activities, develop those solutions and once we’ve done that, we feed it back into the marketplace so that the system’s integrators and the equipment vendors can deliver those solutions to the industry. So fundamentally it’s all about trying to help businesses use more automation, get the benefits of automation, and we’re there to try and facilitate that as best as we can.


Alex Edwards 10:48

I know that you mentioned earlier that there’s more of a necessity now with the lack of labour shortages and the skills shortage, are you noticing that culturally there’s a little bit more of an appetite for it? Are you finding that when you’re having these conversations that people are a little bit more aware or if they’re not aware they’re a little bit further down the decision-making process?


Mike Wilson 11:16

Yeah definitely, I think people are a lot more receptive to it now. Maybe they’ve got to that position, not necessarily because they’ve appreciated that it’s a valuable investment, but because they’re being pushed into it to some extent because they’ve got gaps in the workforce and to me, it’s all about ultimately using the workforce that you’ve got as productively as possible. So you’ve got people that are literally just moving things around, those are the kind of tasks that can be automated and we can use the people that we’ve got where their skills are going to add value to the product. It’s also related to skills shortages because, for example, welders are very difficult to get hold of these days and therefore if you’ve got welders use them where you really do need their skills on the one-off jobs, the more complicated jobs, and use automation where you can programme the robots to do the more repetitive tasks. So it is ultimately about using the labour that you’ve got more efficiently to give them more interesting jobs, probably pay them more as well, but also then use automation to do the more repetitive, the mundane, the dirty, the dangerous tasks, the kind of things that people shouldn’t be doing anymore.


Alex Edwards 12:38

Yeah it’s a really interesting point isn’t it? It’s about making people aware and educating them, even what you just mentioned there to me, there were things I hadn’t considered. So as part of that educational programme, I know the idea is to get in front of as many people as you can and speak to as many people as you can, so by attending events like MACH which you are at, aren’t you? And I know that you run a series of conferences and workshops throughout the year, so how important is that sort of educational piece as this early stage?


Mike Wilson 13:10

It really is key because I think a lot of people out there, particularly SMEs, they kind of have a perception, so they think the technologies are still very complicated, very expensive and really those things are no longer true. It is very applicable to almost every business in the UK, so we try very hard to spread that message out there and also to demonstrate that support is available. So for example, yes we are at MACH and we’re working with the operators of MACH, the Manufacturing Technologies Association (MTA), and we’re running a Automation Robotics Knowledge Hub within the show where we will be demonstrating some typical applications that could be used within a machining or an engineering facility. One of them for example is an old machine tool, we’re going to have a robot there loading and unloading that machine tool and the purpose of that really is to demonstrate that you can put robots on old machinery, it doesn’t have to be new equipment. So the purpose of this hub is to show some typical examples and then we’re there to then provide advice to the visitors and we’re able to signpost them to the equipment providers that are in MACH or outside the show.

Similarly, we run a number of events throughout the year, so we have a Robotics and Automation conference taking place in May where we will have a number of SME’s who have undertaken automation projects and they will be explaining to the audience the barriers that they had, the lessons they learned, and basically how they went about it. These just ordinary business that been through this journey and what we’re trying to do is spread that message, get more SMEs engaged, get more SMEs doing it, and help them where we can because we just want to make UK manufacturing as productive, as competitive, as possible.


Alex Edwards 15:20

Yeah it’s really interesting isn’t it that representation piece, we were having a conversation just a few weeks ago around the whole skills challenge that’s out there and that potential apprentices need to see other apprentices or people in and around their age in order to relate to them and understand it. I suppose it’s similar here with SMEs, the more that they see this technology being used by others like them it’s going to help with adoption.


Mike Wilson 15:55

I completely agree that’s why we try and encourage some of the people either that we work with or people that we know, so one of the speakers for example that we’re going to have in May is the MD of Contracts Engineering, which is a relatively small subcontract fabricator in Kent and they’re now installing their third robot. They’ve been through that journey and Troy Barratt the MD will be very honest and he’ll say the first one was by far the most difficult, but having done the first one it then became much easier to move on to two and three. One of the other speakers we have is Jonathan Thacker from Walsall Wheelbarrow, yes they still make wheelbarrows in the UK, and that’s the kind of thing a lot of people would expect to have been offshored years ago but they’re doing it very competitively and they started putting robots in I think almost 10 years ago now, and now they’ve got more than 20 robots in the factory making wheelbarrows and they’ve been very productive and it’s enabled the business to remain in the UK, to compete in the UK and to be successful. These are the kind of stories that we want to share to demonstrate these are just typical businesses, they’re not high-tech businesses, they weren’t equipped with lots of degree-qualified Engineers that could implement this technology, these are just ordinary businesses with their own workforce and their workforce are upskilling to take on this technology and do it.


Alex Edwards 17:39

It’s really interesting, one of the points I wanted to discuss today was around SMEs particularly and how they can leverage automation and robotics and other technology rather than just the larger, more established players within the industry. I know you’ve mentioned there, wheelbarrow manufacturing and similar businesses like that you don’t necessarily think there will be robotics on the factory floor. In which ways are SMEs trying to leverage the technology and is there some ways where it’s a little bit more of an advantage for some of the smaller-medium businesses that are maybe a little bit more agile?


Mike Wilson 18:20

It’s one of the big pluses, particularly with SMEs, if the Owner or the Managing Director buys into the idea then he can make it happen, whereas with larger enterprises because of the way they’re structured it’s much more difficult to persuade them to do something different. Whereas, as I said, with an SME you can influence the guy who’s going to make the decision, effectively the guy whose money it actually is. And if he buys into it, he’s not necessarily going to apply the kind of payback criteria that you might in a bigger business, so he may not expect a return in less than a year. They still want a decent return, it’s their money, but they’re much more free to go and do what they think is the right thing to do for their business. We often see a lot of success once we can get that message through to these kind of people.

The challenge is how do we get that message to them? How do we access them? And that’s one of the things that we spend a lot of time at the MTC trying to figure out, how to spread those messages more widely.

I think the other thing is that once these businesses have decided that they want to do it, they’re also willing to accept some help because they do recognise that they don’t necessarily have all the answers and because we’re independent, we can provide that kind of assistance, but we don’t expect to provide that on an ongoing basis. What we try to do is to take people through the journey the first time and hopefully they’ve learned a lot of the lessons having done that once and then they can be much more independent going forward because we want to be moving on to the future businesses.

The other thing that’s important, and I’m sure we’ll get to this at some point, but a lot of people equate robots and automation with job losses. I know many SMEs are concerned about that because they also feel responsibility for their workforce's which again is probably slightly different to the larger enterprises, and therefore they’re concerned, they’re not going to bring in automation and displace a lot of workers. But what is starting to happen now is, we talked about labour shortages, but the other thing is I think a lot of people realise that the workforce that they used to have who were happy doing certain tasks, younger people today don’t want to do those kind of tasks and therefore they’re finding it much harder to attract people into the workforce and they’re looking at things like robots as a way of actually bringing more workers in because the robots can be automating some of the, as I said, dirty, dangerous tasks that people don’t want to do anymore, but it’s also generating new roles. So people that programme robots, maintain robots, and those are the kind of roles that are much more interesting for the younger generation.


Alex Edwards 21:36

Even back to your point about the welders earlier and focusing on more on the jobs where their skills are actually required, it’s a lot more engaging to be working on the bits where you can actually add value to the job rather than just the sort of ‘rinse and repeat’ mundane work.

It's interesting how you’ve mentioned there about creating new jobs and that’s something I find interesting and it’s something that I’ve been trying to discuss but I can’t quite get to the crux of it or articulate at the moment with the whole skill shortages piece, because it seems that the profile of jobs and skills is changing and transitioning over, so where there might not be enough people to do the mundane work, there’s going to be a need for people to actually maintain the robots and programme them. Are you seeing an interest in people wanting to go into that route as well? So learning how the actual technology works and would be maintained as opposed to just, I want to buy it for it to run a process?


Mike Wilson 22:49

Definitely and that’s very true of the younger generation. They’ve been brought up with technology, I’m old enough to remember a time before mobile phones, we didn’t even have calculators when I was a lad, so the generations today are used to computers, they’re used to mobile phones, they’re used to all of this technology, and when they go to work they want to be using that kind of technology, they want to be interfacing with things that they understand. They don’t want to be necessarily doing the very repetitive, mundane jobs that maybe previous generations have been happy with. So having a business that’s utilising technology actually enables or makes that business much more interesting for the younger generation to come and join and therefore I think we’re starting to see businesses automating tasks but then using the fact they’ve got this kind of equipment as a way of enticing the younger generations to come and work for them.


Alex Edwards 24:00

It’s interesting as well isn’t it because we may go from a point where, and it would be a job well done for you and the MTC if this is the case, but it may well be that we go from saying there isn’t enough out there to actually it becoming the norm. Some of these younger generations they go into some manufacturing businesses expecting to see some of this technology and if they don’t it might make another job offered by a competitor more desirable because they have embraced some of this technology.


Mike Wilson 24:30

Definitely and I mean, obviously places like aerospace and automotive it’s been relatively easy for them to attract the younger generations because people get excited by all the technology, both in the manufacturing but also in the product. But if you’re in, let’s say a much less exciting industry, you’ve got to find other ways of doing it and having the equipment on the shop floor, having the tools on the shop floor that interest them and they can relate to is definitely going to be a plus in terms of getting people in.


Alex Edwards 25:05

So as we look to the future, in your opinion, what emerging technologies are you keeping an eye on? What are you quite excited about in terms of the impact that it can have on robotics and automation? I know AI is a massive talking point in all industries at the moment, I imagine that’s having some sort of impact in your world too.


Mike Wilson 25:27

AI definitely but maybe not quite in the ways that people envisage because AI is already being used inside robot systems, it’s just not very apparent. Nobody particularly publicises it but the reason it’s being used is to make the systems more capable and also easier to programme and operate so it’s making it more applicable for the SME community, people that don’t necessarily have highly skilled engineers working within their businesses and AI is effectively hidden from them, so it’s just about making systems easier for particularly those smaller businesses. We’ve been using things like AI for helping with vision guidance for robots, for example, picking strawberries, so you might envisage when you are weight balancing a punnet of strawberries, because when you buy a punnet of strawberries it’s got to be over a minimum weight but they don’t want to overdo it because any excess is free strawberries for the likes of you and me as a consumer, so they have people that take strawberries out or put strawberries into punnets to make sure they’re over the minimum weight but as close as possible to that. And you think well, that ought to be a task that you could automate but it’s surprisingly difficult because when you put a strawberry back in you’ve got to figure out where in that punnet you’re going to put it  without bruising any of the other strawberries, but also making sure that it sits below the top layer or the top edge of the punnet, so that’s actually quite difficult. We’ve been using AI to help us solve that particular problem and it’s just an example of where the technology is opening up new applications and making things that were previously not possible to automate, making them automatable.


Alex Edwards 27:30

Yeah it’s amazing isn’t it? When you think about that, you think of robotics especially in manufacturing and industrial markets and you think that they’re just moving things that we physically can’t or big strong machinery, but it’s actually more the dexterous and highly tactile tasks that it’s taking over. We looked into materials for robotics in a research report we did last year, Manufacturing Robotics Report, and there’s a material called electromechanically active polymers (EAPs) and they are also known as artificial muscles as they act like them, where a machine is highly dexterous it is able to move and regain its shape and have shape memory. I suppose a lot of the success of the industry will probably depend on material science and how that keeps pace and keeps developing.


Mike Wilson 28:34

Yeah I mean we’re not quite there yet, but we’re heading in that direction. So one of the big steps forward in recent years has been the use of collaborative robots or cobots, robots that can work alongside people without the need for all the industrial guarding that you typically see and that is opening up lots of applications where you can potentially put a robot on a production line next to people, use the robot to do the repetitive and mundane tasks and use the people where you need their particular skills. But one of the key things about collaborative robots is that they can be applied safely and if we can start looking at some of these more advanced materials, it potentially makes them even more safe because they’re softer so you don’t necessarily have to worry about robots and people impacting each other, so it will open up many more applications in the future. It’ll probably open up applications in the home as well in our normal lives, but I think the key to all of this is about using the robots where they’re good and using the people where they’re good. It’s not one or the other anymore, it’s about the two working together and getting the best out of both.


Alex Edwards 29:56

Yeah I couldn’t agree more. I was at an event last week where naturally AI as a technology was a big talking point and the sentiment that came out of it was, as you’ve said there with robotics and automation, it’s use it where it’s applicable and where there is a benefit. It’s not that it’s going to take over and the technology will take over, there’s always going to be a role for both, but it’s how we can be smart and sort of combine to be most efficient.


Mike Wilson 30:29

Yeah and to me it’s about, ultimately, we don’t all want to work in factories for 40 hours a week and have one day off and that kind of thing. We want a society that can afford to pay for the services that we want, can pay our workers enough so that they have a good standard of living, and the only way of achieving all of that is to make us more productive and to be more productive. We have to use the best of automation robotics as one of the tools that will help us achieve what it is we need to.


Alex Edwards 31:12

Mike, I’ve really enjoyed that conversation, I could go on for hours but I think that’s all we have time for so thank you for your time today, I know you’ve got some events haven’t you? We’ve mentioned MACH and I’m most likely going to head up there myself so we can continue the conversation, but if anyone else is interested and wants to learn more there’s details on how to connect with Mike and the MTC at the MACH event and all of the other events throughout the year below. Thanks, see you next time!


Mike Wilson 31:58

Thank you Alex.