According to recent statistics the average density of robots used in manufacturing in Europe is 99 units for every 10,000 employees. But the UK lags a long way behind with an average of 71 units, and globally is ranked 22nd. If the UK is to compete with others in the global marketplace there needs to be a step-change in the promulgation of robotics throughout industry.
The journey to greater automation has already started. For example, collaborative robots, or cobots, are playing an increasingly important role in UK manufacturing. Cobots are designed to work with humans to carry out tasks that are not only repetitive but also hazardous. These include mechanical assembly, the handling of dangerous chemicals and where it is necessary to operate in environments where harmful gases are present.
Smart connected technologies underpin the automation of plant and machinery. These are devices that contain processors, sensors and software that allow data to be exchanged between machinery and other systems or processes. Manufacturing execution systems are computerised systems used in manufacturing to track and document the transformation of raw materials into finished goods, and are helping take automation in UK manufacturing to the next level.
Big data is a term used to describe data sets that are so big and complex that customary data processing software applications are not able to deal with them. Machine learning is an adjunct to big data that uses statistical techniques to give computer systems the ability to learn from new data and progressively improve performance without having to be reprogrammed. Both big data and machine learning are employed in order to reduce waste and variability, and to improve quality and output. By using specialist ‘big data tools’ or machine learning, hidden patterns and trends can be identified in order to make predictions. For example, by analysing the behaviour of customers, manufacturers are able to identify customer preferences and reveal market trends.
Special purpose machinery also plays an important role in manufacturing today. Such machinery is not available off-the-shelf but has to be designed and tailor made according to customers’ requirements. These innovative technologies build on the more traditional automated technologies such as supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA), which is a control and monitoring system architecture that uses computers to automate industrial plant and machinery. SCADA uses other devices such as programmable logic controllers (PLC) to communicate with instruments and control processes.
Automation has brought many major benefits to the British economy, and can further enhance innovation and therefore competitiveness. The UK manufacturing sector is already showing signs of recovery. But greater investment in automation is essential in order to catch up with the world leaders in productivity. It is also essential that the engineering skills gap is narrowed. Currently there are insufficient numbers of engineers and other specialists to fulfil the diverse needs of the British manufacturing base.