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There’s a huge opportunity for UK manufacturers to adopt robotics and artificial intelligence technologies to improve efficiency. So what’s stopping them?

Posted on 28/02/2018

Adopting RAI Technologies within UK manufacturing SMEs can drive change

Jeremy Hadall, Chief Engineer at the Manufacturing Technology Centre(MTC) gives his thoughts on this interesting subject area in a KTN interview.

Robotics and Artificial Intelligence (RAI) can streamline production processes for manufacturers but there are some key challenges facing UK manufacturing SMEs in deciding whether this route is right for them, says Jeremy Hadall, Chief Engineer at the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC).

Why should British manufacturers adopt RAI technologies?

Businesses think that’s it is only the large corporate manufacturers who should invest in robotics and artificial intelligence (RAI) technologies, but the benefits for SMEs sometimes hugely outweigh those for corporates.  These benefits include cost savings, improved production and more efficient processes, health and safety improvements (removing staff from difficult production situations) and ultimately helping a business modernise its business and production processes.  With many SMEs they potentially have identified this as a key improvement area for their businesses but with limited knowledge, they often perceive it as being an expensive and a risky step.

How can RAI technologies improve productivity and ROI?

The benefits that robotics and automation can offer a manufacturing business are exhaustive.  From full automation where the RAI technology doesn’t take breaks, is not affected by illness or holidays, doesn’t have downtime, RAI technology can provide a consistent regular output creating a good quality product that complies exactly to the standards set for it.

As mentioned earlier, SMEs often think that RAI technologies are only for large corporates but actually can offer significant benefits to SMEs.  Larger corporates when implementing new processes and technologies focus on generating incremental gains, however for an SME they often will get a much larger immediate gain.

Some robotics and automation companies are offering these technologies as a service. What does this mean and how does this support SMEs to adopt these technologies?

SMEs perceive the costs to be very high however the costs of these types of technology are continually reducing and there are alternative financing models being brought onto the market to help SMEs take this first step.  Offering alternatives such as Robotics as a Service, which is offering businesses the ability to rent or lease the technology, is changing the way the market is looking at digital manufacturing. Small manufacturing businesses can have the technology on-site for the duration of the project rather than full time, which offers a really interesting alternative model. This is an excellent solution for manufacturers working in a fast paced environment, and for businesses who don’t have the finance in place to purchase the equipment outright.

Smaller manufacturing businesses often find it difficult to find practical, reliable information to help inform their decisions and a key barrier is finding the right people to talk to.  There’s a fear of the unknown and what RAI technologies can do for them.  It generates a number of new questions : Is the technology risky? Does it change my current processes? Do I need experts to operate it? Will I receive training to implement it correctly? Another key barrier is around the capacity and capability of system integrators as they are all running on a high level of capacity which can cause delays.

How does the UK compare to other countries and why is there such a big gap?

The UK is lagging other countries quite significantly.  Our landscape is made up of a number of traditional businesses which have been passed from generation to generation and who have the mindset to repair an old piece of machinery rather than replace it with a new modern one or an innovative process such as robotics and AI. In Denmark, the manufacturing sector is mostly made up of SMEs who compete in a highly competitive marketplace and have seen this as a requirement to ensure they can compete. Germany takes a long term view of the steps they need to take to grow their business and look at it as a requirement to sustain this growth.

What support do SMEs need to ensure they capitalise on this opportunity?

Organisations and initiatives such as the Manufacturing Technology Centre, Knowledge Transfer Network, 4Manufacturing, Innovate UK and the Catapults are instrumental in helping inform the UK manufacturing landscape of the benefits of RAI technologies and bringing together the learning and expertise from within the UK and from an international perspective. So is the 4Manufacturing framework developed by the Knowledge Transfer network in partnership with these organisations.

The KTN event Robotics and AI 4Manufacturing on 7th March in the MTC aims to do just that.  Bringing together the manufacturers and the industry suppliers can really start the discussions and help both sides understand the relevant challenges and opportunities open to them. Find out more here.

“I believe automation in robotics and AI will revolutionise the manufacturing sector in the UK but there are some key challenges facing our businesses.  There is a need to educate and share knowledge of the benefits, look at alternative methods of finance and adoption to ensure businesses can make informed decisions and ensure the UK takes advantage of the next steps of the digital industrial revolution”.