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Robotics and Automation: UK must tackle skills, immigration and SME challenges

Home-grown skills may not be enough to enable the UK to build on the government's Industrial Strategy and push robotics and automation

The UK needs to do more to attract skills and encourage investment in robots and automation, a report from the House of Commons Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee has stated.

The Automation and the future of work report warned that unless the government and businesses are able to create a pipeline of UK researchers and workers who can support the domestic automation industry, it will be necessary to recruit from overseas.

The report’s authors noted that the lack of clear government action to support robotics in the UK, despite the Industrial Strategy acknowledging that “UK innovators push boundaries” and the showcasing of an Ocado research project, suggests that the government is not yet taking seriously the opportunities robotics can offer.

The Automation and the future of work report warned that the UK’s current immigration policy would limit the country’s ability to attract the right skills for automation and robotics.

“The government’s immigration policy should provide certainty and ensure that as we leave the EU, we can recruit and retain researchers from around the world to support the sector, including where they earn below the £30,000 threshold recommended by the Migration Advisory Committee.”

According to data from the Office for National Statistics, 7.4% of the UK workforce is at high risk of job losses due to automation but 64.9% of workers are at medium risk.

But while there is a risk of jobs being displaced, the report found that robotics and automation can boost the economy.

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Ocado, one of the companies referenced in the report, said that automation had doubled the productivity of its warehouse operations. However, the report noted that the potential productivity boost of robots that could benefit the wider UK economy has not yet been seen.

Rachel Reeves, chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) committee, said: “The switch to automation brings challenges for businesses and workers, with fears for livelihoods or disruption to job roles coming to the fore. The real danger for the UK economy and for future jobs growth is, however, not that we have too many robots in the workplace, but that we have too few.

“The government has failed to provide the leadership needed to help drive investment in automation and robot technologies. If we are to reap the potential benefits in the future of improved living standards, more fulfilling work, and the four-day working week, the government needs to do more to support British businesses and universities to collaborate and innovate.

“Factors limiting the ability of the UK to take advantage of automation and robotics include management teams who do not understand or recognise the potential of automation; a lack of digital skills among parts of the workforce; and business environments where new technology does not coalesce with existing practices.

The UK is lagging far behind its international competitors on the adoption of automation,” the report warned. “Sales of industrial robots to the UK actually decreased in the period between 2014 and 2015, at a time when the UK had just 10 robots for every million hours worked, compared with 131 in the US, 133 in Germany and 167 in Japan.”

Long tail

The report also noted that the UK suffers from a “long tail” of low-productivity businesses that are contributing to the UK’s overall productivity gap.

Adoption rate of automation technology among small and medium-sized enterprises is only 4%, compared with 28% in large businesses, according to the report’s authors. The report noted that SMEs generally lack management experience and digital skills, making it unlikely they will adopt new technology.

The report also blamed the government’s decision to close the Manufacturing Advice Service in 2015 for making it more difficult for businesses to find help and advice.

The report’s authors urged the government to fund an impartial source of advice for businesses that want to invest in automation. “This new service should be commissioned with a focus on ensuring it is fully accessible to SMEs, building on the experience of successful examples,” the report stated.

Read more on Artificial intelligence, automation and robotics

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