At the end of February, before Covid-19 had begun its domination of our daily lives, the University of Gloucestershire’s School of Business and Technology hosted a special event dedicated to the engineering and technology sectors.
Amongst the many displays, presentations and networking sessions, one particular subject stood out which I believe will become more important than ever in offering a solution for UK business recovery during and beyond the pandemic’s devastating economic impact—robotics and automation.
Automation technologies company ABB showcased some of its latest innovations at the event. It also offered some statistics about how they see automation as being designed not to “steal” jobs, but to benefit organisations by supplementing high-volume and repetitive work that frees up valuable time for more challenging tasks.
While a robot engineer on display called “Yumi” showcased its dexterity, speed and programmable accuracy, constructing a small box and packing it with select items, ABB’s Julian Ware described the opportunities that automation solutions herald for businesses both small and large.
“There currently aren’t enough robots in the UK. As a nation we’re one of the top ten when it comes to manufacturing output and our exports are sold across the world. However, productivity is surprisingly low compared to other countries,” he explained.
“In the UK GDP per hour worked is lower now than it was in 2007, despite employment being higher. In 2016 output per hour in the UK was 22.6% below the US; 25.6% below Germany, and 26.2% below France.”
Considering how these figures are being further decimated by the impact of Covid-19, we need to work smarter to produce more with existing resources. This means introducing better computing and engineering solutions using robotics and automation.
Greater automation doesn’t mean fewer humans
By training and reskilling employees, organisations can prepare their people to work with automated processes and alongside machines.
As companies come under greater pressure with Covid-19, the biggest immediate impacts of automation are likely to be seen in sectors such as insurance, financial services and human resources, where algorithms offer faster and more efficient assessment. In the longer-term, robots are likely to be added into manufacturing and services where measurement and analysis are vital to keeping operations running smoothly.
Robots are now being used to help maintain the social distancing of some hospital staff and patients, as well as alleviating the workloads of nurses and doctors. The growth in robotics usage has been so sudden and widespread it is believed the industry will be worth more than $23bn by 2021.
Most workers would rather be removed from work which is boring, dirty and repetitive and be provided with more fulfilling roles, enabling them to add greater value and deliver better quality products and services. Just look at the current shortage of fruit and vegetable pickers in the UK at a time of crisis, when innovative automation could be saving millions of pounds of otherwise wasted crops.
Is Covid-19 increasing demand for automation?
Covid-19 is already changing the way consumers behave and expanding opportunities for automation. Companies of all sizes are reviewing how they use robots to increase social distancing and reduce the number of staff that have to physically come to work.
In Milton Keynes, a fleet of robots on wheels that deliver shopping have seen their popularity surge as residents are locked down at home.
In Japan, workers at a warehouse in Sugito that processes millions of personal care products each day were overrun by a spike in demand for masks, gloves, soap and hand sanitiser, and are using more robots to pick objects from bins and assemble orders.
In Texas, the Westin Houston Medical Center hotel is using hospital-grade robots to emit intense light using pulsed xenon to kill pathogens after being wheeled in by housekeeping staff.
Employees and clients alike now care more about their safety, and moves towards automation will keep them all healthier. Ultimately customers will reward companies that successfully do this.
The government’s current estimates are that for the engineering sector to gain enough candidates to reduce skills shortages, they would need around 186,000 skilled recruits each year until 2024. This will undoubtedly be true even after the impact of Covid-19 has been fully understood.
The UK is one of the world’s best countries to become an engineer. Not only are university graduates likely to be earning up to 20% more than their counterparts in other subjects, they can also find themselves working in areas such as industrial systems or the Internet of Things. Their expertise is often employed in fast-paced technology and developing products matching rapidly evolving consumer demands.
Yes, engineering can be complex, but it stands to reason that everyone benefits if industry and educators work together to catch the attention of a wide range of young, new recruits, not just those who are already deemed to be “technical”. With demand for industry rapidly capabilities rapidly increasing, it is encouraging to have something positive to look forward to.
Professor Kamal Bechkoum is head of business and technology at the University of Gloucestershire.