Rachel Brown, CAD technician, and Steve Elleray, R&D fabricator, with the robotic welder at Storth
SME manufacturers adopting robotics and automation, with the support of Made Smarter, are creating hundreds of new and upskilled jobs. Since 2019 the North West Adoption Programme, a collaboration between the UK Government and industry designed to support the increased use of digital technologies, has supported 41 businesses with 45 technology projects focused on robotics and automation machinery.
The £2 million investment, which combines £883,000 in grant funding and leverages £1.1 million of private finance, is forecast to create 183 new jobs and upskill a further 234 existing workers. Furthermore, the region’s GVA is expected to grow by £137.4 million over the next three years.
Alain Dilworth, North West Adoption Programme manager at Made Smarter, said: “These figures are further evidence that robots, collaborative robots (cobots), and process control automation technologies are creating more jobs than they displace, as well as a host of other benefits.
“Manufacturers that have adopted these digital technologies are experiencing increased productivity and efficiency, more consistent and improved part production and quality, lower operating costs, reduced lead times, the ability to be more competitive, and improved worker safety.
“The Made Smarter North West Adoption Programme has proven the value that digital technology can bring to the manufacturing sector. By providing businesses with specialist, impartial technology advice, grant funding for projects, digital transformation workshops, a leadership programme, digital technology internships, and skills development, Made Smarter is helping them select the right approach and the appropriate level of investment and tools for their business.
“Ultimately, at the heart of any change are the people, who are fundamental to understanding the need for change, driving that change and adopting that change.”
Agricultural machine manufacturer Storth, based in Cumbria, used robotics to navigate staff shortages during the pandemic and overcome the problem of skilled welders being tied up with repetitive tasks.
Its robotic welding system produces parts at twice the rate its human counterparts and welding staff have been moved to higher value, more rewarding and more technically challenging roles.
Julian Lopez, Storth export manager, said: “Our investment in the robot welder enabled us to manufacture more quickly and cost effectively, and solved the problem of manpower not just in terms of sourcing quality welders to satisfy demand but to maintain production during the pandemic when welders were self-isolating. Meanwhile the technology has made us more competitive to be able to react quickly to orders and changed the way we can approach export markets.
“We have also been able to create new apprentice roles to operate the robotics and cultivate the skills we will need in the future.”
Ammunition manufacturer Empire Cartridges, based in Preston, invested in a six-axis cobot and process control technology which increased manufacturing output of shotgun cartridge shells by at least 50%.
Andrew Bond, Empire Cartridges CEO, said: “By adopting Industry 4.0 automation we have been able to increase quality control, reduce manual handling and upskill our workforce from simple box fillers to cobot programmers.”
Brainboxes, an electronics manufacturer based in Liverpool, adopted robotics to improve its manual labelling process. Luke Walsh, Empire Cartridges managing director, said: “The task of placing hundreds of thousands of labels on products was low skilled and expensive, so by investing in technology which prints directly onto the product and robotics to move the products into place, the entire process could be automated.
“There was scepticism among our production staff about what a robot would do to their livelihoods. Now my production staff aren’t saying to me ‘the robot has taken my job’ but suggesting where the technology could also be adopted.”
While the adoption of robotics in the UK is on the rise, it is well behind global competition. According to the International Federation of Robotics, the UK’s ‘robot density’ or the number of robots per 10,000 workers is 71, below the global average of 74, and significantly lower than Germany (309) and South Korea (631).
Mark Stepney, director of the British Automation and Robot Association (BARA), part of the PPMA Group of Associations, said: “It is fantastic to see Made Smarter supporting SME manufacturers in the adoption of advanced technologies like robotics to address the UK’s shortfall in productivity.
“The return on investment on the use of industrial robots is startlingly clear. Along with faster production comes a long sought-after benefit — the ability to free human workers from the dangers and drudgery of manual work. Human workers can be elevated to roles where their individual skills and cognitive abilities can be better used.”