[First posted by Tony King-Smith on his blog at www.kingsmith.tech]
As part of my work with the ElecTech Council, I am working with the Industrial Digitalisation Review led by Juergen Maier to assess the impact of automation and robotics on the future of manufacturing. It’s fascinating stuff.
The opportunities for UK companies to apply our exceptional systems engineering skills to the 4th Industrial Revolution are tantalising. From integrated electronics to maximise the local processing power in a robot, to advanced communications systems managing the myriad real-time sensors throughout the factory, through to smart energy management and state of the art electric motors – we have so many of the skills needed to boost the UK’s competitiveness and productivity and make us a real leader on the global stage.
However people seem determined to portray robots as just another way in which jobs are being taken away. Fed by the media’s eternal appetite for a snappy, emotional story, news channels repeatedly show images of robot arms (making them look quasi-human) while talking about possible job losses. This is making the general public perceive with robots as replacement people, rather than just the next logical step in industrial automation technology. This dangerous momentum, if not checked, risks us creating widespread social antipathy to robots we can ill afford.
This risks encouraging more lethargy in UK business, especially in SMEs and other grass-roots manufacturers already intimidated by technology. And that will result in their boards refusing to finance upgrading to smart factories early enough to enable the UK to compete with our European, US, Asian and Chinese competitors. Why? because the old school “sweat the assets” attitude to risk ends up being translated into “let’s not invest while the old kit still works”. And that attitude in SME boards across the UK risks us descending into an increasingly uncompetitive manufacturing gloom.
We need to tackle this issue urgently. As ElecTech is a key and highly influential part of the technology industry, we need to start educating people to appreciate that new smart factories will create far more jobs than they take away. That’s because many of those factories would probably never be built otherwise, as they couldn’t compete with foreign competitors who are far more likely to invest in technology to power their factories and businesses. The business numbers simply wouldn’t stack up.
Robots are nothing more than another form of automation, capable of replacing at best around 10% of human activity according to recent research. Smart factories backed by smart financing will increase the UK’s ability to export more goods, and increase utilisation of locally produced products reducing imports. If we embrace creating more of the smart factory technologies themselves here in the UK – something at the heart of my own career – we have tremendous opportunities to attract inward investment too.
New factories – however automated they may be – create far more work through the ecosystem of jobs created far beyond the factory floor. From logistics drivers to administrative staff and finance services; local catering and garages through to electricians and IT services.
As technologists and technology-savvy business leaders, we need to do a far better job of talking to the general public, and educating them rather than scaring them with what is possible. In my opinion, robots and other forms of automation are absolutely crucial to the future success of the UK in a post-Brexit economy. Let’s make sure we look forwards, not backwards, and ensure that the UK is at the forefront of “Industry 4.0” – the Fourth Industrial Revolution – as we led the first!