In 2017, the Uk was responsible for just 0.6% of industrial robotics shipments © AFP/Getty Images
In 2017, the Uk was responsible for just 0.6% of industrial robotics shipments © AFP/Getty Images

UK workplaces have ‘too few’ robots

19 September 2019

MPs have called on the UK government to step up efforts to manage the transition to automation or face the UK being left behind. 

In its report, the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee said government had failed to encourage investment in automation and robotics, allowing other countries to seize opportunities for economic growth and jobs.

While there are concerns over technology replacing workers, if the UK continues to fall behind on productivity and the adoption of new technologies, future investment decisions will not follow. This could lead to businesses, investment and jobs moving overseas, the report warned. 

Automation and technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) have the potential to transform businesses, boost productivity and contribute to economic growth in sectors such as retail and manufacturing.

The report found the UK had just 10 robots for every million hours worked, compared with 167 in Japan in 2015. By 2017, the UK represented just 0.6% of industrial robotics shipments. 

Low adoption of automation in the UK has also contributed to the nation’s lagging productivity, especially for SMEs, preventing a much-needed rise in economic growth, wages and living standards, the report said. 

The committee urged the government to produce a UK Robot and AI Strategy by the end of 2020, to help support businesses, industries and universities boost the adoption of automation. 

The strategy must “seek to get the right support in place, on issues such as skills, investment and training, to ensure that all parts of the UK share in the jobs and growth benefits offered by automation”.

Rachel Reeves, chair of the BEIS Committee, said: “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. 

“For all the potential of the UK, and despite our excellent tech and research base, the fact is that we are lagging behind our international competitors in our adoption of robot and automation technologies. Productivity, economic growth, and ultimately job creation and higher earnings, will flow to those countries that capitalise on these technologies.

“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,” she said. 

Meanwhile, research from Hays revealed three quarters of businesses employing procurement professionals are investing in automation technology, compared to 70% of UK employers overall.

However, procurement employers are falling behind when it comes to implementing automation strategies, with 48% in the early stages, compared to the UK average of 38%. 

Over two fifths (41%) of procurement employers said they do not have access to the right skills to enable them to make the best use of automation technology. However, 71% plan to hire more temporary, contract or freelance workers as part of investment in automation. 

“Getting key internal stakeholders on board is essential for procurement professionals as they try to enact strategic innovation within their organisation. The automation of certain functions should allow them to spend less time extracting data and more time on interpreting it to better support their case for change,” said Scott Dance, director, Hays Procurement and Supply Chain.

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