Does the UK lag the world in automation?

Assembly Automation

ISSN: 0144-5154

Article publication date: 1 September 2003




Hendry, M. (2003), "Does the UK lag the world in automation?", Assembly Automation, Vol. 23 No. 3.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2003, MCB UP Limited

Does the UK lag the world in automation?

Does the UK lag the world in automation?

Keywords: Automation, UK, Global economy

Mark Hendry is a Sales Manager at Modular Automation International Ltd, Talbot Way, Small Heath Business Park, Birmingham, UK. E-mail:; Web site:

UK manufacturers will have to change their attitude to automation in the future if they have to succeed in the global market. That is what Mark Hendry the new sales manager for Modular Automation in Birmingham thinks. Here is why:

There seems to be a culture in the UK of planning manufacturing based on short-term goals not the long-term benefit. To some extent, this is understandable. The life cycle of products has shrunk dramatically in the last 10 years. Whereas, in the past, a product would have a planned life cycle of 3–4 years, now it is just 3–4 months before it needs updating to meet the latest craze.

Faced with this unrelenting demand for variation it is understandable that manufacturers are unwilling to invest in “unnecessary” plant equipment that might become redundant almost before the paint’s dry.

There is another problem too. With the emerging markets of Eastern Europe gaining prominence, everything seemingly being produced in China where labour rates are a fraction of those in The West, why produce at home at all? Surely it is much better to produce outside the UK.

These two points, have dominated the thinking of manufacturing companies for the last decade. On both counts, they seem to be wrong.

If it is better to produce in the developing world why, when they are even closer than we are, have not our European friends embraced this as a golden opportunity with the passion of the UK? Well some have, but even those who have tried are beginning to regret their decision.

Manufacturing remotely has a number of problems. Quality is probably the most important. Achieving the correct quality at arms length is a difficult problem, maintaining it is even more difficult. More importantly, perhaps, the monitoring of quality is more difficult so, when problems occur, it takes longer time to identify them, more “sub-standard” goods are produced, leaving more to be identified, returned, and rectified or destroyed. This leaves another problem, how to fill the void left by the removed product that was destined for impatient customers desperate to supply a disloyal consumer.

Although many companies have tried manufacturing in China, The Czech Republic or Romania, few we believe would miss the opportunity to return it to the UK given half an opportunity.

So why don’t they? I believe they do not because of a basic misunderstanding of the process of automation and the use of a modern labour force.

Automation is viewed as being expensive, inflexible and for use only for long-run, high-volume production. All the above are not true.

Automation is only expensive if the payback period is too short. But with product life cycles measured in days how can companies do anything else. That is where the flexibility comes in.

Old-fashioned automation systems were inflexible. But at present, modern robots, vision systems and multi-tool machines do not have to be that way. Now systems can be designed to be capable of manufacturing multiple variants simultaneously and, more importantly, be reprogrammed to allow for product updates at a click or two of a mouse. Look for a payback over 4 months and it is ludicrously expensive, look for a payback over 3-5 years and it makes much more sense.

Companies tend to look at payback and depreciation separately. Of course within the financials they are. But when paybacks are measured in months and depreciation in years, this is when the discrepancies appear. It is not unique to see payback calculations for 18 months, and depreciation 5 years. This gives us a very attractive 3.5 years of extra profit. But if the payback is calculated at 2.5 years why do we historically cancel any investment plans, this would still give 2.5 years of extra profit and companies would benefit from automation. Manufacturers within the UK, especially those with overseas parents need to look at longer-term paybacks if they wish to continue manufacturing here. Otherwise the pull of the cheap labour markets will be overwhelming.

None of this, however, can take away the inherent flexibility of a well-trained workforce. The key is to use the workforce well to do the tasks that machines find hard. Any task, where subjective judgements have to be taken, for example, are always done better by people. Similarly, if the work-piece is hard to orientate (maybe because it is itself inherently flexible) this too is difficult or expensive to programme a machine to do. Fundamentally, the trick is to keep the interesting work for the people and the repetitive or safety-critical areas automated and verified.

By manufacturing at home, using automation and people intelligently, it is much easier to build in inherent quality, monitor quality in process and react if something goes wrong.

But there is an issue that is more important than all of this. It prevents companies adopting automation right from the start and condemns them to juggling manufacturing processes that were outdated long before the product hit the retailers’ shelves – design.

Almost without exception my company is called in to automate the manufacture of products that already exist. Even brand new products have been designed and tested long before we ever get involved. This is commercial lunacy. It is as if companies design a product then decide how to make it as two totally separate operations. This cannot be allowed to continue.

By designing a product for automation, varying components only when necessary, using components that are easy to feed and simple to hold, the entire automation process can be made much easier and, therefore, much less expensive. Design for automation is fundamental to the success of a product yet rarely embraced in the UK.

Elsewhere in Europe, however, this is not the case. European manufacturers design in automation right from the start to build in speed, flexibility and future proofing. That is why they manufacture less in the emerging countries, have better quality records, are able to react to market changes more quickly, are more profitable, and ultimately, are more successful than most manufacturers in the UK.

There is time for UK manufacturers to change and catch up, but it will take a total change of attitude to automation to do it. Companies must learn not to think short-term even though product life cycles are short. They must design for automation and invest right from the start.

Combine such a change of attitude with the legendary British ingenuity and, let us believe that, the future is rosy for manufacturing in the UK. Fail and I figure that we better develop a stunning tourist industry because there will not be much else on which to base our failing economy.

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