Has Coronavirus accelerated the need for automation in the UK?

Coronavirus has fundamentally changed the way we all work this year. Even those that are carrying out their jobs in their original working environment have had to adapt how they do their jobs to ensure they can be socially distanced and protected from the virus.

Automation throughout manufacturing, logistics and distribution is heading towards an increase. Robots, or cobots, have become more commonplace in these environments to increase efficiency and cope with demand. Over the past decade, there has been a greater shift to online consumerism. Why leave your house and deal with the traffic, parking, crowded supermarkets and shopping centres when you can sit back in the comfort of your own home and browse online?

In March 2020, we suddenly all found ourselves in a situation where we couldn’t leave our home to buy anything, other than the essentials. Many of us didn’t want to go outside and mix with others and millions were told not to leave their front doors. As a result, online shopping surged by 129% which saw 46% of UK businesses increasing their investment in automation.

What does history tell us about the adoption of automation?

When you look at how automation has been adopted historically, there is a pattern of increase in investment when there has been an economic downturn. The biggest cost any business incurs is its people. In some sectors of industry, many, many people are required to carry out manual, repetitive and simplistic tasks that could be easily performed by automated systems. Without a doubt, across many sectors, the impact of Coronavirus has seen not only a need to deploy automated systems to cope with demand but to also cope with the increase in hygiene risks.

We did some research to look at ways in which businesses have been utilising automation in 2020:

Delivery Robots.

Did anyone remember seeing in the news pictures of food delivery robots operating in Milton Keynes? Starship Technologies’ small, white, six-wheeled vehicles trundled along pavements to bring small deliveries to residents and workers of the neighbourhoods in which they operate, without the need for a human driver or delivery person. All you had to do was download the app to buy cooked food and small supermarket orders which in turn were loaded into the robots and driven to you. Using robots to facilitate deliveries was deemed an ideal way to reduce touch points on deliveries which would decrease the risk of viral spread and robots were never going to have to self-isolate or take a test.

Fulfilment Centres

Amazon is probably the leader of fulfilment automation. Having bought a robotics company in 2012, they currently use over 100,000 fulfilment robots working throughout their warehouses worldwide. Tasks that require little or no cognition can be carried out more efficiently by automated systems. They can be used to efficiently execute any number of picking strategies, move goods and materials from one place to another and assist with replenishment activities. Automation in fulfilment drastically reduces ‘travel time’; the time it takes a human to move across a fulfilment centre’s facility to carry out tasks, can transport heavier loads and access higher racking.

Manufacturing

When we think of automation today, we think about robots. But automation encompasses a wide range of equipment and processes and in manufacturing, automation has been part of the landscape for decades. The automotive industry is by far the largest user of industrial robots in the UK today, accounting for 52% of the total operational stock of robots. And yet UK manufacturers are lagging behind other European countries with France, Italy and Germany having between 2 and 10 times more robotic stock in operation. Economic experts believe that a combination of Brexit and Coronavirus has had an impact on investment in automation throughout UK manufacturing and the sector has faced many challenges over the past decade that have been prohibitive when it comes to the costs required to automate systems.

Coronavirus has highlighted not just the importance of UK manufacturing, but also the need to be more self-sufficient and rely less on importing goods. We want to make more goods in the UK and to do this, automation is going to have to play a part.

Will robots take away our jobs?

This is neither a yes or no answer and we need to look at the bigger picture. In terms of Coronavirus, companies large and small are expanding how they use robots to increase social distancing and reduce the number of staff that have to physically come to work. In the short term, there may well be job losses in certain areas, but like most technology, in the longer-term, robots increase employment. One industry in particular that has seen huge changes in personnel due to automation and digitalisation is the print industry. Although there have been many jobs that have been replaced by automation, the process has brought about a whole new generation of jobs and workers. It is progress. It has been happening for hundreds of years and it is never going to stop. We will not see a decrease in available jobs, but what we will see will be a drive for employees to learn new skills, for our children to be taught new skills throughout their education and for employers to invest in the workforce they have.

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