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UK`s slow robot uptake `could hit competitiveness`

01 January, 2007

UK`s slow robot uptake `could hit competitiveness`

ABB has launched a campaign to persuade UK manufacturers, especially smaller ones, to look more seriously at investing in robotics. According to the company, the UK is slipping behind its rivals in the take-up of robots and is thus risking becoming less competitive.

Last year, the UK bought around 800 robots in total. In France, by comparison, ABB alone sold more than 1,000 machines.

According to Martin Walder, managing director of ABB`s UK robotics division (above), robots can deliver improvements in three key areas: overheads, productivity and predictability.

UK companies face some of the highest overheads in terms of labour and energy costs. Between 1990 and 2005, average UK wages rose 74% in real terms, to around £10.51/hour. Over the same period, the cost of a typical six-axis industrial robot halved, to give an hourly operating cost of around £5.

Because robots have no minimum heating or lighting requirements, they can also save on energy costs. According to Walder, every 1°C reduction in heating levels can cut energy costs by 8%, while turning off unnecessary lighting can also deliver substantial savings.

The ability of robots to produce more, at a faster rate, and with consistent quality, is another attraction, he contends.

"Even the most efficient human worker can make mistakes, particularly when working to a tight deadline, or on a repetitive task," Walder argues. "By contrast, robots offer companies a fantastic opportunity to increase the number of units they produce without adversely impacting on quality, no matter how tedious or unpleasant the task."

Walder`s third key incentive for adopting robots is that they deliver consistent performance, allowing companies to predict factors such as production costs, turnaround times, output levels and product quality. This enables manufacturers to make long-term investments without having to move production abroad.

Robotics "is no longer the domain of large-scale manufacturers, like the automotive sector," Walder contends. "Small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) are the greatest benefactors - they just don`t seem to realise it yet!"

He points to the example of Characteristix, a Cornish manufacturer of badges, magnets, keyrings and other moulded plastic products. Increasing competition from the Far East threatened the company with closure, until it installed a fully automated system that creates finished products from raw materials. The manufacturing cell includes two robots, an injection moulding machine, conveyors and a pneumatic printing press.

A recent report from the ARC Advisory Group predicts that the global robotics market will have a CAGR of 7.7% over the five years to 2010, expanding from $3.59bn to $5.2bn.

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