How will automation affect the UK manufacturing jobs market?

Image: ABB
Image: ABB

With the rise of automation in manufacturing, Subcon Laser Cutting looks at how the new Industry 4.0 technology will affect the industry.

For some time now, the increased automation of the UK’s manufacturing industry has been met with divided opinions.

In the case of business owners, it is seen as something worth embracing. It promises increased productivity, fewer manufacturing errors and reduced production costs.

However, employees seem to be on the losing side of robotic automation. The idea that the robots might take over most jobs makes people see automation as an enemy to the UK’s job market. But robots are, in fact, meant to increase the number of jobs available.

The UK automation market

The UK is ranked at number 22 worldwide in terms of robot density. The country has 85 robot units per 10,000 workers. While this might seem like a fair rank, it is below the average robot density in Europe, which is 106 robot units per 10,000 employees.

As a result, the UK is already behind in automation integration. Increasing the adoption of automation in the industry would improve productivity as well as cutting the manufacturing costs.

And looking ahead – In 2021, Britain will buy 2,600 multi-purpose industrial robots, according to Citibank forecasts. Italy will buy 10,500, Germany 26,000, and South Korea and the US 46,000 each.

Automation is a solution for post-Brexit labour shortages

For a long time, the UK’s manufacturing industry has been relying on foreign workers for labour in manufacturing plants. With tougher trade and immigration laws, the UK has become a less inviting work destination. In fact, some workers might be leaving back to their countries of origin.

Britain may rely on automation to fill the labour shortage gap. Filling these gaps also ensures the survival of jobs that depend on the automated jobs.

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Automation gets rid of redundant tasks

Manufacturing without automation means workers need to do repetitive tasks such as screwing pieces of machinery together. Luckily, working with robots removes the need to have humans do such tasks.

Instead, people can concentrate on the tasks that require their mental and skilled input. This means that instead of making people jobless, it increases job specifications and the quality of the tasks at hand. Workers can now be more productive, and tasks can be even more engaging.

New jobs will get introduced in the long run

Of course, an employee whose sole job is to do something redundant might get replaced by these robots. However, this will only be a short term effect of automation. With time, more jobs will rise from automation. For instance, most cobots need to have people manning them to increase efficiency.

Think in the line of other historical disruptions in the job market such as the introduction of accounting software. While it reduced the need to have a large number of accountants working under a single firm, it led to the introduction of more jobs in the fields of cyber-security. As such, the job market will remain healthy if the workers learn how to adapt to the changes.

Why has Germany survived with high levels of automation?

Germany is a great example of automation without job large losses. The country has a robot density of 309 units per 10,000 employees, but automation integration only made it tough for new entrants into the manufacturing industry to find jobs. Those who were already in the job market were trained in different skills.

Its education system encourages its students to learn more skills through vocational training. This not only ensures that the new entrants into the industry are job-market-ready, but it also diversifies the number of jobs that they can land. Germany has strong labour unions as well that are always ready to advocate for the rights of the ever-growing workforce, making it easy to protect jobs.

The country's manufacturing industry is now in recession, which of course may lead to job losses, although automation has not played a part in this.

Surviving in a highly automated job market

Automation comes with new challenges. Those who learn how to solve these challenges will be on the winning side of automation. Workers will need to at least understand some data analytics, programming and product design. While people who are already in the workplace will need to seek additional courses to what they do, student who wants to get into the manufacturing industry will have to seek vocational training to ensure that their skills match with what the job market yearns for.

Machines also have shortcomings regarding soft skills. They might be incapable of high levels of creativity, critical thinking and complex problem solving, though AI might help a little bit. Workers who have such soft skills as their stronghold have a high chance of landing such jobs and retaining them. Labour unions also need to be on the forefront of negotiating job retention and diversification despite increased automation.

Change in the manufacturing industry is inevitable, but it shouldn’t mean mass job losses. As long as the UK Government can champion skill diversification, it can become easier to not only retain the current jobs but also create even more. What’s even better for the UK is that post-Brexit labour shortages make automation less of a disruption and more of a necessity in the job market.

Subcon Laser Cutting

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