Manufacturers in the UK are falling behind their European competitors by failing to invest in industrial robots, recent figures show. And the result could be poor product quality and less flexible production, experts have warned.
Last year, the UK fell from fifth to seventh place in the global league table of robot installations, according to figures from the International Federation of Robotics.
A 29% fall in installations saw it overtaken by France and Spain, where sales leapt 50%.
World robot installations fell by 16% to 71,000, largely due to reduced demand in the Far East and Japan. But sales in most European countries rose, and figures for the first half of the year show sales rises of around 30% across the US and most European countries.
Sal Spader, a motion control analyst at automation research firm ARC, said: `It comes down to quality. Not having enough robots means overall quality goes down, because you can’t produce parts consistently.’
The drop in British installations was largely due to a fall in demand from the automotive sector. Manufacturers took some comfort from the fact that sales in less volatile sectors such as rubber and plastics increased.
However, UK companies are starting from a low base, with just 21 robots per 1,000 workers, compared to 100 in Germany and 280 in Japan.
Bob Lloyd, chairman of the British Automation and Robotics Association, said: `The most worrying thing is the robot density figure. The UK is 16th, and we are not really improving that. Our competitors are investing in technology at a faster rate than we are.’
And the UK will continue to lag behind the rest of Europe in robot installations over the next four years, according to IFR.
`We may want to have an automated flexible production capability, but we won’t have it at this rate,’ added Lloyd.
IFR also predicts a huge expansion in the world’s stock of non-industrial service robots, from 5,000 in 1998 to over 25,000 by the end of 2002.
And over 400,000 vacuum cleaning robots could be produced if prices come down enough to open the market up to households.