The challenge for the UK economy is not that we have too many robots in the workplace, but too few!

This was the conclusion of a recent report on automation & the future of work by the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, published last month. Businesses have the challenge of whether and how much to invest in new technology.

“The risk we face isn’t a robot takeover of our workplaces; but that our lack of adoption and the reluctance to lead the way means other countries will overtake the UK.”

The Automation & the Future of Work report expressed the view that the UK has a major opportunity to take a global role with automation and Artificial Intelligence. “Robotics is also creating new jobs and opportunities, including many highly skilled roles.”

The report stated that a range of factors are preventing businesses from investing in new technology, including:

  • Management who don’t understand or recognise the potential of automation.
  • A lack of digital skills/capabilities among parts of the workforce.
  • Business environments where new technology does not coalesce with existing practice.

The main challenge, is that businesses were ‘unaware of the lower costs and the increased return on investment. This can typically be recouped within just one to two years of adoption.’

The UK’s low automation adoption rate can be blamed on three Cs: cost, certainty and capability. The high initial cost of automation and an uncertainty on the time taken to recoup the value of investment being the most significant barriers.

“The complexity of automation and the lack of available skills required to work with it are also some of the greatest hurdles to overcome. It remains a challenge for businesses, especially SMEs to develop themselves and their employees on even simple technologies. It’s hardly surprising that automation is seen as difficult and potentially incompatible with current ways of working for many businesses.”

The importance of employee engagement

One of the keys to unlocking the potential of automation lies in employee engagement.

“For businesses investing in automation and transforming how they work, engagement with its workforce needs to take place long before significant technology is implemented. Rather than at the point that new technology appears in the workplace.”

We would definitely echo this sentiment. It’s often the ‘hands-on’ employees who know where the most benefits could be realised through automation.

Slight improvements to everyday procedures can unlock bigger ideas – and the confidence to invest in more sophisticated automation. This enables organisations to take the workforce on the ‘automation journey’. To ensure that skills and capabilities can flourish in line with changing needs.

This leaves the path clear for the increased development and use of cobots – that will make enhance job roles, rather than take over them entirely’. Jobs that are likely to see cobots introduced earliest include those which are repetitive or dangerous. This frees up people to replace routine with value-adding tasks and upskilling their capabilities.

While the road map to mass adoption of automation remains unclear, the benefits were outlined in the ‘Made Smarter Review‘. This reported that ‘the positive impact of faster innovation and adoption of industrial digitalisation technology could be as much as £455bn for UK manufacturing over the next decade, increasing manufacturing sector growth by up to 3% per annum and creating an estimated net gain of 175,000 jobs.’

You can read the full Automation and the Future of Work report here.

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