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Tech start-ups embrace robotics

Posted by: Katherine Garratt 28 Nov 16 - 2:47PM  | Engineering
Process Industry InformerAs recently published in Process Industry Informer, Richard Heaton, Lead Consultant for the Automation & Robotics Division, provides an insight into how companies are adopting robotics and automation to increase competitiveness.

According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), robots sales are at an all-time high. By 2018, the IFR estimates that 2.3 million industrial robots will be in operation across the globe. Jonathan Lee Recruitment has seen a 35% increase in demand for skilled people to apply automation and robotics to their fledgling high-tech businesses. In this article, Richard Heaton, automation specialist at Jonathan Lee Recruitment, explores why tech start-ups are embracing robotics and automation as they look to compete on the world stage post-Brexit and the options they have to get the right team in place to achieve the best solution. 

There is much talk of the threat that robots pose to our workforce. Only last month market research company Forrester predicted robot will eliminate 6% of all jobs in the US with their impact particularly felt in the fields of customer service and transportation.

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Tech start-ups embrace robotics - Process Industry Informer
However, despite doom and gloom prediction, the outlook for manufacturing is one of opportunity rather than threat. 

Manufacturing has for the large part, already had to reinvent itself in order to compete, often on a global stage. The move to lean and more efficient and effective Japanese manufacturing methodologies first penetrated automotive then the wider industrial base and most factories now are dominated by machines and automation delivering consistent and quality products.

The new digital wave is dominated by data, the headlines by high profile projects such as driverless cars and drones. Meanwhile adoption of 3D printing, once seen as niche, is now part of a mix of innovative new technologies destined to be the catalyst of exciting change.

For many in industry, the Brexit vote has crystallised the need to harness new digital technologies wherever they have the potential to increase competitiveness by minimising waste and cost and increasing efficiency. It is in this space where many tech start-ups are emerging. They tend to follow two possible routes: either developing and creating disruptive technologies of their own, or looking for ways to partner with big business to enhance and transform older legacy technologies to help them embrace Industry 4.0. They are looking for problems to solve and are working with manufacturers to deliver practical solutions.

A recent story in the Daily Mail was headlined Move over Gordon Ramsay, robot chefs are coming: Intelligent machines are now helping make PIZZA and told the story of how a start-up in California was using robots to put pizzas together to order and will soon be used to cook and box the pizzas too. The point of the story is that robots are being used to eliminate the boring, repetitive and dangerous jobs.

In recruitment, we have always focused on the role of the skilled engineer and while that job is highly unlikely to be replaced by a robot, engineers will increasingly need to understand the role that digital and data will play and digital pioneers will need to understand the constraints and properties of materials in a whole range of different environments. Essentially they will need each other; each will act as an enabler to the other.

The Tech Britain 2016 report highlighted that digital technology sector is growing at a faster rate than any other industry. The sector represents 38.5% of science and high tech industries, 35.9% of aerospace and defence, 32.4% of electronics equipment and instruments, and 20.1% of electronic parts and components businesses.

According to the World Economic Forum, for every job lost through automation in the UK almost three new ones will be created. In the same way that the typing pool was replaced by computers that depend on IT support staff, programmers and analysts, robotics and automation also need a dedicated team, indeed a whole industry to service them.

Premier Foods has introduced 47 robots in a £20m investment to pack Mr Kipling Cakes, remote controlled robots were used to clean up the Fukushima nuclear plant and the University of California introduced robotic pharmacists which have so far zero errors dispensing 350,000 doses. Vine picking robots are being introduced in France to help with cutting, pruning and harvesting and the mining sector is turning to robots to reach remote and treacherous areas. But for each of these working robots, there is a team that has designed it, taught it how to operate and established maintenance protocols.

As far as tech start-ups are concerned they are looking for scalable ways to quickly bring new products to market. Robotics and automation make sense for businesses that will increasingly rely on data-driven opportunities. For example, the Internet of Things is making it possible for unprecedented levels of personalisation in products. The potential to make products to specific requirements helps to reduce inventory and waste, which, for fledging businesses faced with a cash flow challenge, can be enormously beneficial.

If you think about how quickly our phones and TVs become obsolete then this gives a flavour of how dynamic changes in manufacturing can be. Many manufacturers now nurture relationships with universities to cultivate the skills that will ensure positive business transformation as part of their future planning. Tech spin-outs from universities often work closely with manufacturers to realise their ideas and designs and achieve the commercial potential they could never have achieved alone.

 In turn, it is a great way for manufacturers to tap into expertise that they cannot find within their own workforce, or indeed the market as a whole and explore the potential of the latest advances in artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics and 3D printing and how these may give them competitive advantage in the future.

We have also seen rapid advances in remote monitoring, including the use of drones to collect visual data, transforming maintenance roles in aviation and the utilities sector.

The symbiotic nature of digital technologies, their ability to talk to each other and connect businesses and their customers in ways never dreamed of unleashes a wide range of ways for tech start-ups to add value. Behind every new invention that hits the headlines there is a startling and exciting array of new components that are needed, from sensors to batteries to wireless, radar and data and energy storage. The list of supporting technologies being developed and the speed with which they will come to market, makes the application of automation in their delivery almost inevitable.

The array of robotic technologies being applied to industry, transport, medicine, defence and communications alone, is vast and the challenge to find the right mix of people to deliver them is one that is sparking a revolution of its own. At the recent Paris Motor Show, we saw rival car companies announcing collaborative technology projects to rival the threat of autonomous vehicles posed by Google and Apple. Some, particularly those with limited research and development budgets are looking for innovation from suppliers. Commentators are also predicting a shift from these start-ups operating in a purely automotive space in the race for leading edge software solutions.

Against this backdrop, the mix of skills required by engineers is diverse, from mechanical, through electronic and into software. Add to that the need for leadership, team working and problem-solving skills and the continued value of the engineer in this latest industrial revolution should not be underestimated. Creativity, relationship building and nurturing talent will be key and these are attributes I doubt a robot will ever be able to achieve in my lifetime.
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