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Automation shouldn’t be a dirty word for manufacturers

I couldn’t help but feel a sense of déjà vu yesterday morning when the media machine played out the latest report by one of the big four professional firms.

Apparently ‘automation’ threatens a third of UK jobs. For one minute I thought we’d been transported back to the dark days of the mid 80s when Tomorrow’s World first brought robots to our screens.

Even back then and without the power of social media, there was nationwide panic. ‘Would every household have a robot to assist with the chores? Would robots be capable of manual labour, could they go into battle for us?

This was exacerbated even further with the arrival of science fiction blockbusters like Robocop and Terminator…making millions for the Directors, but not really painting an everyday picture of life in the modern world.

The reality is that automation can and will reduce manufacturing costs further in pretty much every industry sector it touches.

We can’t get away from the fact that we already drive cars and watch TVs that have been assembled by robots. However, has this resulted in mass unemployment in automotive or consumer electronics?

No, in fact they have grown and evolved, creating thousands of jobs directly and in the supply chains that support them.

What is certain is that a lack of awareness and investment in automation – in parallel with a similar approach to training – will result in UK companies losing their competitive advantage against international arrivals. And we all know where this ends…in factory closures and unemployment.

Just look around some of our great industrial cities to see this firsthand. Whilst we have a new generation of added value manufacturers, there’s no escaping the fact that the UK is littered with sites of grand old factories that are now home to supermarkets, housing estates and bowling alleys.

I’ve got nothing against re-use of derelict land, but these companies were once more than just employers, they were often the social centre of a given town or area.

At the depth of our “struggles”, the approach to investment taken by some of our European neighbours, particularly in Germany, was very different. We’ve all seen how the results have panned out and only now are we beginning to reclaim some of the ground we lost.

So my message is simple. Automation will develop and who knows where it will end. It will no doubt change all of our lives even further, both in the home, in our places of work and in the venues where we enjoy our spare time.

The real and immediate threat is not embracing automation, it is letting fear and misunderstanding ruin its true potential.

Tony Hague, MD – PP Electrical Systems Ltd

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