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The announcement of Nissan’s investment of £125 million into Britain, for the unveiling of a new concept model to be manufactured at a state of the art factory in Sunderland, formed the backdrop of a Government address to elated delegates at the Automated Britain conference.

Intellect and GAMBICA held the joint event on March 6, 2012 at The Commonwealth Club in London to promote the concept of automation and its benefits to industry. Called Automated Britain – The Renaissance of UK Manufacturing the event explored whether there are any perceived obstacles that discourage industry from making more investments of this type.

Keynote speakers included Mark Prisk MP, the Minister of State for Business and Enterprise and Juergen Maier, managing director of Siemens UK Industry. Case studies were presented by major automation companies such as ABB, Emerson, Honeywell, Rockwell and Siemens in tandem with the manufactures that use their technology.

Mark Prisk told the conference, “Nissan estimates that the investment will create and safeguard 2,000 jobs. That news is, in my book, a real vote of confidence in the UK automotive sector. It vindicates the decision we took to put manufacturing back at the heart of our economic strategy.

“Modern manufacturing requires a continuing commitment, not only to technological investment, but to a culture of innovation. There are several examples here today, so we already have British firms leading the way. Despite difficult spending decisions elsewhere, we took the decision to ring-fence and maintain a science and research budget at £4.6 billion, and to increase capital investment by £500 million.

“We have taken on the principle of the Technology Innovations Centres to ensure that we smooth the path from original research to commercial success. We call them ‘Catapults’ for the simple reason that they are about propelling ideas into commercial ventures. The first is funded at £140 million over the next six years and focussed on high value manufacturing.”

The stage was then taken by Juergen Maier who forewarned that automation could become UK manufacturing’s Achilles heel, if we don’t take full advantage of the technologies available in the same that other European countries do. “What we are excellent at in this country is process improvement,” he said.

“We do not invest in the best automation and capital equipment, such as robotics, which Mr Prisk mentioned earlier. There are two reasons for this. One is that we do have an issue about getting finance, particularly to SMEs and despite numerous initiatives like Project Merlin or the growth funds.

“The other is that in the UK, we have an engineering culture of sweating our assets. We should be investing about 22 billion Euros into our manufacturing capability in the UK compared to the 57 billion Euros spent in Germany. We are a good 35 percent below that in terms of the amount that we invest in automation.

“We are still at levels of 2009 and nowhere near the pre-recession rates of 18.3 billion. And the forecast is that we are not going to lift out of it this year, whereas you can see Germany reinvesting, so its competitiveness will be better than the UK’s.”

Following the morning presentations, a panel discussion was chaired by Peter Marsh, Manufacturing Editor of The Financial Times. During the panel, Chi Onwurah, Labour MP for Newcastle Central and Shadow Minister for Innovation, Science and Digital Infrastructure, queried the role of enhanced capital allowances (ECAs) in making automation investment decisions and their importance to productivity gains when making the business case for investment.

The view of the panel was that it tends to be the larger companies that invest in automation and robotics. Peter Marsh asked Mike Berridge, director of business improvement at the AWS Electronics Group whether his SME would have invested more than it does at present if it had access to ECAs. Berridge replied, “We probably would.”

Chris Buxton, chief executive of the British Automation & Robotics Association (BARA), said, “Customers are always looking for product repeatability. Automation and robotics leads to better manufacturing flexibility, and not only do you get improved consistency of quality but also an increased level of quality, because the performance of the machinery employed is repeatable.

“The benefits include reduced cost, particularly in terms of labour cost. Consistency of quality leads to better competitiveness, which in turn leads to better profitability, growth and more jobs. Successful companies employ people – those going out of business make people redundant. A study by BARA shows two to three million jobs created in manufacturing, as well as indirect jobs downstream. The estimate is that between now and 2016 we will create another million jobs.”

The fact that the impact of automation on jobs in the UK formed a big part of the conference was no surprise. From Mr Prisk’s mention of Nissan’s investment in the keynote speech, to BARA’s discussion about the impact of robotics on job creation, the tone was clear. What is interesting is that there were so few dissenting voices in the crowd, from end users to MPs and manufacturers to trade bodies the view was clear; the UK’s Achilles heel can also be its jobs lifeline, provided we invest in and manage the process intelligently.

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