18 September 2019

Robots & automation – UK regions and businesses face being left behind

Professor Tony Prescott from our Department of Computer Science and Sheffield Robotics has given evidence to the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee ahead of a report published today. The report says that unless the Government increases efforts to manage the transition to automation, UK regions and businesses could find themselves left behind and uncompetitive.

Robot arm

Unless the Government steps up efforts to manage the transition to automation, entire regions of the UK face being left behind and British businesses could find themselves being uncompetitive, says the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee in a report published today.

The Automation and the future of work report finds the UK’s slow place in moving to automation – the UK lags behind its G7 competitors in its adoption of robots – has allowed other countries to steal a march in leading the Fourth Industrial Revolution and seizing upon the opportunities for economic growth and jobs.

Professor Tony Prescott gave evidence to the BEIS Committee ahead of the report and said: "This new parliamentary report shows the importance of robotics and automation to the UK economy. Universities have a key role to play in understanding the role of robotics in the workplace and society and in training people to be ready for the new jobs that are being created. The University of Sheffield is very excited to be involved in this challenge."

To ramp up the leadership and co-ordination needed to enable the UK to capitalise on these new technologies, the report urges the Government to come forward with a UK Robot and AI Strategy by the end of 2020. The report outlines a series of measures which could be introduced as part of this strategy, to help support businesses, industries, and universities and boost the adoption of automation.

Rachel Reeves, Chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee said: “The switch to automation brings challenges for businesses and for workers, with fears for livelihoods or disruption to job roles coming to the fore. The real danger for the UK economy and for future jobs growth is, however, not that we have too many robots in the workplace but that we have too few. For all the potential of the UK, and despite our excellent tech and research base, the fact is that we are lagging behind our international competitors in our adoption of robot and automation technologies. Productivity, economic growth, and ultimately job-creation and higher earnings, will flow to those countries that capitalise on these technologies."

A lack of awareness and understanding of automation is harming business productivity, especially for SMEs, the report finds. The report is critical of the Government’s decision to close the Manufacturing Advice Service in 2015, describing it as “a mistake” which “has contributed to making it more difficult for businesses to find help and advice”. The report recommends that the Government funds an impartial source of advice for businesses that want to invest in automation. The report also calls for the Government to come forward with a plans for a fully-funded UK-wide advice and information scheme based on the “Made Smarter” North-West pilot.

The report recognises the narrowing of the school curriculum in recent years, notes the demand for STEM subjects, and outlines the need for a flexible and relevant school and university curriculum. The report also calls for the large-scale expansion of lifelong learning and reskilling and says these are essential to ensure opportunities “don’t just fall to those with the ‘right’ degrees and skillsets” and to enable the UK to improve on the only 17 per cent female workforce in the technology sector.