The U.K. Needs More Robots to Improve Worker Efficiency

The U.K. needs more robots to help solve economic problems like worker shortages and low efficiency, industry groups said Monday.

An employee watches as a ABB Ltd. automated robots work on Mini automobile parts, produced by Bayerische Motoren Werke AG (BMW), as they moves along the production line at the company’s Cowley plant in Oxford, U.K., on Monday, Nov. 18, 2013. BMW sales, including Mini and Rolls-Royce, rose 11 percent to 481,657 vehicles in the third quarter, boosted by demand for the 3-Series line, which has been expanded to include a GT version. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

We see “these headlines, some are fear-mongering or alarmist, that robots may take jobs,” Patrick Schwarzkopf, Managing Director of the VDMA Robotics and Automation Association, said in London. “The reality is that the problem might not be that robots are installed — the problem might be that robots are not installed.”

Highly robotized economies including Singapore, South Korea, Germany and Japan have very low jobless rates, he noted, and sectors like the German automotive industry show that there can be simultaneous growth in employment and the use of robots.

The U.K. has long relied on imported labor, which some economists say deters firms from investing in new equipment and machinery. That could be one contributing factor to the U.K.’s abysmal productivity performance, which is now around 20% below its pre-2008 path.

With a new points-based immigration systemset to take hold in 2021, British firms will no longer be able to rely on the free flow of workers from the European Union. That will probably force them to automate, according to Mike Wilson, chairman of the British Automation and Robot Association.

Part of the issue for the U.K. could be cultural. “We tend to be very risk averse, we don’t like to use new technologies, and robotic automation is perceived as risky,” Wilson said. “We should be buying new equipment to be more competitive and more efficient.”

By Jill Ward,