So what exactly is Mike Wilson doing at MTC?
Robotics industry veteran Mike Wilson surprised many recently by leaving a top seat at KUKA and moving over to the role of Chief Automation Officer for the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC). It was an interesting development in an industry which is still struggling to get the message across to UK industry that it needs to automate. So Neil Martin, Head of Content at Bot-Hive, thought it was a good time to ask Mike what exactly he'll be doing at MTC.
Normally I would grab a chance to talk to Mike at one of the many industry trade shows that we are no longer allowed to attend. So, more’s the pity, a pint and a sandwich in a cosy bar had to be replaced with a virtual chat. How I can’t wait to hit the road again!
To call Mike an industry veteran is no exaggeration. His early career featured a stint as a Principal Engineer at the Rover Group, before seven years as at FANUC between 1989 and 1996 (the final two as managing director). There followed a number of jobs around the industry, before senior sales roles at ABB and landing the job of Managing Director of KUKA Systems in 2019. He’s also been on the Council of the British Automation and Robot Association (BARA) for 26 years (Chairman for the last 11 years) and was Chairman of the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) from the turn of the century to 2003.
So, it's fair to say that Mike has been there, done that and got the T-shirt.
UKIVA 2019 and Bot-Talks
I started with a question for Mike which relates to a theme of his recent presentations. I last saw him speak at UKIVA 2019 and at our Bot-Talks later that year (such innocent times), and he made the point, as he has done on many occasions, that the UK industry is way behind when it comes to automation and robotics. So, as we stand now, still in the midst of Covid-19, have things improved?
Mike: “The general trend is still similar but there are positive signals giving cause for optimism. Brexit was starting to generate labour shortages as there are increasing numbers of Eastern Europeans returning home. The challenge of worker density in our factories, caused by COVID-19, has also started to generate interest. The robot sales numbers, collected by BARA, show that at the end of Q2 2020 we had already surpassed the figure achieved by end Q3 in 2019, despite the significant impact on sales in Q2 from COVID-19.
“Interestingly in Q2 the largest purchasing sector was food and beverage taking 30% of all sales. The cumulative sales to food and beverage by end Q2 were 100% up on the same period last year.”
Not a simple problem
So, if he had a wish list of actions you could implement now to improve the situation, what would be at the top of his agenda?
“This is not a simple problem and unfortunately there is not one solution. However, I would propose three main actions.
“Firstly, via a high-profile campaign, supported by senior politicians, promoting the need to increase automation adoption and the benefits that will result.
“Secondly by providing a financial support package to subsidise the provision of independent support and advice to companies for the development, specification and procurement of automation solutions.
“Thirdly by providing financial incentives specifically aimed at encouraging investment in automation. This may be achieved via a repackaging of the Annual Investment Allowance and/or R&D tax credits but something more direct and creative would be interesting (eg tax breaks for investment in robot automation). However, it is important the financial support together with the promotional campaign are elements of a dedicated and coordinated programme to revitalise UK manufacturing and promote the importance of a strong manufacturing sector.”
As we know, Mike has been around the block a few times in terms of the robotics industry. So I asked him, when we think about how much the UK is behind, does the robotics industry have to shoulder some of the blame for this? Have they consistently failed to get the message across?
“I believe much of the problem is cultural and therefore not one group is to blame. In UK manufacturing we do not invest in capital equipment to the same extent as our major competitors which then impacts investment in robot automation.
“One challenge faced by the supply side, the robot suppliers and system integrators, is that these businesses are generally relatively small, due to the limited market available. Most of the robot suppliers are subsidiaries of large, global organisations but still have limited local resources. Therefore the supply has limited capacity to change the direction of travel of the demand side, UK manufacturing, which is much larger.”
Manufacturing Technology Centre
Then we turned to the MTC, which was established in 2010 as an independent Research and Technology Organisation (RTO), and represents one of the largest public sector investments in UK manufacturing. So I was interested, did the MTC, whose brief is to inspire Great British manufacturing on the global stage, feel that they had a gap in their armoury which he has now filled?
“The MTC has many strengths both in terms of technology development and application as well as business transformation. There is considerable expertise that has been focussed on application development for robot and automation applications. However there has been less activity towards driving the adoption of automation.
“My role is to provide this using the existing capabilities and develop new capabilities as required. In addition to work with all other relevant companies and organisations to ensure we both make the best of existing UK capability and develop anything that is missing.”
So how did he begin his time at MTC and what are his priorities as he sees them?
“Firstly to map the existing MTC capability which is relevant to the adoption of automation so we can make this available, in a structured format, to UK businesses looking to automate. Following this we can also liaise with the automation supply chain to gain a strong mutual understanding of our capabilities and activities.
“In parallel with this internal activity also to work on the promotion of the fundamental message that increased automation adoption is important for UK manufacturing, the assistance MTC can provide to those companies who are interested and commencing the delivery of products and services to meet their needs.”
I have to ask myself, is this a savvy move by MTC, an acknowledgement that they need industry stalwarts who have got their hands dirty to help get the message across?
So I moved onto to which Mike preferred, working in a company, or in industry organisations.
“I do enjoy both roles and feel equally at home in either. I have been very fortunate to be able work in roles and companies who recognise the need to drive more automation adoption which is very much in line with the message coming from BARA. I have had the opportunity to work with many companies of all sizes and sectors. In many cases I have been able to visit their facilities in diverse activities ranging from electronics and food through to aerospace and shipbuilding.
“This has given me great experience of different company cultures, manufacturing processes and operations. I have also had the opportunity to interact with governments, made numerous presentations and meet very interesting people.”
Next question is about the other great drama in our lives, Brexit, which looms large at the end of year. As we prepare to leave Europe, does he think this puts us in an even worse position? Does it make it harder to have a dialogue with the IFR for example?
“I do not believe Brexit will have much impact on our role within IFR as this is an international organisation. It may make some of the relationships we have with EU organisations a little more challenging and participation in EU funded development projects might be more difficult or unavailable.
“In terms of our position regarding robot adoption we are behind most of the major countries in Europe. Selling into EU markets may become more difficult as we will no longer have the advantages of being inside the market. To ensure we can be competitive we do need to increase our use of automation.”
The future of automation?
Looking ahead, when we come to the end of this ten years stretch in 2029, where would he want the UK to be in terms of automation and perhaps more importantly, where does he think we will be?
“I do believe we need to address the adoption issue and implement much more automation. I would not like to put a target in place but as a guide since we have the ninth largest manufacturing sector in the world perhaps we should aim to achieve the ninth largest robot density - we are currently 22nd. This would put us at the same level as Italy and ahead of France, but would require a doubling of the number of operational robots in the UK, based on today’s numbers which will of course be increasing over the period.”
Government to blame?
Politicians are scapegoats for many things and governments are often blamed for macro failures, but does Mike think politicians should be doing more to advocate automation and robotics, and establish some meaningful financial help?
“There is some financial help available via R&D tax credits and the Annual Investment Allowance but more direct assistance both to bring in expertise to help scope, specify and procure systems (some assistance is available via Made Smarter but only in the North West) together with more directed incentives to invest in automation would be a significant improvement.
“Government providing more vocal leadership as to the benefits and need for greater automation adoption would be a major step forward. Politicians have often avoided the issue due to the perception that robots lead to loss of jobs. However this has been shown to be incorrect with the opposite often being the case. A great step forward was the BEIS Committee looking into ‘Automation and the future of work’.
“In their report, published Sept 2019, the first line of the Summary stated ‘The problem for the UK labour market and our economy is not that we have too many robots in the workplace, but that we have too few.’ It would be a great step forward if the government would also actively promote the same message.”
People’s perceptions about robots
So, final question, I am always fascinated when we talk to others about what we do in this industry, what people think when we say robots. So I asked Mike, for the person on the street, are there still many misconceptions about robots and how they are becoming a factor in our lives?
“The message often understood regarding robots comes from science fiction or at least films where robots are often portrayed as a threat - Terminator would be a great example.
“Unfortunately the popular media, newspapers and television, do continue to promote the message that robots will lead to loss of jobs. This then influences the ‘man in the street’.
“However, those studies which do indicate robots will cause loss of jobs are mainly referring to the impact of robot process automation (RPA) or software bots. These are AI type tools which will take over roles in white collar sectors such as banking, legal etc.
“My interest is industrial robots and there are many studies indicating these will lead not only to growing employment but also more interesting and better paid roles. Industrial robots are mostly used to perform the mundane, arduous and repetitive tasks which are largely robotic in nature and therefore better performed by robots. In UK manufacturing we have approx. 21,000 robots and 2.6M workers. Robots therefore are less than 1% of the workforce so there is a long way to go before robots create significant employment issues.
“The growing use of robot vacuum cleaners, robot lawnmowers and also toys will make acceptance much easier as people will get used to the technologies. I also believe the younger members of our society do not want to do the manual jobs that we and our parents have undertaken.
“Therefore I do believe robots will be seen as a positive factor. There is one significant caveat which is the benefit from the use of automation and robots must be shared equitably within society. So if use of robots leads to greater profits, workers (as well as owners) should benefit from increased pay and/or shorter working weeks. This is an aspect of the growing adoption of robots where government can have a significant influence.”
Flying the robotics flag
So that’s it, Mike is fully ensconced at MTC and has his work cut out flying the flag for the robotics industry. The MTC has to help break the UK automation logjam and has to do it in a world stalked by Covid and in a country about to see what Brexit really means.
It will be difficult to judge whether, over this decade, the MTC can help steer the good ship UK industry over some choppy waters and into a sheltered harbour full of automation and robots. But with Mike now as part of the crew, they perhaps have a greater chance than before.
Let’s revisit later to see how they are progressing!