Sector trends

Manufacturing outlook: robotics and automation

The latest in our webinar series explores the important role robotics and automation are set to play in helping UK industry thrive in the future.

The panel

Laura Capper, Head of Manufacturing & Construction, NatWest

Mike Wilson, Chief Automation Officer, Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC)

Søren Peters, CEO, HowToRobot 

Troy Barratt, Managing Director, Contracts Engineering

Why choose automation?

UK manufacturing continues to play a vital role in strengthening the economy in 2023, even as businesses grapple with labour shortages and skills issues. One solution to those challenges could lie in the greater adoption of robotics and automation. Made Smarter, an industry-led review in 2017, said the application of robotics and automation could be worth £184bn to the UK economy over the next decade.

Manufacturing Technology Centre’s Mike Wilson says automation improves productivity by getting more out of what you put in, either from the product itself or from the other equipment. Operating machine tools that are being loaded and unloaded manually typically results in 60% to 70% utilisation. With a robotic system to carry out the same tasks, utilisation can exceed 90%.

It could also provide more consistent high quality, and greater flexibility, by facilitating quick changeovers, accommodating product redesign, and extending production hours.

Automation is likely to allow better utilisation of staff, ensuring the work they are doing adds value to the product, he says. It could also improve health and safety: robots and automation are increasingly undertaking what are considered the more mundane, dirty, or dangerous jobs previously done by people. 


Could businesses leverage tech to help with labour shortages?


Our panellists recognised that significant labour challenges in the sector remain. According to the latest data from Make UK and BDO, 74,000 vacancies are unfilled in the UK manufacturing industry. With advances in technology and cost barriers potentially coming down, could this be an opportunity for automation and robotics?

In recent years, the global pandemic and geopolitical tensions have highlighted the fragility of many globalised supply chains. The reshoring of manufacturing could be expedited by increased use of robotics technology, says Mike. “Many businesses are looking to bring manufacturing back to the UK, but they're not going to be able to do that without the labour. We need to find ways of automating things so that we can bring manufacturing back to the UK, and make our manufacturing sector stronger, more profitable and achieve growth.”


Where is the UK in terms of robot density?


Robot density is the number of robots per 10,000 employees. It tends to be used as a barometer to track the degree of automation adoption in the global manufacturing industry. Data from the International Federation of Robotics shows robotic density in the UK was growing at 101 units per 10,000 workers, but below the average of 126. Overall, the UK ranked 24th and was the lowest of the G7 nations.

For comparison, the global leader in robot density is the Republic of Korea, which has held this position since 2010. Its robot density of 932 per 10,000 workers exceeds the global average seven-fold, and its robot density has been increasing by 10% on average every year since 2015.

What to consider when adopting robotics and automation

Søren Peters, CEO of HowToRobot, says the UK has over 45 different robot vendors and more than 300 different systems integration companies building automation systems, all with different capabilities, experiences, and expertise. Finding the right supplier doesn’t have to be complicated, but it is important to get started early with the planning.

This involves documenting the process to be automated, setting specific goals on what to achieve from automation, and inviting several relevant suppliers to bid on the project. 

Manufacturers should look for robotics suppliers experienced in the type of task that the business is looking to automate, as well as their corresponding industry. Also, knowing who the local providers are in the area is important. Over 95% of automation buyers on the HowToRobot platform, which matches businesses with automation suppliers, prefer suppliers in close proximity that can fix problems at short notice, and avoid unnecessary downtime.  

A good project specification includes specific goals for what automation should achieve and a detailed description of the process to be automated. The more specific the request, the better the response from suppliers is likely to be, says Søren. “We try to keep a level playing field in the sense of the buyer specifying their project using business language and parameters, ensuring the vendors respond in the same way.” 


How could you ensure market rates?


A range of offers with similar prices is a good indicator that the vendors have an understanding of the project specification and that the solutions are relatively well tried and tested. This could be helpful in getting internal stakeholders to understand and approve the purchase, as well as supporting applications for external financing.

Case study: How Contracts Engineering is adopting robots into its operations

Contracts Engineering is a sheet metal fabricator that manufactures components and sub-assemblies for OEMs and tier-one clients. The company began exploring the idea of adopting robotics in 2017. The business was growing and seeing more situations where they struggled to hit lead times and quality requirements because too much of the work was being done manually. It purchased its first robot in 2020.

Managing Director Troy Barratt says finding the right equipment and suppliers was daunting, given the difficulties of understanding exactly what was needed. They focused on finding a reliable system integration partner, not simply buying a robot.

After evaluating several system integrators and assessing their offerings, Contract Engineering chose a partner that could design the right system, provide training, and offer strong after-sales support. “Going from zero to one robot inevitably had its snags and we are fortunate in having a partner who's been very good about upskilling and supporting us,” says Troy.

Successful integration of robotics technology depends on the engagement of staff with the changes. Fears over jobs being replaced by robots could be avoided by talking to people early on and giving them time to adjust. Employee engagement is crucial to a successful outcome.

“Robots no longer replace jobs; robots fill vacancies,” adds Troy. “Robots upskill people, they create new job opportunities, and it’s really important that everyone takes home that message.”

Since the purchase of its first robot Contract Engineering has seen staffing levels increase by 20% to 25%. They are now in the process of buying their third robot.

Tops tips from the panel

Mike Wilson: Engage your workforce in the process early on and don't be afraid. It is a challenge, but there are people here to help.

Søren Peters: Don’t start automating the most complicated things; pick something simple that everyone is comfortable with. And let the market help you understand what is complicated and what is not.

Troy Barratt: Engage with an impartial partner and reiterate the point that robots don’t replace jobs, they fill vacancies.


We have lots more insight on the outlook for manufacturing and the future of business.

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This material is published by NatWest Group plc (“NatWest Group”), for information purposes only and should not be regarded as providing any specific advice. Recipients should make their own independent evaluation of this information and no action should be taken, solely relying on it. This material should not be reproduced or disclosed without our consent. It is not intended for distribution in any jurisdiction in which this would be prohibited. Whilst this information is believed to be reliable, it has not been independently verified by NatWest Group and NatWest Group makes no representation or warranty (express or implied) of any kind, as regards the accuracy or completeness of this information, nor does it accept any responsibility or liability for any loss or damage arising in any way from any use made of or reliance placed on, this information. Unless otherwise stated, any views, forecasts, or estimates are solely those of NatWest Group, as of this date and are subject to change without notice. Copyright © NatWest Group. All rights reserved.

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