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Robotics investment has contributed around 10 per cent of growth per capita in OECD countries from 1993 to 2016, but the UK lags behind the US, Germany, Japan and South Korea in robotics investment.

"The UK clearly has a lot to learn from other regions", or so said Neil Kinson, chief of staff at Redwood Software, after the company revealed a report suggesting that when it comes to investment in robotics, the UK is a laggard of the OECD.

The study, produced in conjunction with the Centre for Economic and Business Research (Cebr) revealed that the US, Germany, Japan and South Korea all invest far more, as a proportion to the size of their respective economies, in robotics and robot density amongst the workforce than the UK. The study also claims that advances in robotics do not represent a threat to jobs.

The report found that robotics investment in the US was $86 billion in 2015, approximately 62 times that of the UK, recovering strongly from less than $30 billion during the recession in 2009.

New industrial robots installed in the UK in 2015 were down 21 per cent against the 2014 level, and the country is generally perceived as having a low robot density rate, with only 33 robots per 10,000 employees operating across general industry. Brexit could have a further detrimental impact on the UK’s rate of robotics density and presents renewed challenges in setting the UK up to succeed in this area moving forward.

“Given the tough political climate, there are certainly interesting times ahead for the robotics market in the UK,” said David Whitaker, Managing Economist at Cebr. “Growth and modernisation in the automotive industry has been a key driver of UK robotics growth in recent years. As a result, continued growth in the UK robotics market will depend heavily on whether planned investments in this industry do indeed progress following Brexit, as this will stipulate many robot unit purchasing decisions.”

Neil Kinson added: “Robotics and automation in manufacturing has been a contentious topic in the last 12 months – but the research shows that the sector is one of the best places to invest today, and the returns are likely to improve as time goes on. Even in such uncertain times in the post-Brexit economy, the UK government must do more in collaboration with businesses and industry to bolster such investment.”

This study focuses on the impact of robotics automation on economic development across OECD countries, including the United Kingdom and the United States. It considers trends in robotics automation over 23 countries over the period 1993 to 2015, before applying a growth accounting framework and econometric analysis to quantify the impact of robotics automation on two key macroeconomic indicators: GDP per capita and labour productivity.

Global perspective

Worldwide, investment in robotics reached an 18-year peak in 2015, the study showed. While robotics remains a relatively small part of global economies, it has made a significant contribution to worldwide GDP growth – as much as 10 per cent of total growth over the last 22 years.

The study showed that investment in robotics has a greater positive impact on the economy than more established sectors such as information technology, construction and real estate – even though all these sectors benefit from economies of scale that robotics cannot match.

“There is no doubt about it – robotics is now a significant contributor to economic growth,” Mr. Whitaker noted. “Robotics’ cumulative impact on the overall economy has been much larger compared to the monetary value of robotics today. We expect to see progressively more robotic automation in the years to come, with commensurate benefits to overall economic growth.”

“The pace of robotic automation has accelerated in recent years, as technology grows ever more sophisticated,” Kinson said. “The new frontier for automation will be the automation of mundane back office tasks, and an approach that focuses on maximum efficiency for the task at hand, rather than simply swapping human effort for machine effort.’

Robots don’t want your job

A dominant theme in discussion around robotics has been the fear that increased robotic automation will lead to higher levels of unemployment. While the study did not directly address this issues, evidence points towards robotic automation being a positive for employment.

“There is clear evidence that points towards robotic automation in many cases being a complement for human labour, rather than a direct substitute. As more mundane tasks are automated, human effort becomes more valuable as it is focused on higher-level tasks, creativity, know-how and thinking,” Mr. Whitaker said.

“Robotic automation is increasing the total number of jobs available – but it is also changing them,” Kinson said. “The increased level of automation investment highlights the need to rethink how we approach the skillsets needed in the workplace, and the importance of working with automation, and not against it.”

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