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17 Jun 2016 What is the Future For Robotics in Industry? By Martyn Ingram

Martyn Ingram Morgan MarineI grew up in a time when robots were the dream-machines of the future, either cast as malevolent baddies in melodramatic sci-fi films or as futuristic help-mates on Tomorrow’s World.

But, as they say, the future is here. Robotics and automation are, increasingly, a boon to industry.

The recent Future-Proofing UK Manufacturing report, from Barclays Corporate, predicts that investing an additional £1.2bn in robotics as part of the manufacturing process could add up to £60.5bn to the UK purse over the next decade.

I can understand the excitement which surrounds the predictions of a great increase in automation in industry -  it feels as if we are on the brink of a new era.

Of course, predictions like these bring fears that technological advances will leave a trail of unemployment in their wake. The Chief Economist of the Bank of England said recently that up to half of the jobs in the UK -  in manufacturing, clerical roles, admin, accountancy and sales could be wiped out by robots within the next 20 years.

While I’m sure there is some validity to what he and others are predicting I suspect the real picture is less extreme. For a company like Morgan Marine, I can’t forsee a time when we won’t rely completely upon people power.  

Everything we produce is tailored to fit the precise requirements of individual clients, so for us, automation wouldn’t be desirable. We don’t produce large numbers of identical products so robots would be of little practical use to us and many other manufacturers across the UK work in a similar way. 

The Office of National Statistics recently outlined the probabilities of incoming automation in various occupations. The caring sector ‘scored’ highly, and I found this quite alarming. Shouldn’t people be cared for by people?

There’s a broader philosophical question surrounding mass automation. If predictions are accurate, a large percentage of the population will be freed from the employment pool within a generation or two.  

In Wales we know the hardships communities face after the loss of an industry. Do we have the imagination to re-fashion the way our society works, so those people can live productive, satisfying lives outside the workplace? It is a question for economists, philosophers and sociologists to answer, and it is a question which can’t be avoided for very long.