Skills shortage hampering UK manufacturers' automation shift

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More than three-quarters of UK manufacturers are investing in automation, according to a new report, but a lack of technical skills means the UK may be falling behind.

According to research from manufacturers' association Make UK and software firm Infor, the manufacturing sector is set for a big surge in the use of AI and machine learning. 

The report suggests companies are increasing investment in automation across a broad range of technologies and functions, from manufacturing processes to product design and development. 

More than half are investing in AI, machine learning and augmented reality, with almost two-in-five planning to adopt generative AI.

Similarly, one-fifth plan to automate between a quarter and half of their processes in the next two years, while a quarter plan to automate between 10% and a quarter.

"We are seeing a substantial shift in the adoption of digital automation as manufacturers seek to improve efficiency, instill agility and drive greater productivity," says Andrew Kinder, Infor SVP of industry strategy. 

"While generative AI is still in its relative infancy, intent to capitalize on it is incredibly encouraging, with many companies saying they are aware of and planning to use the technology."

Barriers to adoption

Despite a positive outlook on automation in the sector, survey respondents said they were facing barriers, including high costs, workplace culture and integration, and data challenges. 

Nearly half (46%) said they are experiencing a lack of technical skills, which is hampering their ability to integrate automated tools across operations. 

As a result, Make UK is calling on the government to roll out its Made Smarter scheme nationwide to help SMEs adopt digital technologies, work with companies to address the skills gap, and reform the Apprentice Levy. 

"There is still more to be done to match our competitors, especially among SMEs who face far greater hurdles in adopting digital technology," says Verity Davidge, director of policy at Make UK. 

"As well as tackling the digital skills barrier, which remains the biggest hurdle, government should roll out the Made Smarter scheme across the UK. This has a proven success in delivering step change for SMEs on their automation journey."

According to research from Gallup and AWS earlier this year, more than two thirds of UK businesses are struggling to find the digital workers they need – with 45% attributing this to a shortage of qualified applicants.


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Meanwhile, a report from digital services company AND Digital found 61% of business growth depends on digital outcomes, with eight-in-ten managing directors revealing a lack of digital skills is having a negative impact on their organization.

In an effort to bridge the gap, the government has this week announced £118 million in funding for AI training, with centers for postgrad research, scholarships, a new visa scheme and a push for students to take on AI and data courses.

"The UK is in a strong position to harness the power of AI to transform many aspects of our lives for the better," said Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser, chief executive of UKRI.

"Crucial to this endeavor is nurturing the talented people and teams we need to apply AI to a broad spectrum of challenges."

Emma Woollacott

Emma Woollacott is a freelance journalist writing for publications including the BBC, Private Eye, Forbes, Raconteur and specialist technology titles.