Brexit Britain Could Replace Migrants With Robots

  • Automation providers ABB and Locus see bright future in U.K.
  • Warehousing, food and drink sectors could lose out on EU labor

In Brexit Britain, robots are booting up to fill jobs held by European migrants as Prime Minister Theresa May’s government prepares to cut immigration.

Wilmington, Massachusetts-based Locus Robotics intends to start selling an autonomous machine that whizzes around storehouses, delivering boxes from shelves to shipping bays, in Britain this year. ABB Ltd. of Switzerland supplies industrial robots to British pancake, poppadom and marshmallow producers. Fanuc Corp. of Japan, which makes computer-controlled machine tools for smartphone providers, plans to open a new U.K. plant in May.

If Brexit “is going to result in fewer being involved in this kind of work, it will make it a more attractive market for us,” Locus founder Bruce Welty said by phone.

May, who last week triggered two years of talks on leaving the European Union, has said she aims to bring annual inward migration down to below 100,000 from almost 300,000 currently. That’s a particular concern to U.K. companies in businesses like food production and retail distribution, which rely heavily on EU migrants and have lagged behind their peers elsewhere in investing in automation.

About one-quarter of packers and pickers in the warehouses that supply the likes of Amazon, Asos Plc and Wm Morrison Supermarkets Plc were not born in Britain, while 41 percent of those employed in food manufacturing are from abroad, according to the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford. As Brexit threatens to curb the number of EU migrants coming to the country, companies are looking to accelerate their push into robotics and automation to help make up the shortfall.

Warehousing company Wincanton Plc, which operates distribution sites for Kraft Heinz Co. and other companies, is considering buying Locus Robotics tools as it sees rising demand for its services, it said in an emailed statement.

“There is a labor challenge in the U.K. market for those low-skilled areas,” Ian Howe, director of consumer goods at Wincanton, said by phone. “We expect to see a drive in the industry to increase utilization of these kind of systems to offset those challenges.”

Productivity Boost

The LocusBot, a shoulder-high robot with a touch screen as its head, navigates the aisles of a warehouse like a restaurant-goer trying to reach a vacant table, finding the most efficient route to an item before a human picker loads it onto the machine’s carrying tray. The $35,000 robot can boost the number of items picked by a worker by 200 percent to 500 percent, Welty said, and six employees can handle work normally done by 20 to 25.

The company, split off from automation provider Quiet Logistics Inc. a little more than a year ago, has sold 200 of the automated assistants in the U.S. and says it sees the potential to sell thousands in the U.K.

While May’s government has pledged to boost investment in artificial intelligence and robotics to increase productivity, the U.K. trails competitors in the number of robots it employs in manufacturing. Excluding automakers, the country has 33 of them installed per 10,000 employees, compared with 170 in Germany and 411 in South Korea.

If U.K. employers embrace automation, 15 million British jobs could be lost, Bank of England Chief Economist Andy Haldane has said. While the rise of robots has prompted concerns about what will happen to displaced workers, some employers in the U.K. see a solution to a looming labor shortage.

A Kraft Heinz distribution site in the north of England allows stock to be processed with almost no manual handling required. Fewer than a hundred people can operate a facility that processes 100 million pallets of baked beans a year. The facility can operate 24 hours a day with “no tea breaks or shift handovers,” Howe said.

Two-Armed Robot

More companies are looking for “collaborative” tools, such as ABB’s 40,000-pound ($50,000) YuMi, a muscular, two-armed robot designed to undertake complex tasks alongside a human co-worker on an assembly line, U.K. sales manager Mike Wilson said during an interview at the company’s robotics hub in Milton Keynes, 50 miles north of London.

Describing Brexit as a “step-change,” Wilson said U.K. sales could grow by 10 percent to 15 percent a year. Minimum-wage increases are an additional incentive for companies to invest in automation, he said.

“Probably for the first time for a long time, we’ve got a number of factors that are all looking positive in terms of the use of robotics,” he said. “Maybe we’ll look back at this in five years time and say, ‘Yes, that was the point when it did change.’”

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