21 September 2021
Sameer Jaffary By Sameer Jaffary

Is the UK Ready for Warehouse Automation?

Rising e-commerce activity and the lasting impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a rapid acceleration in the global adoption of automation in warehouses and distribution centres.

This has been so exciting for us at CM Industrial and has led to recent articles like Robotics Continue to Revolutionise the Automation Market and 5 Companies Revolutionising Manufacturing with AI.

It’s no surprise that automation technologies have undergone this global trend. They offer more efficient solutions, lower labour costs and help prevent injury or infrastructure damage. And there are so many innovative companies operating in this space too – especially in the US and Asia.

But while these two regions remain at the forefront innovation in automation, the European market is beginning to catch-up. This is even true for the UK, which has admittedly been slow to the party in recent history.

Why is the UK Waking up to Automation?

In the UK automation market, there’s been two major catalysts for change: Brexit and the global pandemic.

Firstly, Brexit led to a major exodus of EU nationals who had been working within the UK logistics industry. For example, a recent study by Logistics UK showed that, in 2019, 79,000 of these people left the industry – including 7,000 lift truck drivers.

There’s now a lack of HGV drivers and qualified MHE operators within the space. And industries continue to lean on automation to meet demand with their limited workforces. Robots are being used to undertake the work that people find repetitive and physically demanding. This is helping businesses meet targets, which would be impossible with an all-human workforce.

In the last 18 months, the situation with the UK labour shortages is believed to have deteriorated because of challenges related to the global pandemic. Partnered with a surge in e-commerce activity, this has again encouraged more industries to adopt automation technologies so that they can work more productively, while adhering to social distancing.

It is not just labour that’s in short supply. The UK is struggling for space, with more distribution centres needed to meet the demand created by an e-commerce boom and the grocery sector.

By the summer of 2020, it was reported that take-up of industrial and logistics space (units of 100,000 sq ft +) has hit record levels, reaching 22.4 million sq ft. This was 66% above the long-term average, with most of the take-up attributed to online retailers like Amazon.

So, with land and labour in short supply, automation is becoming even more valuable to UK warehousing firms. It has been suggested that an automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS) could save up to 85% of otherwise wasted warehouse space and reduce 60% of labour costs – all the while increasing through-put and accuracy.

Which Companies Will Lead the Way?

There’s so many innovative, automation technologies already on the market in the UK. Nottingham based L.A.C. Conveyors provide a number of solutions - ranging from autonomous manoeuvrable robots and ASRS mini-load cranes to robot palletising and more.

During 2020, the L.A.C. automated conveyor system was able to increase Hermes’ returns capacity by 50% in its national distribution hub. This was achieved by the system which processed 7,000 parcels per hour (76,000 a day), while lowering the cost per parcel.

The return automation conveyor system allowed Hermes to automatically sort returns parcel traffic into 28 primary destinations. There are now eight sorting zones that feed into more than 400 client destinations.

L.A.C. also installed a human-machine interface (HMI) into the conveyor system, which allows Hermes to enable or disable machine functions, as well as screens for diagnostics and fault finding, which allows on-site teams full analysis of the automation system.

However, it’s not just UK companies that have realised the rising potential for automation in the UK. Global major players, like Dematic, Jungheinrich and SSI, are also strengthening their positions in the UK market.

Japanese multinational, Toyota, has also stepped up its game to encourage further adoption of automation technologies in the UK. This summer, the company opened the doors to its automated handling technology demonstration centre in Leicester. At the 800 square meter facility, customers can see the company’s state-of-the-art AGVs and RadioShuttle systems in operation - within a realistic working warehouse setting.

My Thoughts

With so many exciting technologies and companies, the UK automation market has an exciting future. From the conversations I’m having with my network, there’s an optimism that industries are waking up to the value of automation and ready to embrace its full worth.

Do you think that the UK is ready to fully embrace automation? I’d love to hear what you have to say, please feel free to email me at Sameer.Jaffary@industrial-cm.com.

You can see more of my automation content on my profile page.

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Sameer Jaffary

Sameer is an executive search consultant specialising in the Warehouse Automation and Intralogistics market. His vast network and specialist knowledge of this market combine to ensure he delivers a bespoke, tailored and detailed search process. His passion for the industry and his care to the value and aspirations of both clients and candidates allows him to develop long lasting relationships.

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