The latest national Manufacturing Barometer report reveals that just 16 per cent of UK SME manufacturing businesses have adopted robots, with another 13 per cent saying they plan to start using them.
But over 70 per cent have no plans, or are unsure about, introducing robots.
Published by SWMAS and partner Economic Growth Solutions, the study also highlights a sector experiencing its toughest quarter in a decade. More SME manufacturers report a reduction in sales, profits and staff numbers than recorded in any period across the last ten years.
Some 44 per cent of businesses experienced a fall in profits in the last quarter – 10 per cent more than in the previous three months.
Simon Howes, MD of SWMAS, authors of the report, said: “With both Brexit and a potential change in government causing ongoing uncertainty the Manufacturing Barometer shows manufacturers are finding their ability to recruit, invest and increase sales is ever more restricted. So, finding technological solutions is increasingly important.
“And there is an opportunity to do more with robots: you can see this in the government’s Industrial Strategy, the continuing drive to increase productivity, and the need to find new ways to operate with fewer staff.
“Although the UK ranks as the 8th largest industrial nation, we are 22nd in the global league of robot adoption – we must ask why that is, and this is what we set out to explore in our study of the UK’s SME manufacturing sector.
“Three important things came out of our research. The first is the simple truth that so few SME manufacturers in the UK are using robots in their businesses. Secondly, a belief that low volume, variable or difficult to handle products make robots unviable. Thirdly, more than one third of SME manufacturers who do not use robots are unsure if their competitors do, raising questions around awareness of what is actually possible for them.”
Dean Barnes, Regional Director of Economic Growth Solutions, said: “This quarter, we are left in no doubt that the sector is experiencing one of the toughest periods recorded during the ten years of the Manufacturing Barometer.
“More SME manufacturers have experienced a reduction in sales, profits and recruitment than ever seen before.
“That said, the resilience of the sector is still evident. Whilst a fifth of manufacturers note ‘survival’ or ‘getting through Brexit’ as an aspiration, over a quarter talk about growth and over a fifth reference investment, whether in machinery and premises or people, automation, new products, and establishing new markets.
“Manufacturers have a real interest in identifying opportunity for their businesses and we have to find a way to connect them to the opportunity robot technology could provide.”
Simon Howes said: “We call on manufacturers to look again at robots and at how their competitors are using them. We also ask robot suppliers to look specifically at SME manufacturers’ concerns and provide better awareness of the latest solutions.
"It also seems to be true, as the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy highlights, that a lack of awareness around robots is harming the productivity of businesses, particularly for SMEs.
“For the potential of robots to be realised, the UK’s SME manufacturers need much better awareness, tailored advice and flexible support to help them plan and integrate robots into their businesses - this is a huge challenge, but one we can overcome.”