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British industry looks to robots for way out of recession

Darting and swaying, one of Britain's newest workers went to work, quickly directing a fine spray of gray vitreous enamel into metal boxes that would eventually become ovens in new kitchen stoves.

For general manager David Vickers of the TI Creda Company, with an annual sales of $120 million, the worker was ideal in every way: The enamel was applied with a high standard of efficiency, at the right thickness, in the right places, and around the clock.

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The robot in this Midlands factory is not alone. So many more have been put on the job that Britain is now in fifth place, worldwide - after Japan, the United States, West Germany, and Sweden - in the number at work.

The age of the robot has emphatically arrived - and the Thatcher government sees it as one of the salvations for industry in this recession-hit land that gave birth to the Industrial Revolution a century ago.

The word ''robot'' still conjures up a negative image to many British people - half man, half machine, straight from a science fiction movie. Younger film-goers think of the shiny, high-voiced R2D2 in ''Star Wars.''

To some unionists, they mean job losses, although an official at the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers (AUE) told this newspaper that robots had made ''relatively little impact'' on jobs so far. The AUEW accepts the need for British industry to lower costs, yet is watching out for places where jobs might be lost.

To the prime minister, who is anxious that Britain be ready to take advantage of any opportunity to end the economic recession, robots are an urgently necessary way to lower costs and boost efficiency in a competitive trading world.

Just what is a robot?

Experts here define it as a sophisticated mechanical or electronic metal arm, complete with ''shoulder,'' ''elbow,'' and fully articulated ''wrist,'' which is programmed by computer to perform certain tasks.

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I stood in front of such a mechanical arm as it dipped and swayed to a programmed rhythm on the factory floor of GEC Robot Systems Ltd. in the city of Rugby in Warwickshire. Painted orange, it looked like an ostrich which had lost its bearings. Yet the $:50,000 ($75,500) arm is capable of a great deal. As one manufacturer puts it, robots can ''pick, place, stack, pack, feel, find, search, inspect, assemble, even make decisions.''

According to GEC sales manager Colin Knapman, similar robots are doing jobs humans find dangerous or tedious. They are applying polyvinyl chloride (PVC) on British Leyland car underbodies, spraying black paint into Ford Escort wheel arches at Ford's huge Halewood plant, and applying anticorrosion primer to inner front wheelhouse panels on Vauxhall car models at a plant at Ellesmere Port.

Elsewhere, they spray soundproofing material onto the bottom of car chassis, paint enamel onto oven interiors, help assemble parts of cars, stack heavy sacks on pallets, and pack pharmaceuticals without human contamination.

The two newest cars in Britain - the Ford Sierra and the British Leyland Maestro - are being built with the aid of dozens of robots on new assembly lines. The robots allow plants to switch quickly from one body style to another.

British Leyland has spent almost (STR)32 million in its Cowley Plant at Oxford alone on what will eventually be 116 robots.

One of them is even a ''sniffer.'' In a unique test for leaks, the Austin-Rover division of British Leyland at Cowley injects a mixture of air and helium into a car body, and robot sensors sweep along the outside, ''sniffing'' for leaks. If they find one, they print out a cross-section scale drawing of the chassis with the faulty point marked.

''Amazing,'' commented Masanori Takeuchi, chief London correspondent of Japan's leading economic journal, the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, as he watched.

For a Japanese to compliment a British robot development is high praise indeed: Of the 24,800 robots installed in Western industry by the end of 1982, Japan had 13,000 while Britain had only 1,152, according to the British Robot Association. (The US had 6,250, West Germany 3,500, Sweden 1,300, France 950, Italy 700, and Belgium 350.)

Robots can do other things, too. At a nuclear power station in Oldbury, a prototype is being sent down 30 feet through nine-inch refueling pipes to the heart of the reactor core to carry out remote-controlled maintenance.

The next stage is to give robots ''eyes'' - television screens - and extra sensing powers and control, with laser beams, so that they can perform more sensitive jobs such as arc-welding. The idea is to program a robot so that it acquires the human ability to cope with deviations and errors.

British officials envision robots picking individual pieces of fruit in orchards - even though GEC has just turned down a request from New Zealand to develop a robot to go among the fruit trees.

The company is concentrating on arc-welding at the moment, but government officials think fruit will not long be free from mechanical hands. Needed is a recognization system so the robot can distinguish between apple and plum, and between varying sizes of fruit.

Research at the University of Edinburgh is looking into the concept of ''artificial intelligence'' with which to program robots more completely than is possible today.

Britain has launched a campaign to boost the number of robots. Because the Japanese are so far ahead in controlling robots and thinking up new ways to use them, one in every four robots installed here last year was built in Japan, according to the British Robot Association. Of the 439 robots installed in 1982, only 23 percent were built in Britain, down from 29 percent in 1981.

''We don't want to reinvent the wheel,'' says Mr. Knapman. ''. . . It's quicker for us to import Japanese technology at the moment.''

The British Department of Industry, however, welcomes Japanese producers setting up partnerships with British companies. The 600 Group is to build Japanese Fanuc machines. GEC is linked with Hitachi. The Sykes Group is selling Dainichi Kiko robots here. The US Unimation Group builds robots in Telford, England. Meanwhile, the Department of Industry offers financial incentives to encourage robots here. It is spending $:10 million ($15 million) in 1983-84 to promote robots, according to Cullum McCarthy, assistant secretary of the department's mechanical and electrical division. Another $:60 million ($90 million) is to encourage ultra-sophisticated ''flexible manufacturing'' - the combination of microelectronics and mechanical engineering to make tools and other equipment on a large scale.

Companies are being offered grants of up to 33 1/3 percent on new equipment. Last year the largest single payment to develop new payments - $:1.5 million - went to Unimation.

''Robots,'' observes Mr. McCarthy, ''are important as a symbol of British manufacturing industry modernizing itself. . . We had a 61 percent increase in our robot population last year and we hope to do as well in 1983. . . .''

The basic cost of the orange robot arm at GEC is $:50,000 with installation costs adding about the same again.

Beside it another robot worked quietly, transferring pieces of metal from one table to another, stacking them in a pattern, dismantling them, and starting all over again.This was the ''little giant,'' at a mere $:30,000. At the far end of the floor, white-coated technician Brian Munday from Milton Keynes hovered over a Japanese model made by Hitachi, driven by electronic rather than mechanical systems.

Did Mr. Munday feel his job was threatened by the Hitachi model? ''No,'' he said. ''It has created jobs, because it has to be looked after. . . .''

So far British industry has used robots to cut operating costs rather than to reduce jobs. The AUEW is watching carefully to defend threatened jobs.

On the shop floor of Mr. Vicker's kitchen and household appliance factory, Albert Lloyd has been chief union convener for many years.

''We had three men dipping ovens in enamel,'' he said, ''and now those three men are on lighter work. The company didn't want to sack anyone, just to get the job done better.''

Brian Chapman spent 15 years bending over a vat of enamel dipping the ovens. He is delighted the job has been taken away.

Pausing as he dipped smaller items in a waist-high vat, he said, ''My wife was always after me to give it up - it got me in the back, you see. Now the weight has gone out of my work.''

Commented Mr. Vickers: ''We don't waste as much enamel now. The thickness doesn't vary. We save (STR)30,000 a year on enamel alone. Overall installation costs for three robots was (STR)52,000. We reject only 10 percent of the ovens now, compared to more than 20 percent before.

''Robots work well for us.''

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