Growth is not the problem; The skilled labour does not exist

Expert comment: KUKA Robotics Ireland Ltd.

KUKA Ireland has seen an increase in robot sales in 2020 and 2021 of 50% from 2019.

Brian Cooney Managing Director, KUKA Robotics Ireland

The sum total of robot sales identified by our formula* as “export” (exported from UK but not only to Ireland) in 2020 was 214, and KUKA Ireland accounted for 35% of that number with 75 units. In 2021 KUKA Ireland accounted for 33% of that number with 70 units.

2022 has kicked off in the same vein, with strong demand for robots in Ireland across all sectors – food & beverage, medical devices, plastics, fabrication, general industry. We may see a slip in 2023 due to supply pressures and the Russia-Ukraine War – but it’s all go right now.

Like everyone, we and our integrators have Supply Chain issues. That may be complex parts or indeed simple things; from metals and plastics to cables, chips, PLCs and robots. Prices for many materials, such as Stainless steel and Inconel have doubled or even trebled. Lead times at some suppliers are out to 8-12 months – this is one major constraint on growth.

The Irish economy is strong – prior to the escalation of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, growth was forecast over 8%. It is an employees’ market, with a lot of transience between lower skilled, lower paid jobs; people move and jobs are freely available. Job retention is hard; it’s difficult for companies who invest in training and then their people leave. With the economy growing in high single digits and our sales growing at 20%, it’s the perfect for scenario for automation.

Labour is a driver but it is not caused by Brexit in Ireland. The popular drivers to automate manufacturing – consistency, productivity, reliability – are all still valid but above all others, the workers are just not there. That’s both lower skilled operators – box packers, meat and poultry preparation, basic fabrication and welding – and higher skilled. You cannot find a welder – they just don’t exist in sufficient numbers.

In Ireland, for years, young workers and school leavers have been attracted to better paid, less manual and abundant work in the technology, service and medical device sectors. Every parent wants their child to go into third level education, leaving many skills requirements for industry bereft.

Equally there is a massive shortage of highly skilled human resources, such as automation engineers, robotics engineers and PLC programmers. I receive at least four inquiries a week from our partners asking to recommend such people for roles. If I knew where to get them, I would.

Covid support payments have also put a certain worker demographic off working altogether. In Ireland we are effectively in full employment, for those people who want to work. Some do not and the Covid support / wage subsidy scheme has been attractive for many.

There are now more programmes to reskill and upskill people who work in lower skilled industrial jobs. But another problem is the education sector doesn’t know what the content of the new, digital manufacturing trades should be. KUKA is supporting a proposal for a robotics and automation apprenticeship, now with the National Apprenticeship Council. Such a scheme will help but it is just a small part of the solution.


*Data from BARA = British Association of Robotics and Automation, and other sources

“With the economy growing in high single digits and our sales growing at 20%, it’s the perfect scenario for automation”