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U.K. companies aren't keeping up with robot workers

(Bloomberg) --The U.K. is falling behind in employing robots as firms make do with older machines or hire human workers.

Sales of robots fell 3 percent last year, even as the European Union saw a 12 percent increase, according to data compiled by the International Federation of Robotics. That’s compounding the slow rate of adoption that has seen Britain falling behind its similarly industrialized peers. In 2017 it had just 85 per 10,000 employees, compared to 106 on average across Europe.

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A delivery worker inspects Pepper the humanoid robot, manufactured by SoftBank Group Corp., at the Orange Arch Inc. offices in Tokyo, Japan, on Monday, Oct. 5, 2015. Robots are everywhere. There are already 1.6 million of them, an army of disembodied limbs working in our factories to make everything from cars to pancakes. Now billionaire Masayoshi Son, chairman and chief executive officer of SoftBank, wants to bring robots into our homes. Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

The slow pace of adoption is a long-standing problem for Britain’s international competitiveness and productivity. Since 2012 robot sales in the U.K. have fallen 5 percent on average per year and government research in 2017 said the application of robotics and automation could be worth 184 billion pounds ($238 billion) to the U.K. economy over the next decade.

With Britain’s decision to leave the EU making it harder for firms to attract labor from the overseas and employment at a record high, automation provides “an obvious solution,” said Mike Wilson, chairman of the British Automation and Robot Association.

Even so, with business investment hampered by the lack of clarity over Brexit, the IFR expects only moderate growth in installations through 2021. More than two thirds of the U.K.’s usage is in the auto industry, which has struggled in recent months with the Honda Motor Co. factory in Swindon slated for closure, job cuts at Jaguar Land Rover and Nissan scrapping plans to build the X-Trail sport-utility vehicle at a plant in Sunderland.