May 15, 2019 10:30 AM, EDT

Britain Is Falling Behind in Employing Robots

RobotsRobotic arms spray a Volkswagen Tiguan compact crossover vehicle in the paintshop at the Volkswagen AG automobile factory in Wolfsburg, Germany. (Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg News)

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

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Sales of robots fell 3% last year, even as the European Union saw a 12% 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.

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% on average per year and government research in 2017 said the application of robotics and automation could be worth $238 billion (184 billion pounds) 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 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.