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Akzo warns of painter scarcity as it backs robot to ease labour crunch

Dulux owner Akzo Nobel has warned of a “big scarcity” of painters and decorators exacerbated by Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic as the group backs a start-up developing a paint robot to ease the labour crunch.

The company’s UK head called on the government to help resolve worker shortages that he said was creating “big delays” in the construction of new buildings.

“Especially in the UK, we see a big scarcity of painters . . . We’re really, really concerned,” said José Antonio Jiménez Lozano.

“Covid, obviously, was playing a role in that because some people switched their profession . . . With Brexit, we have also seen a reduction of the people who were coming from some other European countries.”

Faced with recruitment problems, Akzo has expanded beyond producing paints and started investing in technology that it hopes will address the labour shortage.

The Dutch group has acquired a minority stake in a French start-up, Les Companions, which has developed a robot that can spray paint large surfaces through a mainly automated process.

The paint robot is at present limited to working on flat ground and can spray paint up to a height of 3.5 metres

The company has recently been demonstrating a prototype to customers in the UK. Antoine Rennuit, chief executive of Les Companions, said he expected completed products to be available next year.

But the robot, one of a handful in development by different companies, is some way from achieving the capabilities of a human painter.

It is at present limited to working on flat ground and can spray paint up to a height of 3.5 metres.

“I don’t think [the robot] will [become commonplace] because, at the end of the day, the painting and decorating job is very [detailed],” said Jiménez. “You still need a human touch.”

“There are a lot of obstacles” to making the robot practical on a building site, said one owner of a painting company during a demonstration at Akzo’s UK headquarters. But if these can be overcome, it would be helpful to “leave it and set it to work” on a big construction.

The technology investment, however, may prove helpful for Akzo in the light of the labour shortages.

According to a Dulux survey of 348 industry members this year, 61 per cent of UK painting and decorating businesses were found to be struggling to find workers with the required skills.

Even before Brexit, UK businesses were contending with an ageing workforce, with Akzo’s research suggesting at least 60 per cent of painters are more than 50 years old, Jiménez said.

The labour shortage also threatens to hold back the completion of constructions in the UK, which has long been suffering from a housing shortage, and heighten pressure on businesses hit by inflation.

For Akzo, which last month suspended its profit guidance for 2023, the worker problems are adding to difficulties over China’s real estate crisis, which has hampered operations in one of its key markets.

“We’re doing everything we can. [But] we need support from the authorities,” said Jiménez, suggesting more needed to be done to support apprentice programmes and make painting an attractive profession.

Asked if he would support a special visa for painters, he said the topic had been discussed with the British Coatings Federation, an industry group, although the company has not formally called for this.

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