A perfect storm of disruptions to supply, demand and workplace practices has turned the world of manufacturing and supply chains upside down. Social distancing and isolation are the order of the day, and manual tasks normally undertaken by humans are suddenly out of reach or unsafe. Undertaking these tasks without human-to-human contact is exactly where the robotics industry has the potential to offer real value.
As a sector, robotics has been enjoying considerable growth recently, with numerous new players and new applications driving increased adoption in many sectors. In the COVID-19 pandemic, there are two clear opportunities for robots:
- In the fight against COVID-19 itself
- Tasks humans cannot easily do when they are socially distancing or isolating.
It is not uncommon for the urgent to trump the important. And, right now, that’s where we are with COVID-19. There are urgent needs today that must be addressed; there will be important changes to make as we recover from the crisis; and in the long term, there will be a real impact on the way the world operates in the future. Here are four ways robotics can play a role throughout this timeline.
Robots on the frontline
In the short term, robotics companies are stepping up to the challenge and providing solutions needed to take the fight to COVID-19 on the frontline. Applications include cleaning and disinfecting areas where humans would be at risk. In some cases, robots designed for this function are being deployed, but in others, mobile robots and drones are being refitted, repurposed and redeployed.
Robots are also being used in a surveillance role, when areas need to be monitored to ensure that social distancing or lockdown guidelines are being followed. Robots are also interacting directly with symptomatic patients, taking temperatures, carrying out logistics tasks and handling materials in hospitals. In the race to find a vaccine for COVID-19, robots are again being deployed to handle samples and, in some cases, use AI to accelerate the manipulation of data with the intent of shortening the development process.
From service robots delivering food and other essentials, to drones and mobile robots delivering medicines and consumables like PPE, robots have a clear role to play in the movement of materials and products. They have, for some time, been deployed in warehouses and logistics facilities and are now finding their way into retail, where they can clean, disinfect, and scan and restock shelves. This is particularly relevant in grocery stores and will become increasingly important as other facilities start to reopen.
In times of social distancing, when interaction is difficult and loneliness a real problem, companion robots are finding themselves invaluable in care homes and other locations where face-to-face contact just isn’t possible. This strategy can also be used for medical practitioners to interact with patients, while keeping a safe distance for the protection of both parties.
Social distancing guidelines present challenges to manufacturers, who are trying to prioritize their teams’ safety, while keeping the wheels of industry turning. This isn’t just a commercial issue: many factories are producing essential PPE and medical equipment, like ventilators.
For manufacturers who rely on manual tasks undertaken by lines of operators, this is extremely difficult. Some have had to add shifts to maintain physical space among operators. Those with more automated facilities are adapting more easily, particularly those with more software-driven automation, which delivers the agility and flexibility manufacturers sorely need right now.
Increased demand for digital transformation
Robotics has an essential role to play in the short term, and it has even more to offer in the future. Demand has been steadily growing for a more automated environment, particularly in the manufacturing and supply chain world.
What’s more, many expect to see a trend away from overseas manufacturing for critical parts of the supply chain. In fact, governments are encouraging companies to strive for a more resilient supply chain that is less dependent on the $4 trillion manufacturing powerhouse that is China.
It is unlikely that brands or consumers will want to pay more for their products in a more regionalized supply chain. The only way to compete in higher labor cost regions, like Western Europe and the U.S., will be via digital transformation and automation. And it is those digitally transformed and automated manufacturing facilities and supply chains that will deliver the agility and resilience needed to withstand the next major disruption.
About the Author
Jean Olivieri is the COO of Fictiv. From blue chip brands to innovative startups, Olivieri has spent the last three decades in a range of senior positions overseeing product design, supply chain, production, and operations duties.
She held a number of procurement roles at Motorola over her seventeen years with the company, including Director, Global New Product Sourcing. As Director, iPod Operations for Apple, she was responsible for annually transitioning all four new iPod designs into production, including the inaugural Touch, Nano, Shuffle, and Classic. Olivieri also managed products and operations with SpaceX, Otto, Lively, and Ernst & Young.
Olivieri holds a PMP certification from George Washington University and earned a Master of Science Engineering in Industrial Engineering; Management of Technology from Arizona State University where she graduated summa cum laude. She also has a Bachelor Science Engineering degree in Industrial engineering from the University of Arizona.
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