Robots continue to play an essential role in the fight against COVID-19. Robots are assisting with testing, working in labs, sanitizing spaces, surveilling public areas, and helping fulfill supply chains, just to name a few examples. They will have an even greater role in the recovery from both the novel coronavirus and economic disruption.
It’s a good time to be a robot — demand is high and there are compelling reasons to feel the future is bright. COVID-19 has exposed some real issues with the way things are currently done, which gives robotics developers the opportunity to step up and show exactly what can be achieved.
Challenges for manufacturers
The post-pandemic world has many opportunities for robotics and automated systems, including manufacturing. Here are five challenges manufacturers are facing as a result of COVID-19:
1. Less reliance on low-cost labor regions
There is a desire to adapt manufacturing supply chains to be less dependent on low-cost labor regions, like China. The so-called “re-shoring” trend started in 2018-19 courtesy of the trade war between China and the US and the associated tariffs. It is being accelerated by anti-China and anti-globalization sentiment generated from the supply and demand disruptions brought circumnavigating the world with the virus.
Governments are trying to reverse the trend of the last two decades. The same voices that recommended offshoring manufacturing are now asking why important supply chains are so dependent on China and how manufacturing jobs can be brought home. There is a desire to re-shore manufacturing jobs.
3. Digital transformation
The need for digital transformation has been apparent for almost a decade. There have been many extolling the virtues of Industry 4.0, Industrial IoT and the Smart Factory for some time. But digital transformation has appeared overwhelming to many, resulting in paralysis. Most companies want to transform but don’t know where to start.
4. Competing regardless of labor rates
Regardless of the motivation, manufacturers need to create an environment where they are more efficient, and hence more competitive. What’s more, this needs to be possible in any geography.
5. Social distancing in workplaces
As factory workers return to their posts, they are faced with the dilemma of having to operate in an environment where rules dictate they are at least six apart. Traditionally, manufacturing facilities have relied on lines of operators spaced much closer together. Additionally, operators will need to wear personal protective equipment at their work workstations, which in many cases will make their jobs harder and impact productivity.
Many of the issues mentioned above relate directly to the geography in which manufacturing is carried out and, specifically, to cost of labor in those regions. The use of automation and robotics to remove the dependence on manual tasks is the only way manufacturing can be done as economically in San Francisco as it can in Shenzhen.
Must-have features of robots
There are a number of key characteristics that robots will need to offer to ensure they play a pivotal role in the factory of the future.
First and foremost, they will need to be adaptable. In fact, only adaptable automation can solve the challenges of modern manufacturing. Those manufacturers that stepped up and helped in the crisis did so because they were able to adapt their production to the needs of a different product. The EMS (Electronics Manufacturing Services) industry is built on this ideal with lines changing product several times each shift. These large contract manufacturing companies are unlikely to install robotics, or any form of automation, if it can only support a single product.
As a result of the high-mix environment, almost all manufacturers operate in a world where changeovers need to happen often and fast. Huge investment has been made in the way SMT (Surface Mount Technology) lines are able to change from product to product. Robotics and automation will need to meet or better that performance.
Robotic solutions will also need to adapt to their surroundings, sensing what is close to them and adjusting instantly so they can continue to perform. This could be to a change in environment or to the proximity of an operator. Robots need to be collaborative, working seamlessly with their human coworkers.
In the past, programming robots has been difficult and time-consuming. This needs to change for modern, digitally-transformed manufacturing. Robotic solutions need to be quickly programmed with close to zero touch and with little or no dependence on skilled programmers. Tribal knowledge is the enemy of digital transformation.
Automation investments must provide a solid digital dividend. Every investment should have a simple return on investment (ROI) calculation that should be measurable. In simple terms, a robot will need to reduce the cost of manual labor in a way that can be easily measured and that quickly returns the capital investment required for the installation.
A new manufacturing world
In the new the manufacturing world, cash for capital expenditure will be tight and those innovating robotic and automation solutions will need to be equally creative with their business models. Providing robotics-as-a-service and automation-as-a-service will make it possible to shift investment from capital expenditure to the operational budget.
Robots are an essential building block for the digital transformation of the manufacturing industry. They will need to be adaptable, collaborative, intelligent, and easy to program. Most importantly, perhaps, they need to provide real value and fast measurable ROI through creative business models.
About the Author
Mattias Andersson is the CEO and Founder of Sweden-based MTEK Industry AB. MTEK develops and deploys solutions for real-time intelligent and collaborative manufacturing, with a special focus on the electronics industry.
Andersson has been an entrepreneur in the electronics industry for 20-plus years. He previously also worked in Nokia and SCI, among others.