While many “non-essential” businesses are closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, manufacturers around the world are hastening to adjust their production lines to serve the needs of front-line healthcare workers, laboratories, supply chains, and elder-care facilities. Automation is a key part of this response, as demonstrated by innovative robotics applications.
“The idealism and creativity of [robotics] companies is exceptional,” wrote Patrick Schwarzkopf, managing director of VDMA, in a blog post this week. Germany-based VDMA, or the Robotics + Automation Association, includes three groups: Robotics, Machine Vision, and Integrated Assembly Solutions. The German robotics and automation sector had €15 billion ($16.25 billion U.S.) in turnover last year, according to the organization.
Schwarzkopf cited the following examples of how the robotics industry has joined the fight against the effects of the novel coronavirus in Europe and elsewhere.
Automation engineers ramp up face-mask production
PIA Automation Amberg GmbH in Amberg, Germany, normally manufactures fully automated production systems for the automotive and consumer goods industries, but it also counts medical technology companies among its customers.
Within a few weeks after the outbreak of the crisis, PIA revamped two existing production lines at its site in China for fully automated production of up to 140,000 protective masks per day. With the know-how gained from this pilot project, the European robotics company is now working on numerous follow-up orders and has started building new assembly lines in Germany. The first delivery is scheduled for the beginning of May. This will enable more than 1 million respiratory masks to be produced per day.
The project is not a one-off. Mechanical engineering company Ruhlamat in Marksuhl, Germany, has also rapidly developed a production line for disposable surgical masks. The filter material for respiratory protection can be processed flexibly, depending on the required safety levels.
The machine builders at these European automation suppliers are using their many years of experience in high-speed assembly to ramp up production of respirators to the required volume.
Robots enable drive-through testing
Unlike medical personnel, robots are immune to the virus. Therefore, Bavarian automation provider BoKa Automatisierung came up with the idea of a fully automated system reminiscent of the customer experience in a drive-through restaurant.
Using a tablet, the driver identifies himself or herself through the side window of the car, and a robot arm hands over the test tube. A video tutorial guides the sample collection. The test tube is then automatically returned. Each test participant is later informed by phone of the coronavirus test result.
Automation sorts 3,000 blood samples per day
The sharp increase in COVID-19 testing procedures requires numerous blood tests to be performed. This process — traditionally performed manually by laboratory technicians in clinics — is very time-consuming and monotonous, making it ideal for European robotics companies to tackle.
The laboratory at Aalborg University Hospital in Denmark had already benefited from automation even before the corona crisis. Every day, up to 3,000 blood samples are carefully sorted by two KUKA robots in the largest hospital in the North Jutland region.
Employees are relieved of an enormous amount of work and can concentrate on more sophisticated activities instead of performing vast amounts of routine tasks, said Schwarzkopf.
The healthcare sector has quickly reached its limits during the COVID-19 crisis. There is an urgent need to expand laboratory capacity. Operators may not be able to convert existing test installations quickly or flexibly enough for test variants or new, modified test procedures.
Yaskawa Motoman provides another example of a viable alternative to manual test execution, Schwarzkopf said.
European robots provide people with remote support
Aalborg, Denmark-based Life Science Robotics ApS (LSR) has developed ROBERT, a robot for assisting patients with mobility therapy. Especially in times of social distancing, robotic medical devices can support physiotherapists in their work.
European robots enable remote visits in care homes
RobShare GmbH, a company of the Hahn Group in Rheinböllen, Germany, helps residents of nursing homes to stay in contact with family members during the coronavirus-induced visiting ban.
A telepresence robot named James visits people in the quarantined rooms. RobShare offers rental of the robots free of charge.
“We don’t earn a cent from this campaign; we just have to make sure that our basic costs are largely covered,” said Konstantin Dick, director oof marketing communications at Hahn Group. “That is why we have already started the search for sponsors, so that the campaign can be offered completely free of charge for the care homes.”
UVD robots destroy hospital bugs
Odense, Denmark-based UVD Robots, a unit of Blue Ocean Robotics ApS, makes the UV-Disinfection Robot. The collaborative mobile robot can autonomously move around in hospital rooms, emitting concentrated UV-C light to eliminate bacteria and other harmful microorganisms. This enables hospitals to guarantee a 99.99% disinfection rate, reducing the risk to patients, staffers, and their relatives.
Most of the automation innovations that Schwarzkopf cited are in Europe, but since the pandemic is a global phenomenon, new robots and use cases can be expected to emerge around the world.