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Robot Companies Should Double Down on Dull, Dirty and Dangerous

Florian Pestoni

Smarter, autonomous robots, have been developed over the past five years thanks to advances in mobile computing, sensors and AI. Many of these robots are now being deployed to assist in the fight against COVID-19 in an effort to “flatten the curve” of cases or provide human-augmented services for companies providing essential functions.

In the pre-virus world, robotics was mainly positioned around delegating repetitive tasks. However, robots can also take on dangerous tasks. As we’ve seen with many front-line workers, whether they are in hospitals, grocery stores, or warehouses, a multitude of tasks just got a lot more dangerous due to COVID-19.

In the post-virus world, robotics companies need to double down on their message of how robots can take on the “dull, dirty and dangerous” tasks to protect humans. While many firms may wish to return to “business as usual” once the virus threat is diminished, robotics companies can take a leadership position in creating more efficient and safer processes to address future risks, including the resurgence of COVID-19 and new outbreaks.

This benefit extends to workers and customers across a multitude of industries by reducing the number of potential virus touchpoints that a product goes through in the supply chain.

Here are some examples:

  • Grocery stores: Many shoppers have been wearing masks, gloves and other protective gear during their weekly visit to pick up milk, bread and other groceries. Stores limited the number of customers who could enter the store at a time, placed plastic shields in checkout lines, made many aisles one-way, and placed tape on the floor to create six-foot waiting zones in checkout areas. In a post-virus world, robotics and automation should be deployed to reduce the danger for shoppers entering a store. For example, stores could be redesigned to have human pickers and packers filling orders, with autonomous robot carts following around the pickers and moving them to a packing station, similar to the way warehouses fulfill orders for e-commerce sites. Once an order is packed (or supplemented with a shopper who wants to pick their own produce, meat, seafood or other fresh options), more robots can be deployed to deliver items to a customer’s car, or used with an autonomous vehicle delivery service. For employees at the store, having fewer customer interactions reduces the threat of them getting infected. Concepts like this, including micro-fulfillment operations, were already in motion before the COVID-19 pandemic, and we expect to see these efforts accelerate in coming years.
  • Restaurants and food delivery: A large majority of restaurants were initially told to shut down, and provide take-out or delivery options only. Some restaurants offered robotic delivery services to reduce touchpoints or to augment the delivery staff that saw surges in orders. The concept of “cloud kitchens,” where restaurants only prepare food for takeout or delivery, will likely accelerate in the post-virus era. But we also expect to see robotics and automation extended to food preparation, as customers question the number of people that are “touching their food” during its preparation. While many restaurants already have stringent health requirements around food preparation, robots that can demonstrate a safer and more sanitary procedure could help ease workers’ and customers’ concerns.
  • Manufacturing: During the pandemic, we saw many companies switch their manufacturing capabilities from their regular products to those that could help in the fight, such as making ventilators or N95 face masks for health care workers. Unfortunately, many factories lack the capabilities for quick turnaround of manufacturing lines due to either inflexible older automation systems or outdated processes. One of the reasons cobots and other systems were gaining popularity was due to the ability of these systems to help manufacturers produce high-mix, low-volume batches. Flexibility will be a key word moving forward in the post-virus era, with manufacturers able to adapt to different products more quickly should another pandemic require it. On the ‘danger’ front, we expect to see accelerated adoption of high-speed industrial robots that become safer for workers due to the addition of better cameras, vision systems and sensors.
  • Health care systems, hospitals: In many locations, doctors, nurses and other health care staffers were overwhelmed with a large number of patients, and many of them were exposed to the virus in the process. Robotics can help reduce much of the person-to-person contact in the health industry in areas such as initial triage and diagnosis and perhaps even some testing capacities. Delivery robots can be used to autonomously deliver dirty linens to the laundry, or return used and dirty food trays to the cafeteria, in an effort to reduce virus exposure to hospital staffers. We also expect to see more telepresence robots that allow nurses and doctors to diagnose via videoconferencing, as well as robots with sensors that can detect symptoms such as high fever (through thermal imaging). Once patients are in the hospital, telepresence robots can be used to allow patients to communicate with family members and health care staff, and of course disinfection robots will be deployed to better clean areas to reduce exposure of the virus.
  • E-commerce distribution centers: Before the virus, several logistics and e-commerce fulfillment operations were exploring deployments of robotics to address increased demand of products, especially during peak shopping periods such as Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Operations that still had human workers in the loop suddenly found themselves with new mandates regarding social distancing among employees, which has caused delays in filling many orders. Demand has also increased due to many stay-at-home orders, which is exacerbated by continued labor shortages in the supply chain. Companies that have yet to explore automation will be even further behind in the post-virus world.

More jobs and opportunities

These are a few examples, and we can imagine that roboticists will think of hundreds of other processes that can be made safer through robotics and automation. These new processes will continue to create opportunities and jobs for people to dispatch, supervise, maintain and service these robots. The new jobs will be much safer than previous tasks workers were doing before. In addition, new software that orchestrates the operations between these robotics systems, like InOrbit’s cloud platform, will be deployed across industries. The future post-pandemic world will be defined by new types of software, where people and robots work together, each contributing in their way to improve productivity and safety.

We are still in the early stages of the post-Covid world, and we have yet to realize several other societal changes that will occur. While robots may not be able to address all of these changes, we are certain that we are at the dawn of new innovations within robotics, automation and software development. For companies in this space, now is not the time to shrink back in investing in these opportunities, or for companies to wish for a return to “business as usual.” It is time for them to double down on innovations and investments, in order to prevent future generations from having to experience this type of pandemic crisis.