COVID-19 Brings Increased Visibility to the Role of Robotics

April 28, 2020
Presidents and CEOs of Fanuc, Universal Robots, Fetch, and Schunk discuss how robotics and automation are helping manufacturers through the pandemic and what the lasting effects might be.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, manufacturing is a mixed bag of activity. Though some industries have been hard hit by stay-at-home and social distancing directives, essential businesses like food and beverage, pharmaceuticals, medical equipment, and even the electronics needed to work from home are going like gangbusters. Meanwhile, some manufacturers have stepped up to retool their lines, ramping up production of the medical supplies—masks, gloves, ventilators, hand sanitizers, and more—needed to handle the coronavirus.

Through all of this, as manufacturers figure out how to keep their workers socially distanced on the factory floor, robotics have come to the fore, making continued production not only possible but safer and more efficient.

“I’m actually quite proud of the industry itself because I think the amount of innovation we’re seeing by leveraging technology such as to repurpose or retool lines really quickly to deal with demands and the requirements out there—whether it’s PPE [personal protective equipment], or testing kits, or whatever it might be. I think it’s phenomenal,” said Jürgen von Hollen, president of collaborative robot (cobot) manufacturer Universal Robots. “From that perspective, people are understanding how important technology and automation is to their industries—perhaps more than ever before.”

While robotics companies were trying to figure out if they should be among those businesses considered “essential” during the pandemic, customers were insisting that they were, said Milton Guerry, president of Schunk, which makes robotic grippers. They wanted to know what Schunk and others were doing to be ready. “That shows to me that robots, at least in our own sphere, we know what we can do to help,” added Guerry, who also serves as president of the International Federation of Robotics (IFR). “I think we have a real opportunity to bring robots to the forefront. We all see the restrictions. Automation and robots have a way to bridge this gap—not only in crisis time, but in good times.”

A few key robotics CEOs got together (virtually) recently to talk specifically about how COVID-19 is impacting the robotics industry. In a webinar put on by the Association for Advancing Automation (A3) and moderated by Robert Huschka, director of education strategies at A3, executives discussed not only what they’re seeing in their own companies but along the supply chain as well.

“I think this is bringing a big awareness to how much robots and automation are in our manufacturing companies certainly around the company and around the world,” said Mike Cicco, president and CEO of robot manufacturer Fanuc. “Every time you go to a grocery store and you are hoping that toilet paper is on the shelves or that Clorox wipes are there or that there’s food…you should really stop to think about how robots and automation play a factor in helping those things get into those stores.”

“A lot of my calls and time in the first couple weeks has been talking to end users, ensuring that we’re going to be there to make sure those robots are still up and running,” Cicco added. “Robotics and automation are playing a critical role. It allows people to be separated, it reduces crowds on the manufacturing floor.” And as manufacturers struggle to continue producing everything they need to produce, robotics and automation play a key role in making sure machines stay running, he added.

They also play a key role in disinfecting the workspaces. There’s been a lot of interest around disinfection capabilities of robots, according to Melonee Wise, CEO of Fetch Robotics, which is focused on autonomous mobile robots. “Whether it’s chemical disinfection or UV disinfection, we are probably fielding 10 or 20 leads a day on just how do we get people back to work in these facilities safely,” she said, noting that they are looking to Fetch to provide a mechanism to autonomously disinfect their facilities. “It’s very unique to mobile [robots] right now. There’s a lot of demand there.”

>>Read more about how COVID-19 provides use cases for mobile robotics.

Flexibility in robotics

Wise called attention to the benefits of some technology decisions Fetch has made early on—particularly its more digital approach to robotics and their cloud capabilities. In the face of social distancing demands, Fetch has been able to roll out robotics to its customers with a minimal amount of interaction.

“Because we’re in the cloud, we’ve been able to continue to deploy systems without having people on site,” Wise said. “This is showing not only the value of automation but also the value of cloud paired with automation. It’s definitely been extremely important for a lot of customers. We’ve been able to help them very easily remotely reconfigure this system.”

Fetch is somewhat of an outlier, Wise pointed out, because it has been so cloud-centric from the beginning, which has made it easier for the company to weather some of the transition. “We immediately started enabling remote deployment. We’ve been deploying robots over Skype,” she said. “We will probably continue with that. It’s been going pretty well.”

Universal Robots has been seeing similar trends, von Hollen said, including remote proof of concept and remote deployment of robots. “Those will continue,” he added.

Flexible automation has also been instrumental in helping customers retool their operations—in some cases to better distance staff members and in some cases to make a switch to the products that are needed to combat the coronavirus. “Most systems deployed right now have definitely been reconfigured for different shifts and different applications,” Wise said.

Wise expects a continuing trend toward flexible automation after the crisis rather than rigid repetitive automation.

Lasting impact on supply chain

Some of the changes that robotics manufacturers are seeing in their own operations and their customers’ operations might very well be here to stay. But with the landscape still changing rapidly, that can be hard to predict.

“What I felt today is not what I felt yesterday or the week before. I think people’s feelings are changing really on a daily basis,” Cicco said. “I think we’re going to have to continually worry about global pandemics. I think this is going to end and we’re eventually going to get past it. But this is going to be one of those things that has a lasting impact on us and the way we do business and the way supply chain works.”

Comparing the current situation to the recession in 2008-09—which he noted had an effect but didn’t change much in how business operates—Cicco contends things will be different this time. “That was just something that happened to our economy,” he said of the past recession. “This is going to have a lasting effect in terms of how we fundamentally behave. And it’ll be interesting to see what comes out of it and what changes.”

Von Hollen nodded his head as Cicco spoke, following up with, “For the first time, in our company, we’ve moved away from supply chain robustness or vitality to business continuity. It’s much more for us about, for us, how do we ensure that we can get product to the customer.”

The coronavirus pandemic has required Universal Robots to institute a two-hour meeting every day with all departments to make sure resources are optimized and work remains effective and efficient, von Hollen said. “What we see here in this pandemic is having everybody sitting at the table because everybody’s impacted in some way, shape or form,” he added. “It’s not just one department or one process; it’s everything at once.”

Though Guerry predicts that many of us are likely to change the way we work even after the pandemic is over, he is not sure how far that will go. “We’re all doing what it takes to get things done right now,” he said. “But I still really believe in collaboration. People need to be with people.”

Both von Hollen and Cicco expect that their habits of spending 80-90% of their time traveling will likely not come back after the pandemic. “That will change,” von Hollen said, noting that the company will likely continue to leverage videoconferencing tools instead. “We’re trying to be more effective. We will rethink about how to get efficiency up.”

Cicco, who commented that Fanuc went from a couple VPN connections to more than 1,000 overnight, added, “I think the new normal is going to be an enhanced level of teamwork. I’m really proud at how the level of communication has increased.”

Companies will need to take a long look at their supply chains and where investments most make sense, Guerry said.

Preparing for post-pandemic

Eventually, manufacturers will have to find their new normal as restrictions are lifted. “We think that coming out of the transition and into the new normal, there’s going to be a significant uptick in demand,” Wise commented. Some customers have time now, during decreased production activity, to lay out new technology projects. “We’re telling them to start focusing on that now so that they can get ready to go when the lockdown is done.”

Wise suggests reaching out now to your supplier of choice. “There’s going to be a long line of people to start automation projects,” she said. “Now is the time to get started because the line is getting longer. You don’t want to have to wait six months because you joined the line late.”

Guerry is concerned about the difficulty that industry already faced finding the employees it needs and what that means for the future. “We were already starved for enough talent to make sure we’d fulfill the potential of the industry,” he said. “We will operate differently. But we have to look at ways to keep our teams engaged and focused. We need to make sure they know there is a bright future of robotics and automation.”

The new normal, von Hollen contends, is being flexible enough to deal with crises in general. “We have to be out there not just as one company but as a group, supporting each other, supporting customers,” he said. “The flexibility and the speed of that is absolutely critical for any company out there.”

Flexibility is key because of the ever-changing landscape, Cicco said. “We’re prepping now, preparing for what the new normal’s going to be,” he added. “We’re in the midst of our getting-back-to-work plan. We’re looking at what does that mean for bringing people back into our facility and the safety of our employees when they enter other people’s facilities.” 

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