The Potential of Automation for Manufacturing and Social Distancing
By Dylan Berger
The manufacturing industry has never been a stranger to automation. Annual robot shipments reached 28,478 units in 2018, more than any year prior, and that rate shows no signs of slowing. The sector was already ramping up the use of robotics, but the pandemic will likely push this trend further.
Few events have made such a significant impact on the industry as COVID-19. Many manufacturers have faced difficult cutbacks, while others have seen skyrocketing demand. Everyone has had to address substantial changes. In the face of all these disruptions, automation is an attractive proposition.
The pandemic isn’t over yet, but economies are starting to reopen. Manufacturers need to balance productivity with health regulations like social distancing, and automation may be the perfect solution. So how can it help?
Fewer Workers for the Same Process
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), COVID-19 primarily spreads between people in close contact for extended periods of time. Keeping individuals apart is essential to preserving public health. Automation can help manufacturers achieve adequate distance by enabling the same work with fewer workers.
One of the main issues has to do with space. Facilities can spread their workers out, but eventually, they’ll struggle to make room. It’s not always feasible to keep 6 feet between everyone on the floor. If a facility were to automate certain stations, this wouldn’t be as much of an issue.
Some cannabis manufacturers have turned to robots to help with extraction and processing. While traditional approaches require upwards of 30 people for this process, these bots can reduce that number to just two to four.
Filling in for Labor Shortages
Even before the pandemic, manufacturing faced a shortage of skilled employees. Finding laborers has become increasingly challenging as interest in the field has declined. According to Deloitte, the skills gap could lead to 2.4 million unfilled jobs by 2028.
Fears over contracting COVID-19, even if unfounded, may keep some people from seeking manufacturing jobs. When companies can’t find people to fill these positions, or can’t hire as many because of COVID restrictions, robots can step in. Automation won’t take jobs from people as much as it will handle the work they aren’t pursuing.
While some manufacturers have seen falling demand in the pandemic, others have had more than they can manage. Automation can help these companies meet new needs without sacrificing social distancing measures. As some products, like medical equipment, see continually rising demand, this becomes all the more advantageous.
Keeping Essential Workers Separate
Of course, manufacturers can’t replace their entire workforce with autonomous machines. Even if it were possible, robots tend to be most helpful when working side-by-side with people, each performing the duties they do best. Manufacturers can’t afford to lose essential human workers, and part of that is keeping them safe.
Just as automation can reduce the number of required workers, it can also keep essential employees separate. Instead of automating any available job on a factory floor, manufacturers can automate those between humans’ workstations. That way, they ensure employees stay at least 6 feet apart from one another.
Naturally, a robot can’t contract COVID-19, so having them work in stations between people enables manufacturers to maintain productivity while protecting employee health. Collaborative robots, or “cobots,” are already the fastest-growing robotics segment, making the transition to this kind of automation straightforward.
Ensuring the Efficacy of Social Distancing Measures
Having a healthy social distancing policy in place doesn’t guarantee that employees will follow it. People are inherently social, so workers may break protocol to get closer and talk to one another. Automated systems can ensure people stay distant, and beyond that, measure the efficacy of these practices.
It’s neither practical nor necessary to have managers watch workers to make sure they maintain distance. Automation can handle this task by using a network of sensors to monitor employees’ locations. One tech company, Software AG, has started rolling out a Smart Social Distancing solution that does just that.
The Smart Social Distancing solution consists of a series of interconnected badges and beacons. The system warns users if they get too close to one another, helping them avoid accidental breaches of safety protocol. These breaches declined by more than 50% within the first week of testing.
Improving Productivity and Profitability
Profitability is another prominent concern for manufacturers amid the pandemic. One survey showed that 78.3% of manufacturers anticipate a major financial change as a result of COVID-19. If facilities can’t stay afloat, they can’t support their employees. Automation may provide a way out.
Manufacturers may not be able to hire new workers right now, but they’ll need extra help to stay productive. Robots can bolster employees’ efforts, making factories more efficient without sacrificing health and safety. Some companies have automated as much as 8,000 hours of labor that a worker would have to do otherwise.
These benefits will continue to serve manufacturers long after the pandemic is over. The increased efficiency that automation offers will help the industry become more productive and profitable than ever.
Projecting into the Future
The extreme nature of the pandemic has highlighted the potential of automation in manufacturing. Robotics adoption rates will likely surge in the coming months and years as manufacturers rush to stay productive amid new limitations. Even as the pandemic begins to fade, the shift toward automation will linger.
As social distancing protocols prove to be effective, manufacturers may continue with them to prevent future outbreaks. On the monetary side of things, if robot-human collaboration increased profitability during the pandemic, it can do so afterward. Manufacturers will continue to implement cobots as the industry continues to grow.
The pandemic has highlighted the need for flexibility among manufacturers, as unexpected circumstances caused major disruptions. Consultants believe that more manufacturers will adopt robots to enable flexibility should another crisis arise. With a more abundant supply of automated systems, they can adapt to changes in the workforce sooner.
The manufacturing industry’s shift toward automation was all but inevitable. The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t ignite this transition, but it did push it further, causing adoption rates to jump several years ahead. As the outbreak has highlighted shortcomings in traditional approaches, the benefits of automation become abundantly clear.
Amid the pandemic, robotics can help manufacturers keep their employees safe and combat the virus. After the outbreak subsides, robots will continue to benefit the industry, helping prevent future crises and improving efficiency. Automation has always been beneficial for manufacturers, but now it may be necessary.