The global pandemic has sidelined workers across a wide variety of sectors, causing a sudden change in perception towards adoption of new technologies and a growing appetite for innovative solutions. With much of the workforce stuck at home, companies are forced to consider alternative means for filling in the labour market gap while safeguarding their people and processes during these unprecedented times. Robotics and automation solutions seem to fit the bill.

Back in the day, simple robots and automation equipment were only used to replace manual labour in repetitive and simple processes. Nowadays, robots are increasingly able to collaborate and participate in more complex processes. Apart from huge strides in technological advancements, the robotics and automation industries have also received more attention and funding.

At the beginning of this year, the world’s largest retailer, Walmart, announced that they will be adding shelf-scanning robots to 650 more U.S. stores by the end of the summer, bringing its fleet to 1,000. According to Walmart, these shelf-scanning robots are able to reduce tasks that took as long as two weeks down to a twice-daily routine. These robots are a mere addition to the 1,860 robotic floor cleaners the company purchased from Brain Corp in 2019. Walmart aims to reduce costs, improve store performance, and build the company’s credibility as a technology innovator through the expansion of their robot fleet.

Retailers are not the only ones turning towards robotics and automation. Many food manufacturers and meat processors that experienced major disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic are gaining new insights into how these technologies could fill their skilled labour shortage and help maintain a cost advantage in the evolving market.

Robotics and Automation in Food Processing and Fast Food

According to the CDC, more than 16,000 meat and poultry processing workers across 23 states have been diagnosed with COVID-19 as of May 31. With the effects of the pandemic already underway in the food processing industry, companies are forced to hasten their response in futureproofing their operations. Driven by the labour shortage, financial challenges, and the importance of employee and consumer safety, companies are pushed to innovate through automation.

The pandemic has successfully changed the perspective on several manual jobs that are now being reconsidered for automation. Many executives who want to avoid foreclosures have also experienced an increased appetite for technological adoption. Although certain companies who were early adopters of robotics and automation technology are better placed to deal with the challenges of the current environment, more companies are realizing the benefits of investing in this space.

Tyson Foods, the world’s second-largest processor and marketer of chicken, beef, and pork, invested half a billion dollars in technology and automation over the past three years. In August 2019, the company built a state-of-the-art 26,000-square-foot facility, the Tyson Manufacturing Automation Center (TMAC), for the development of new robotics and automation technology for its food production plants. More recently, Tyson engineers and scientists are developing an automated deboning system to help butcher the nearly 40 million chickens processed each week in order to replace human meat cutters and improve working conditions and safety measures in their plants.

The fast-food industry has also taken steps towards reducing human contact with food products to minimize the potential for viral transmission. The popular fast-food chain, White Castle, recently began testing a robotic fry cook by Miso Robotics called Flippy Robot. With Flippy in the kitchen, the company is able to achieve the automation of repetitive, time-consuming tasks while improving product consistency and lowering labour risks. The company aims to save on food costs, lowering food waste, and improving speed and efficiency in their restaurants with the help of Flippy.

Real Estate Industry Looking to Reopen Offices with Robots

In addition to the retail and food industries, the real estate industry has its own challenges with the pandemic. Quarantines and lockdowns have forced workers out of buildings and into the work-from-home environment, leaving many offices empty. According to a survey conducted in early June, half of the professionals in America are reluctant to return to the office. With the growing second-wave of the pandemic at hand, getting workers back into offices would only continue to be a struggle.

According to a a Citrix survey of more than two thousand American office workers, the majority of main concerns involve wanting to see employers take precautions as offices reopen – including regular and documented deep cleanings, temperature checks, and enforced social distancing. All these concerns can be addressed by robots.

Mira Robotics, a Tokyo-based startup, repurposed its “Ugo” robot for ultraviolet disinfection. Ugo uses UV hand attachments mounted on adjustable arms to roll around via remote control, using the UV light to kill viruses on door handles, toilets, and other surfaces. UV robots are able to achieve 99.99% level of disinfection in only half the time it takes for a human worker to perform the same cleaning task.

Russia-based Promobot, developed and designed a robot to screen people before they enter buildings. Thermocontrol, Promobot’s latest version, take temperatures, questions people about their symptoms, gives advice about avoiding the virus, and even hands out facemasks.

Apart from their efficiency, robots are also immune to COVID-19 and will not be carriers of the virus. Robots also do not tire like humans and continuously perform labour-intensive tasks such as cleaning for longer periods of time – something hospitals treating coronavirus-positive patients can also benefit from.

Hospitals Using Robotics to Aid in the Pandemic

Hospitals in China ordered more than 2,000 UV robots recently, and the units now operate in over 40 countries throughout the U.S., Europe, and Asia. Sales of a floor-cleaning robot made by Canadian startup Avidbots, Neo, had already been doubling annually even before the pandemic and continued to do so this year. Xenex, a San Antonio-based manufacturer of a disinfecting robot known as LightStrike which utilizes a technology developed by John Hopkins University, has been running its manufacturing facility 24/7 to keep up with skyrocketing demand, up 600 percent. Violet, another UV cleaning robot by Dublin-based Akara Robotics, can tirelessly disinfect a CT scanning room in 15 minutes in comparison to the one hour and 15 minutes it takes for a human.

In addition to ultraviolet cleaning, robots don’t cough, sneeze, shake hands or actively spreads the virus, making them a reliable alternative for maintaining health and safety. Robots have also been used to deliver food and medicine to isolated patients, transport test samples for diagnosis, and even act as receptionists at hospitals.

The role robotics and automation technologies play in helping industries safeguard processes and people against the pandemic seem to continuously grow. As innovations improve and more industry leaders realize the value robots bring to the table, the upward trajectory of these industries may reach new heights we can only wish to foresee.

Investing in Robotics & Automation

Crises tend to shift how people perceive possibilities and what are necessary investments for the future. The pandemic has hastened the adoption of technology and has encouraged the use of robotics and automation across a range of applications. With the increasing penetration of innovative technologies in several industries such as the food, real estate and healthcare, and a growing need to improve safety and efficiency, robotics and automation are entering a new round of long-term growth that investors may want to capitalize on.

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