While the COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenging time for individuals, companies, and entire industries, some sectors have benefitted from their ability to respond to society’s urgent, unique needs during the pandemic.
One such area is robotics and automation. While a growing industry before the pandemic, the demands created by the pandemic have had a profound accelerative effect on the growth and application of robotics across sectors.
The robotics sector before the pandemic
Prior to the pandemic, shifts were underway that saw the human labour force bolstered by robotics and automation. The growth of online shopping and e-commerce was driving pressure on warehouses and transport centers. Online sales in 2018 were $2.93 trillion. In 2019, that number grew to $3.46 trillion.
Then 2020 happened.
Large vendors with solid e-commerce portals like Amazon, Walmart, and Alibaba saw online sales jump a staggering 44% from 2019 figures. As you can imagine, this sudden, dramatic shift strained all of e-commerce and logistics. The result was a push toward increased robotics and automation to step into an already overwhelmed system.
New data suggests that the pandemic accelerated the overall shift to online shopping by average consumers approximately five years. While massive hiring is one strategy to deal with this permanent shift in consumer habits, it may not be feasible long-term. Particularly in logistics settings, there are serious health and safety concerns about having so many people working in close quarters during the pandemic. These are on top of typical concerns like repetitive strain injuries in environments where people are responsible for quickly filling package after package.
Robots and automation, on the other hand, offer a permanent solution. Combined with AI and the power of advanced algorithms, robots are moving into more and more supporting roles, working alongside human employees to fulfill business needs.
How robotics is helping fight the pandemic
Beyond their industrial and commercial applications, robotics and automation are helping to fight the pandemic.
One area where robotics has been valuable in fighting COVID-19 is helping with the rapid production scale-up of vital medical equipment, like personal protective equipment and COVID-19 test kits. One California-based company that makes the COVID-19 PCR tests saw demand for its product go from 400,000 units to 4 million units in a single quarter. This spike in demand, coupled with a halved workforce due to social distancing rules, would have proved insurmountable but for the aid of robots on the manufacturing line. Now, the company employs robots to pull injection-moulded components from the moulding machine, transfer them to a gate-clipping machine, and from there onto a conveyer belt. These are simple, repetitive actions that robots excel at, freeing human employees to deal with more critical tasks.
Industries leading with way with robotics and automation
As mentioned, logistics is an industry well-suited for leadership in the adoption and implementation of robotics and automation. Part of this comes down to the need for increased support for human workers, as noted above. Another element, however, is the nature of logistics work. Speed and repetitive action are both elements of successful logistics fulfillment, and these are tasks to which robots are well-suited. Robots excel in logistics environments where the work is physically demanding and requires items to be picked, scanned, and placed into the correct bin, again and again, every day, with little downtime.
At the same time, the costs of error—a dropped package and potential broken or spoiled goods—are not as high as they would be with autonomous vehicles, for example, where they could be truly catastrophic. Robots are an ideal solution to fill areas with a shortage of workers or where work is dirty, dangerous, or undesirable for humans to do.
In a similar way, the retail industry has begun to see the value of robotics and automation in light of pandemic conditions. One recent survey found that 73% of large retailers now see the importance of using robotics in warehouses or distribution centers after the events of the pandemic. Nearly two-thirds (64%) say it is important to have a clear, executable and budgeted automation strategy for 2021. And the same survey found that nearly half of retailers plan some in-store robotics project by the end of 2022.
Beyond the warehouse, however, retailers report wanting to use robotic solutions for in-store functions. Robots can deliver goods from the back warehouse to store shelves (35%), check for pricing accuracy (35%), scan shelves for stockouts (59%), and pick orders (47%), amongst other tasks.
The growing demand for robotics
Given these realities, it’s no surprise that the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) projects global sales of robotics and automated systems will reach a new record of $16.5 billion in 2021.
More than 2.4 million industrial robots are currently operating in global factories. By 2022, the IFR projects another 2 million industrial robots will be installed in all manner of industries.
With the expiration of a key patent on ultrasonic positioners used in most robots, the cost of robotics has come down dramatically in recent years. With companies now able to run ‘robotics-as-a-service’ rental models of small, inexpensive industrial robots, in a post-pandemic world, the future looks bright for robotics and automation applications in a host of industry settings.
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