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Robots in the time of COVID-19

The contagion of COVID-19 has swept through the lives of people across the globe, disrupted all industries and brought the world’s economy to a grinding halt. Some analysts predict the pandemic’s impact could be as devastating as the Great Depression, which lasted from 1929 to 1933.

As the world moves towards a different tomorrow, future-orientated solutions won’t merely be an option for industries but an absolute necessity. Robotics and automation technology are already playing a pivotal role in the health sector – from the use of automated laboratory tests to autonomous disinfectors utilised in hospitals – but they’re about to extend further into other industries faster than anyone could have predicted.

“The automotive industry has always been closely tied to robotics, and this is unlikely to change,” says Kurt Rosenberg, Managing Director of YASKAWA Southern Africa.

“The fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) and food markets, however, should see an increase and acceptance in the usage of robots and automation technologies. This is largely due to the ‘contact’ element, as health and safety officers will be even more concerned about cleanliness, sanitisation and hygiene in manufacturing processes, handling and distribution of goods, and factories. Considering COVID-19 can survive on certain surfaces, measures will need to be put in place to futureproof businesses from any potential outbreaks. And this is where robotics could come in to reduce contact and cross-contamination.”

While many industries have instituted stringent hygiene standards and practices for operations, they are also acutely aware of the human element. All it takes is one lapse and the risk of infection is catastrophic. There have already been several high-profile instances where essential services, such as hospitals and factories, have had to temporarily shut their doors because their staff have been infected by the virus.

Back in the seventies, YASKAWA proposed the innovative concept of an unmanned factory termed “Mechatronics”. Since then, the concept has evolved into i³-Mechatronics, featuring further advancements and implementations of automation through the management of digital data. Whether it’s partial or full automation, there are flexible solutions that allow for smart integration, real-time visualisation of systems and industrial evolution through technological innovation. Not only do these solutions increase overall productivity and systems processes, but there’s also the ability to improve standards and quality of both the manufacturing plant and products.

Considering the current restrictions of the number of employees allowed back at work and the need for social distancing, the industries that embraced i³-Mechatronics are better prepared to deal with the pandemic’s side effects. From the stability and reliability of streamlined production (despite fewer employees at their disposal) to rigorous health and safety standards, a robotised workforce is capable of business as usual even in unusual times.

Rosenberg believes a robot-powered workforce is the way of the future, both locally and internationally. While he’s seen a significant uptake in robotic technology in South Africa, there are positive signs it’ll grow in the years to come as businesses provision for these types of advancements.

At the same time, there’s a fear that robots will take the place of humans in the workplace, hence the reluctance to embrace technology. Andrew Crackett, National Sales Manager at YASKAWA Southern Africa, believes it’s actually affording more opportunities to both organisations and employees.

“We’ve implemented several projects at labour-intensive organisations to streamline operations,” says Crackett. “Instead of seeing a reduction in staff, we’ve actually witnessed the employees reassigned to other areas or new positions. By freeing up resources, there’s the possibility to upskill and redeploy, while still improving the overall process and positively influencing the organisation. Robots will still need quality assurance, operators, and support staff, as an example.”

While the havoc caused by COVID-19 cannot be understated, it has also pushed industries to think towards the future and plan better. A robotised workforce might not seem like something out of a sci-fi film anymore, but a necessary requisite for any business to survive in the face of disaster.

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