Robots on a roll

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Covid-19 has forced industries to embrace robotics, but growing reliance on the technology will endure long after the passing of the virus. Alexandra Leonards reports…

With businesses turning to technology to help facilitate social distancing, deliver safe disinfection, reduce human contact and minimise overcrowding, the onset of Covid-19 has further strengthened the case for robotics across a multitude of industries.

But this shift towards automation is not temporary. When the pandemic wanes, it’s likely robots will continue to be key enablers in the post-Covid-19 recovery strategies of businesses.

“Robots were already making their way into various markets before coronavirus, but the pandemic has increased the demand for robots both in healthcare and non-healthcare,” explains Claus Risager, CEO of Blue Ocean Robotics. “We’re also seeing robots designed for one market being used in multiple markets.”

Although Blue Ocean Robotics produces UV disinfection robots primarily for hospitals and pharmacy
industries, the pandemic has prompted airports, fitness centres, nurseries, schools and hotels to engage with the technology.

Autonomous disinfection robots could become permanent sights in hospitals going forward

Brain Corp, which manufactures autonomous cleaning robots, has also experienced a significant upsurge in the use of its products. In April, it saw a year-on-year usage increase of 24%. This can partly be attributed to a shift toward automation in essential businesses.

“As the world begins to emerge from Covid-19, new expectations around cleanliness and social distancing are unlikely to disappear,” explains Michel Spruijt, vice president and general manager of Brain Corp Europe. “My guess is that we’ll witness a paradigm shift in the way we do things and that robots will be increasingly introduced to augment the activity of humans and keep them out of harm’s way.”

New ways of thinking
The pandemic is not only pushing organisations to meet restrictions, it’s also prompting them to question and re-examine their overall business models. The International Federation of Robotics (IFR) says that the re-evaluation of existing operations will further accelerate the deployment of robotics, and in some regions lead to what it calls a “renaissance of industrial production”.

Post-crisis, the organisation says it expects a significant boost for robotics and automation, even if the industry isn’t currently able to untangle itself from the economic downturn. According to Dr Susanne Bieller, general secretary of the IFR, the use of automation to shorten supply chains and reduce dependencies, as well as the need to comply with social distancing regulations, will be a strong driver for the further adoption of collaborative robots (cobots) and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs).

“Both types of robots are perfectly suited for a short-term reduction of human staff in manufacturing and warehousing environments,” she says. “But we expect this short-term effect to spill over.”

From hospitals and schools, to supermarkets and hotels, Covid-19 has unearthed some of the deeper flaws within existing systems and operations. The virus has also highlighted areas in which improvement is necessary.

“Our customers are telling us that the need to accelerate the adoption of robotics and automation is critical, both to protect the health of their employees and to enhance business continuity,” explains Nigel Platt, ABB local business line manager, UK and Ireland, Robotics. “Many customers are talking with us about efforts to bring production closer to home, so-called nearshoring, and how automation technologies can help keep production and logistics running in key segments, especially in healthcare, pharmaceuticals, logistics and food and beverages.”

Many businesses that were reluctant to deploy robots in their operations before the pandemic are now realising the true value of the technology. Prompted by the need to minimise human contact, and with a new emphasis on hygiene, a lot of these companies have now introduced robotics into their operations. It’s likely that, after experiencing the benefits of robotics first-hand, these companies will move forward with the technology on a permanent basis.

“Meatpacking plants were hit particularly hard during the first wave of the virus,” says Brain Corp’s Spruijt. “While many were forced to shut down, Denmark’s Danish Crown plant was able to continue its regular operations”

This is largely due to the company’s use of robots in its production chain, which enabled its workers to adhere to social distancing regulations and maintain their health. “It’s likely that others in the space will take notice and start to adopt some of these technologies for their own use,” Spruijt adds.

Retailers are having to reconsider their in-store operations following a change in consumer habits

Rising to the challenge
The coronavirus pandemic has proven particularly eye-opening for the retail market. “In the short term, the pandemic sparked panic buying for items such as toilet paper, canned tomatoes, and flour,” says Brad Bogolea, CEO of Simbe, which builds robots for the retail industry.

“This unprecedented demand surge was a major shock to most retailers’ inventory counts, and now, stores see the holes in their supply chains and are creating a structural plan to get back on track to inventory-as-normal.”

It’s anticipated that a long-lasting impact of the pandemic will be a substantial increase in online grocery shopping, which will require retailers to reconsider in-store operations. Research by Nielsen found that online grocery sales represented 13% of the market from mid-April to mid-May, up 7% from this time last year. Many consumers are expected to continue to use online grocery for convenience, so its popularity is unlikely to dip much – if at all – after restrictions are completely lifted.

According to Bogolea, the growing popularity of both grocery delivery and click-and-collect will mean store teams will need to shift their focus towards fulfilling and preparing orders for pick up.

“This fulfilment puts a premium on efficiency as store teams face an additional work stream beyond the tasks they already have,” he says. “Autonomous robotic technology can help store teams be more efficient and adapt to these changes, as well as help retailers manage the labour expense of the new normal.”

Logistics has also been hit hard by the virus. As a result, the industry will likely see automation play an even bigger role in the coming months and years.

“Covid-19 will influence warehouse operations in many ways going forward,” says Gavin Williams, managing director, supply chain – UK and Ireland, XPO Logistics. “For example, with social distancing requirements, fewer employees can work safely at a given site.” This, of course, has a ripple effect on a site’s ability to meet volume levels.

“Within the warehouse environment, automation and robotics will become increasingly critical in improving throughput and performing unskilled, repetitive tasks with consistent speed and accuracy,” explains Williams. “Additionally, robotics and automation can increase safety by helping to reduce the number of shared devices that are passed from one person to another within the warehouse.”

In particular, technology that eliminates shared devices are likely to be in demand in order to reduce the risk of cross contamination. Williams predicts that this demand will lead to ongoing research and development that will greatly expand the role of technology in the warehouse.

“Our use of automation across the company was already accelerating, and now it’s accelerating more,” adds Williams. “Pre-Covid-19, market factors such as Brexit, real estate costs, labour dynamics and the lower cost of automation – particularly more affordable robotics – were already making a strong case for investment in technology. Now the case is even more compelling.”

Adapt or perish
In a special op-ed, Brian Clooney, general manager at Kuka Robotics Ireland, explores how robotics and automation are set to be key enablers in the post Covid-19 recovery strategies of forward-thinking companies planning for the future of their manufacturing and assembly lines

If ever an unfortunate event proved to remind us that an over reliance on scarce manual resources and impractical overcrowded working conditions is unsustainable for the security of our supply chain and survival of our manufacturing industries, the Covid-19 pandemic has just surpassed it.

When, eventually, our manufacturing sectors can return to work, the landscape will have completely changed. We must maintain social distancing within the workplace for the foreseeable future or until a vaccine is rolled out across the world. But even then, social distancing within the workplace may become the ‘new norm’.

Critical finished good manufacturing and supply chain have come under scrutiny during this pandemic, and many of the flaws in low-cost manufacturing in far flung continents has come to the fore with serious shortages in finished goods and raw materials arising.

As a result, reshoring of manufacturing is inevitable with many countries and governments already issuing policy statements encouraging companies to re-shore their manufacturing and supply chain. Several countries are already offering substantial financial enticements for companies to do so.

However, while this will undoubtedly be welcome news, cost competitiveness will be even more important, and automation and robotics are fundamental to maintaining cost competitiveness.

Automation and robotics are also set to become the ‘new norm’ with increased focus on reducing the concentrations of workers in close proximity to one another and providing continuity of production, even in the event of another major interruption to manufacturing and supply chain.

Sensitive and dexterous collaborative robots with small footprints will increasingly become our ‘co-workers’. Research will be accelerated to develop new applications for robotics, faster deployment, flexible and easy to use. Autonomous mobile robotics will likely become commonplace, not only in warehousing and logistics but also in testing, sampling and media preparation.

Cleanliness and hygiene will take on a whole new importance in the workplace. And while automated robotic sanitising in hospital environments is in early development, it may become necessary to consider similar technologies in manufacturing facilities.

There are many challenges to be overcome in this ‘new norm’, all of which require collaboration and initiatives across all invested parties including the end user, regulatory authorities, government bodies, research institutions, universities, machine builders and automation/robot suppliers. These include but are not limited to:

  • Funded research, which is essential to developing new technologies l A critical shortage exists of automation and robotics engineers across a range of skills levels. This urgently needs addressing across educational facilities, both for skilling and reskilling
  • Workplace culture and operator acceptance of robot technology
  • Brownfield plant design is not always suited to deployment of automation or for the deployment of mobile robotics
  • Government investment support programmes, particularly for smaller manufacturing companies and solution providers
  • Agile innovation funding
  • Working capital loan schemes

In summary, Covid-19 is wreaking pain and suffering on our families, communities, individuals, health services and the world economies, but the impact does not stop there. Our entire way of doing business, working, communicating, commuting, socialising has already changed and much of that change is here to stay.

Manufacturing will have to adapt and change or disappear by failing to do so. It will no longer be acceptable for crowded working conditions with high risk of disease transmission to continue. Automation and robotics are key enablers to minimise overcrowding and establish clearly defined workspace and task separation in compliance with social distancing regulations.

Reshoring will be a welcome boost to many suffering economies, but it should be remembered that offshoring was a means to reduce costs and manufacture cheaper goods, so cost competitiveness utilising automation and robotics is critical to the success of any reshoring programme.

There are many challenges facing manufacturing as economies try to get back to some degree of stability post Covid-19 – financial constraints, changes to working environments, cultural change and acceptance, skill gaps and market changes to name a few.

For many companies this will require a step-change in how they design and manufacture their goods under the new manufacturing norm, and automation and robotics are set to be centre stage of the changes.

Impact on jobs
If the deployment of robotics continues to increase, won’t people lose their jobs? It seems the jury is still out on this question.

Many experts suggest that jobs won’t be lost, but instead moved. In fact, most of them claim that growth in the robot market will mean higher employment levels.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, robotics has overall had a positive impact on the job market. It reported that the automotive industry, which is the largest adopter of robotics, saw jobs rise by 22% from 824,400 to 1,005,000 between 2013 and 2018.

However, this contradicts research by economist Daron Acemoglu, who claims that, based on data between 1990 to 2007, there is an overall negative effect of robots on employment in blue-collar working communities in the USA.

The International Federation of Robotics (IFR) has countered these claims, stating that more recent experiences across the USA, Europe and Asia have proven the opposite. The organisation says that a higher adoption of robotics will probably be a “critical determinant of productivity growth for the post Covid-19 economy.”

In the UK, it’s no secret that the country is experiencing an acute labour shortage in a number of its industries, including logistics and manufacturing. Automated solutions can address the shortage directly, and aid operations in meeting post-pandemic expectations.

“Jobs will likely be supplemented by these technologies instead of directly impacted; that said, every wave of global automation has affected workers to some extent,” explains Michel Spruijt of Brain Corp Europe. “The World Economic Forum projects that the growth of AI is expected to displace 75 million jobs but also create 133 million new jobs by 2022.”

So, the issue won’t necessarily be the loss of jobs, but instead the need to support workers who must be reskilled. The International Federation of Robotics believes that to ensure these workers are provided with both the technical knowledge and soft skills needed in a post-pandemic economy, there needs to be a close partnership between many areas including government, industry and educational institutions.

Cobots vs Covid-19
Collaborative robots (cobots) are emerging as a tremendous force for good in the global battle against the coronavirus. From being used for testing, through to ventilator production and fast, thorough disinfection, the solutions made possible by cobots are varied and aplenty. One cobot supplier that’s been at the vanguard of the global response to Covid-19 is Universal Robots.

In mid-April, researchers at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) unveiled the eXtreme Disinfection roBOT (XDBOT), which comprises a UR5 cobot fitted with an electrostatic spray nozzle, all mounted on a mobile platform.

Researchers programmed the cobot to mimic human hand movements so that it can get into hard-to-reach areas such as under beds and tables – a feature that’s missing from conventional disinfection robots that aren’t as dexterous. The system’s spray nozzle and 8.5-litre disinfectant tank enable XDBOT to spread disinfectant quickly over a wide area.

Another important feature of XDBOT is that it’s semi-autonomous, which allows cleaners to remotely control the robot via tablet or laptop, thereby avoiding contact with potential infected areas. Capable of running continuously on a single charge, XDBOT has been successfully tested in public areas in the NTU campus and the team is currently preparing to trial the technology at local public hospitals.

A UR cobot cuts a blow molded part for hospital bed

Also in April, a research team at the University of Southern California (USC) revealed its prototype Agile Dexterous Autonomous Mobile Manipulation System-UV (ADAMMS-UV). It’s similar to XDBOT in that it uses a UR5 cobot mounted on a mobile platform. However, instead of spraying disinfectant, the ADAMMS-UV uses a UV light wand with an additional UV light source mounted on the base. The UV light is able to break down the DNA of the virus.

Fitted with a gripper from Robotiq, the ADAMMS-UV robot can manipulate objects, enabling the cleaning of hard-to-reach surfaces. Like XDBOT, ADAMMS-UV can be remotely operated, ensuring that human workers maintain social distancing regulations and avoid possible infection.

Cameras mounted on the cobot assist human operators with navigation. A time-of-flight camera on the robotic arm scans its surroundings and uses infrared light to determine depth. Using this visual information, ADAMMS-UV then builds a 3D model of the area to be disinfected.

“We actually started developing the mobile cobot application as a solution for machine tending,” says Satyandra Gupta, director of USC Center for Advanced Manufacturing. “We chose a UR5 cobot for this due to the built-in safety, which meant we could use it in collaborative mode around people,” he says, explaining that when the Covid-19 crisis hit, USC was required to clean its own labs.

“A lab is complex, you can’t just spray everything with bleach. We looked into UV disinfection and realised that this could work, however, the solutions on the market were for more large-scale disinfections of rooms and would not be able to for example open a drawer, take out an item, place it down and place the disinfection wand over it,” says Gupta, adding that his team is now working on incorporating a second UR5 cobot, so ADAMMS can disinfect twice as fast; one arm can, for example, open a drawer while the other arm carries the wand.

The team has successfully tested the prototype in the lab and further testing and validation is underway to ensure the technology can be used in public places including hospitals, hotels and offices.

XDBOT has a six-axis robotic arm that can mimic human movement to reach awkward locations

Covid-19 has also resulted in unprecedented demand for medical testing. In response, the world’s first autonomous throat swabbing robot has been launched by Lifeline Robotics.

Developed in collaboration with robotics researchers from the University of Southern Denmark, the robot uses UR3 cobot arms fitted with a custom 3D-printed end-effector. The process begins with the patient scanning their ID card. The robot then prepares a sample kit, consisting of a container with a printed ID-label and it picks up the swab. Then, using a built-in vision system, the robot identifies the right points to swab in the patient’s throat. As soon as the swab process is complete, the robot places the sample in a jar and screws on the lid. The jar is then sent to a lab for analysis.

The entire process takes around seven minutes in total, with the swab itself taking just 25 seconds. The system was officially launched in Denmark at the end of May.

Meanwhile, DetectaChem, a Houston, Texas-based portable detection manufacturer, unveiled a unique smartphone-based Covid-19 testing solution in late May, which provides results in just 15-30 minutes.

Three UR10 cobots deployed in DetectaChem’s manufacturing facility are being used to remove plastic sheets from around the test kits as they are presented on a rotary table, enabling DetectaChem to quickly ramp up full-scale production of its Covid-19 test, pending approval by the US Food and Drug Administration.

In March, Spanish car manufacturer SEAT transformed one of its assembly lines from its original automotive role to ventilator production. The automotive OEM installed a UR10e cobot at the end of the line to perform a quality check of the locking mechanism on the unit’s control box.

Elsewhere in Spain, plastics manufacturer Pepri has turned its focus to the production of plastic components for hospital beds, including lateral supports, headboards and footboards. A UR cobot, used for cutting the blow-moulded plastic parts, is helping the company produce these high-demand orders.

This article originally appeared in the July 2020 issue of Robotics & Innovation Magazine

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