With new worries about keeping employees safely distanced from each other, disruption to global supply chains and workplace safety, industrial robotics can help bridge the gap to a post-pandemic future. But, as robots will not keep away from the workplace, how can you know if you are about to get replaced by an invading algorithm?
The idea of robotics and automation being used at a mass scale to drive human society to new heights is a commonly explored theme in science fiction, and yet, never more within grasp. Amidst the 4th Industrial Revolution, technological breakthroughs in robotics, artificial intelligence and computational technologies are paving the way for smart manufacturing processes and logistics in different industries. Before the Covid-19 crisis, industry automation was already on the rise in different sectors and countries. According to Milton Guerry, president of the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), ‘robot adoption will likely be a critical determinant of productivity growth for the post-Covid-19 economy’ 1.
A Booming Industry
Before Covid-19, the industrial robotics industry was expected to grow from U$ 44.6 billion in 2020 to U$73 billion in 2025 2. Although the growth projections were also affected by the pandemic, the current estimate puts it down by 3% as compared to the previous figures, with the market still expected to grow in the Asia-Pacific region 2. Studies done by McKinsey 3 show that, although Manufacturing is already one of the most highly automated sectors globally, it still has the second most potential for automation, behind Accommodation and Food. With worries about future global supply chain risks, manufacturers are using automation to compete with outsourced labor in other countries.
Robots in Times of a Pandemic
How can robotization support both workers and employers in times of crisis? Supply chains over the world are implementing innovative solutions across their factory floors to tackle Covid-19 challenges. With robots boosting productivity, factories can spread out their shifts and minimize employee exposure. Through the usage of robots that pick and place parts 4, it’s possible to both increase throughput and spacing between workers. With the boost in eCommerce during the pandemic, palletizing and packaging done by robots can help meet the increased demand and reduce the amount of heavy lifting done by people 4. In fact, they are already doing so in Amazon 5 and other online retailing giants.
Labor Augmentation versus Replacement
As with previous technological shifts, the 4th Industrial Revolution comes with its wave of worries about machines replacing human jobs. Although McKinsey estimates that over 64% of the hours spent on manufacturing-related activities are automatable 3, less than 10% of jobs are fully automatable 6. Collaborative robots – also called cobots – augment the capacity of human operators and allow both human and robot to use their strengths to achieve more than either would individually. Using robots to assist in physically strenuous work can help prevent adverse health effects 7, as well as minimizing risks coming from human error.
The automotive industry, the largest adopter of robots, saw an increase from 824,000 to 1,005,000 jobs from 2013 to 2018 6. Just as previous changes in technological paradigms, automation also creates new jobs and changes the nature of existing jobs 8, with an expected net positive in the total number of jobs 9.
But Not All Is Roses
Although automation creates new jobs, these new occupations often require a higher level of education than the jobs they replaced, threatening the livelihoods of lower-skilled workers and raising worries about income inequality 9. This is true especially in industries where workers are already under vulnerable working conditions such as warehouses 10 and fast food.
Training in new technology is a worry for employees and employers alike. In a survey done by Automatica, three-quarters of employees said that companies stand out if they provide training in robotics 10. This makes the business more attractive to potential talent as well as helps further train the workforce. One of the main challenges for companies and governments alike is how to make sure the productivity dividends are split more evenly and help lower-skilled workers prepare for the changes in the workplace, training them to operate, repair and work alongside their robotic coworkers.
Changes to Industry
With robot programming and deployment becoming easier, automation is reaching new markets 10. Although the initial high investment necessary for robot adoption might alienate some entrepreneurs, long-term cost reduction and productivity output pays off in the long run. The Covid-19 crisis is accelerating changes: Meat-packing industry giant Tyson Foods, producer of over 20% of the US beef, pork and chicken, invested more than U$500 million in automation and robotics over the last 3 years 11, and plans to follow the trend after getting heavily hit with both corona infections and employee complaints about their handling of the Covid crisis. Robot waiters and fully automated restaurants are showing up to help comply with social distancing requirements 12, with cook robots and delivery robots 13 being particularly sought after in the fast-food industry 14.
The electronics and electrical industry benefits greatly from the added precision and speed from using robotic arms to manipulate delicate components, and robots help bridge the gap to the rising demand for electronics around the world 15. Healthcare has also seen an increase in robots on the coronavirus frontlines, from UV sanitizing robots ensuring surfaces are virus-free to telepresence robots that allow doctors to examine patients from another room 16.
Robots Are Here to Stay
Among all the uncertainty that the Covid-19 crisis brings, one thing is certain, robots are here to stay, and they will help build the post-pandemic economy 1. Companies in many different sectors are embracing the benefits of having robotic coworkers and training their workforce to work alongside them, reaping the productivity benefits in doing so. Our metal friends have proven to be unexpected allies in adapting to the challenges brought on by the virus, and we should get used to them being around.
Ana Victória Ladeira
Passionate and curious, Ana Victória Ladeira is a 25-year-old Brazilian AI expert with a knack for applying different smart techniques to real world problems. Working on data-based methods to support habit change, Ana works at the Data Science and Artificial Intelligence team at Habtic helping people improve their lifestyles.
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