With COVID-19 having hit many manufacturing businesses hard, a growing number are turning to robotic automation as a way of helping to get back on track. Julian Ware, UK & Ireland Sales Manager for ABB Robotics, explains why and outlines how robots can help ensure certainty in uncertain times.
The impact of the coronavirus has been particularly acute for manufacturing companies, which rely on the availability of workers as a key part of their production operations. The combined effects of lockdowns, staff sickness and social distancing requirements have meant that many companies have had to rethink their processes in terms of staff utilisation and, with the imposition of social distancing requirements, the design of their production lines.
In some instances, dramatic increases in demand have seen companies struggling to ramp up their production to keep pace. A good example is the flour shortage that occurred at the start of the first lockdown in 2020, caused by producers’ inability to switch from large sack production to smaller bagged packs.
The impact of COVID-19 was identified as a major concern in a recent survey carried out by ABB Robotics in December 2020. Covering the views of 1,650 respondents across multiple industries in the UK, Germany, Italy, USA, China, Sweden and Switzerland, the survey revealed that 85.3% of those surveyed saw the pandemic as a game-changer that had affected their operations.
As a result, 77.4% of those surveyed are considering a switch to robotic automation to help address the issues caused by coronavirus, particularly when it comes to achieving a safer and regulation-compliant working environment. Top of the list of perceived benefits is the ability to meet social distancing guidelines (51.3%), followed by compliance with health and safety rules and improving workplace safety (43.2%). A significant number of respondents also consider robots as a solution for filling in for staff absent because of sickness or self-isolation. This highlights the increased awareness of the ability of collaborative robots such as ABB’s YuMi, GoFa and SWIFTi cobots to work safely alongside human workers to help fill gaps in production lines.
There are three reasons why switching to robots could help tackle COVID-19.
Flexibility to handle uncertainty
The flexibility to handle change is one of the key benefits of robotic automation. In contrast to fixed, single-purpose machinery, robots can be easily adapted to handle a variety of different processes, even enabling multiple products to be produced on a single production line. As robots have become progressively easier to use, operators can increasingly switch between different production programs in a matter of minutes.
As such, they offer the ability to insure against uncertainty, enabling companies to diversify production if required. In particular, robots offer the ideal means of switching from ‘Just In Time’ models to models based on a ‘Just In Case’ approach, where production processes are better geared up to handle unexpected or non-standard situations.
Working alongside your workforce
In recent years, the possibilities for deploying robots alongside people have been greatly expanded with the development of collaborative robots that couple fast and accurate performance with extensive safety features that help prevent injuries caused by accidental contact.
Round the clock operation
With the ability to work around the clock at a consistent level of performance and accuracy, both cobots and their larger robot colleagues can help to ensure that orders can be processed, handled and dispatched without the need to ask staff to work extra shifts or unsociable hours to get products out of the door.
If there has been one major lesson that can be derived from the experiences of 2020, it is the need to be prepared. By taking advantage of the possibilities offered by modern robotic automation, from lightweight cobots to heavy-duty industrial robots, companies can better prepare themselves to handle change through increased levels of flexibility and efficiency that will enable them to compete and remain profitable in uncertain times.