The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of companies that rely almost exclusively on human labor. Entire factories and businesses have had to close their doors, and those deemed essential have had to risk outbreak. Productivity is down, unemployment is up, and we may be plunging into a recession. According to a recent survey, 80 percent of businesses face new challenges related to COVID-19. In these uncertain times, automation and robotics play a pivotal role in businesses' adaptation and survival.
Right now, robots are assisting with testing, sanitization, surveilling, and more when it comes to testing, tracking, and tracing the spread of the virus, all without having anyone risk exposure. But they're also getting businesses back into the swing of things. Automation keeps companies operating and supply chains moving, even while people are out of the office or factory. Robotic automation is poised to play a major role to speed up the production and help the falling economies in post-Corona recovery. The current constraints in workforce availability will be addressed by robots while also increasing the precision and improving the quality.
Automation isn't new, but the sense of urgency to invest in, acquire, and implement new automated systems and services has perhaps never been felt as keenly as it is today. Automation may be the key to our economic recovery. Let's look at how robotics will help businesses adapt and thrive to post-COVID realities — and perhaps even save or create new jobs in the process.
Long before COVID-19, companies recognized a need for robotic and automated initiatives. Automation improves efficiency even while reducing dangerous and tedious tasks, thus helping both businesses and their employees. In late 2017, the McKinsey Global Institute estimated that automation could affect 400 million to 800 million jobs by 2030. But recent events may only accelerate that trend. A recession alone increases the rate of automation. According to data from the National Bureau of Economic Research, over three recessions have occurred in the past 30 years.
Businesses look favorably on automation, and robotics—92 percent of business leaders agree that they are necessary to survive and thrive. Still, only 51 percent of business processes are automated, according to the K2 study. With COVID-19 affecting virtually every industry, companies have a renewed sense of urgency to accelerate the automation of their business processes.
Automate to Adapt
Automation doesn't just improve efficiency and make for a safer, less tedious workplace. Automation bears the brunt of economic downturn and times of crisis.
COVID-19 may have taken most business leaders off guard, shutting down warehouses, factories, and offices to protect their workers. But those with automated systems or hardware in place blunted the impact of this global pandemic. Could a more automated workforce have alleviated the economic damage COVID-19 has caused?
The research says, yes, it could. An astounding 60 percent of companies report the need to develop new ways of operating to address the current COVID-affected reality. Almost the same number are encountering difficulties in implementing the needed changes. Investing in future outcomes may conflict with the reflex to shelter in place and wait out the storm, but doing so may be a wasted opportunity.
The cost of robots has decreased and continues to fall, according to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), allowing for widespread implementation. Today, South Korea has seven robots per 100 workers, and China is home to every third new robot. According to Oxford Economics, 12.5 million manufacturing jobs are predicted to be automated in China by 2030. In the era of COVID, that number could be many more.
The idea of "Being able to react quickly to any situation and repurpose any existing production lines" is being prioritized by companies and hence they are on lookout for flexible automation that enables them with business continuity.
A Symbiotic Relationship
Robots have sometimes been the bugaboo of workers, with alarmists predicting the workforce's complete automation and rampant joblessness. While it’s true that the intention of automation is to streamline operations and cut costs, there will continue to be work that requires an adaptive and creative mind.
Many companies are experimenting with how to integrate robotics and humans to streamline warehouse operations, including connecting collaborative robots to DMS warehouse management systems. Typically collaborative robots have limited capacity capabilities, but they can be programmed to quickly and efficiently deliver packages to a specific location, where a human then operates a forklift to stock the product.
What’s more, numerous studies, including the McKinsey Global Institute Report, note that jobs involving social intelligence, dexterity, or creativity, or jobs with high levels of unpredictability, are best suited for humans. Humans are also required to supervise, train and fix our machine colleagues.
Times of crisis also reveal the weaknesses of a non-automated world. This uncertainty is especially relevant in a time of global pandemic when safety precautions include distancing, masking, and hand-washing. Robots need not take precautions and can routinely carry out tasks that might prove unsafe for employees. Meanwhile, those employees can focus on safe, engaging, and adaptive work, so that in times like these, their office can be at home or their labor remote when needed. For these reasons, building a symbiotic relationship between humans and robots can keep employees safe — and business running smoothly.
We have helped clients to equip their warehouses/factories with intelligent robotic automation. Reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org to start with your automation journey in the new normal.
Hemachandra Bhat is the Senior Delivery Manager, CTO Office, Wipro
With more than 30 years of experience in product development, he has led the development and deployment of many products, including personal computers; servers; System on Chip (SoCs) for automotive/ consumer applications; and embedded systems for consumer applications. He has led the development of AI solutions for banking, manufacturing, and FMCG customers as part of CTO’s office. Currently, he heads the Robotics practice in Wipro that develops robotics solutions for manufacturing operations. He holds a Master’s Degree in Software Systems. To his credit, he has one patent granted and two pending.