By Milane Haboon

As people around the world fall ill, social distance, or self-quarantine, manufacturers are struggling to find the labor needed to bring their products to market. The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted the global supply chain with shortages on N95 masks, disinfecting wipes, and even toilet paper. Production comes to a halt or stalls as manufacturers figure out how to keep employees safe. While some companies were able to pivot quickly, others were not equipped to face the challenges brought on by the pandemic. Manufacturers are dependent on human workers to produce their products, but what happens when workers cannot show up for their shifts? One way to mitigate this is to move toward robotic automation and resolve this labor problem.

Manufacturers have dealt with labor pressures long before the pandemic and the Coronavirus has only exacerbated the problem. Pre-pandemic, American manufacturing companies faced a skills gap that was largely due to the surge of baby boomers retiring, leaving an estimated 2.4 million positions unlikely to be filled between now and 2028 according to research from Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute. Most of the younger generation entering the workforce hold college degrees, and manual labor is not likely in their futures. To add to the pre-pandemic labor shortage problem, the current nature of shoulder-to-shoulder work to process food puts workers at high risk during this pandemic, and some may give up their low-paying job to self-quarantine. One of the most significant challenges is workers falling ill to the virus–nearly 5,000 meat processing workers have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The risk of contracting the virus is much higher at food plants where there are thousands of workers making social distancing impossible. To make matters worse, asymptomatic transmission makes it very difficult to prevent the spread of the virus. Outbreaks will continue to plague factory floors at large plants, and it is not just the food industry that the Coronavirus effects. Automakers are taking extreme measures to prevent the spread with temporary factory shutdowns. If companies do not react appropriately, closures remain in effect, and the return to work will be further pushed out.

The pandemic is already changing the way people interact with one another. Restaurants and groceries are now offering contactless deliveries and it is becoming an attractive option for millions of Americans as they follow social distancing guidelines. From mandatory face masks to awkward elbow shakes, Covid-19 is opening opportunities for robotic automation. Now more than ever, the emphasis on workplace cleanliness is critical to keeping workers (and food products) safe. Contactless food handling with robots is an essential solution for food processors. Before the pandemic, demand for food automation was growing and continues to grow with good reason. Labor shortages, the pressure to increase productivity, and expectations for contaminant-free processing are all reasons why food manufacturers should automate their processes. A contactless, robotic automation operation will help in achieving all goals – including business survival. With the help of robots, food processors can automate food and help prevent outbreaks.

Robots are already filling the gaps in the workplace as the Coronavirus forces people to social distance. Companies are rearranging workspaces, staggering lunch breaks, among other safety precautions to help keep workers 6 feet apart. Given the social distance guidelines, manufacturers need a flexible and adaptable solution and they can do this with the help of Collaborative robots (cobots). Cobots are proven to be a valuable solution for big and small manufacturers by filling the labor gaps. Working safely alongside humans, cobots are tasked with picking, sorting, or replenishing. Where workers used to be, cobots are picking up the slack so human workers can maintain social distance. As needs change, cobots can be moved, re-programmed, and re-deployed to multiple applications offering great flexibility to manufacturers. This is a huge advantage for manufacturers who need to pivot, change SKUs, and expand into new markets quickly. Adding cobots to current productions will not only help to maintain social distancing guidelines but can give workers the confidence to return to work. Social distancing directives are likely to continue after the pandemic and robots will help keep operations running. The post-coronavirus era may accelerate the adoption of more flexible collaborative robots to improve efficiency and help businesses stay afloat.

While much uncertainty remains as we navigate this pandemic, many manufacturers will need to turn to automation to support their operations. As we see more factory closures, companies will need to quickly re-evaluate current processes and strategize on how to make up for the labor challenges. As more people fall ill to the Coronavirus, robotic automation is likely to become an essential part of the recovery phase.

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