As the coronavirus began to spread through Japan in March, workers at a warehouse in Sugito that processes millions of personal care products each day were overrun by a spike in demand for masks, gloves, soap, and hand sanitizer.
To prevent workers from spreading the deadly virus, the company that operates the center, Paltac, introduced temperature checks, masks, and regular decontaminations. It now plans a more radical solution—hiring more robots.
“We have to consider more automation, more use of robotics, in order for people to be spaced apart,” says Shohei Matsumoto, deputy general manager of the company’s R&D division. “There are going to be fewer opportunities for humans to touch the items.”
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The coronavirus pandemic has cost millions of jobs. Now, it may transform work in other ways. As manufacturers and ecommerce companies struggle to adapt to social distancing, regular cleaning, and a potential shortage of workers because of quarantines, some may invest in robots.
Paltac already uses robots from the US company RightHand Robotics to pick objects from bins and assemble orders. Matsumoto says it should be possible to expand the use of these robots with software updates, allowing them to recognize and grasp a new object or retrieve items from new types of bins. Many industrial robots, including those found in car factories, take hours to program, cannot easily be moved, and blindly follow precise commands. The flexibility offered by these newer robotic systems makes it possible to redeploy them quickly.
Not every factory or warehouse will be able to use robots. In some ways, the coronavirus crisis has only highlighted how limited most workplace robots still are. They typically lack the ability to sense, respond, and adapt to the real world, so humans are still crucial even in the most automated facilities.
But the return to work may accelerate adoption of more flexible, cloud-connected collaborative robots with basic sensing capabilities. That might lead to more automation of work involving picking, packing, and handling products and components.
“If you have to space out the people throughout your facility differently than you used to for manufacturing, or even picking, then you can’t keep the automation in the same places,” says Melonee Wise, CEO of Fetch Robotics, which makes wheeled robots capable of ferrying items around factories and warehouses.
Fetch is working with a large US ecommerce company to reprogram its robots to adapt to staggered shifts with fewer workers to allow for social distancing. It is also working on versions of its robots that can autonomously disinfect workplaces.
Robots are just one tool for adapting to the new normal. Employers will likely also adopt stringent hygiene measures and temperature checkpoints. Some may consider new ways to enforce social distancing, including surveillance cameras or wristbands to measure proximity.
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But increased use of automation may be the most lasting effect. It may speed the adoption of robots in critical new areas of work, for instance. This week, Tyson Foods was forced to close several meat packing plants after workers tested positive for the coronavirus. Meat processing plants tend to lack much automation, but Tyson began investing in robots last year to account for labor shortages. The company did not respond to inquiries about the current situation.
More intelligent robots have been edging into new areas of manual work in recent years, for example removing boxes from pallets or ferrying components between production lines. Recent advances in AI promise to let machines take over tasks that require greater manual dexterity. Service-sector companies are deploying security, hotel, and delivery robots.
A rise in robot workers will fit with broader economic and strategic trends. Mark Muro, a senior policy director at the Brookings Institution, says companies may look to automation to improve efficiency as revenue shrinks because of the pandemic. He notes that demand for automation has increased in previous downturns.
The economic disruption caused by the coronavirus is “the world’s largest macroeconomics experiment ever run,” says Willy Shih, a professor at Harvard Business School who studies manufacturing. “And as you think about moving things around, I think people will have to look at automation.”
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