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Robotics keep factories productive under COVID-19

Robotics keep factories productive under COVID-19
Deploying robots such as autonomous mobile robots and collaborative robots allows factories to remain productive under COVID-19, but also mind social distancing measures.
Unlike office workers that can work remotely under COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, manufacturing still requires many workers to be on site, on the factory floor. And while some processes can be automated, other processes still need human intervention. Deploying robots as part of a flexible automation plan can help keep production lines productive and efficient, while also helping workers maintain physical distance.

Robotics help with health, safety and efficiency

Jurgen von Hollen Universal Robots
Jürgen von Hollen, President,
Universal Robots
Robots allow companies to automate a wide range of processes, which is a key factor to helping each manufacturer develop its own unique back-to-work playbook and adhere to social distancing guidelines to keep employees safe, said Joe Gazzarato, Director of Zero Down Time at FANUC America.

In the midst of COVID-19, manufacturers have begun turning to flexible automation, which includes autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) and collaborative robots, also known as cobots.

Stefan Nusser, Chief Product Officer at Fetch Robotics, explained AMRs are a class of robots packed with sensors so they can understand their operating environment and autonomously navigate through facilities without any human intervention or fixed guidance like an automated guided vehicle (AGV). Use of AMRs can help keep existing workers safe and make it easier for facilities to address temporary labor shortfalls.

“AMRs can perform a variety of essential workflows including moving material from receiving to storage, lineside delivery, workcell delivery, work-in-process, urgent part delivery, tool delivery and end-of-line delivery,” Nusser added.

Jürgen von Hollen, President of Universal Robots, highlighted how cobots — robots that safely interact with or in close proximity to humans — can help factory operators keep facilities productive while providing an effective social distancing option in the work environment.

“Even before COVID-19 our cobots freed people from their 4D jobs (dull, dirty, dangerous and/or difficult) and upgraded their roles in ways in which they excel and have higher degrees of fulfillment. Incremental automation enabled by our cobots maximize people value and makes industrial automation accessible to companies of all sizes,” von Hollen said.

Von Hollen also pointed out that the easy deployment, redeployment and versatility of cobots allows manufacturers to restructure mass production lines to mass customization lines for optimal market resilience, customer focus, industrial efficiency and flexibility.

Cloud-based robots

Stefan Nusser Fetch Robotics
Stefan Nusser, Chief Product Officer,
Fetch Robotics
The use of robotics has a plethora of benefits; however, deploying fixed automation, AGVs or traditional AMRs has its drawbacks.

“Once automation such as fixed automation, AGVs or traditional AMRs are in place, it’s historically been difficult to change to adapt to new workflows or account for challenges like social distancing,” explained Nusser. Additionally, this type of automation requires vendors to manually work in the facility for months to complete the initial implementation.

With cloud-based AMRs, companies can change their workflows “on the fly” even if they are not able to physically be at the facility, he added. “For example, a process engineer or automation engineer working from home can easily modify existing workflows to create new pick-up locations to align with changes in manufacturing workcell positions.”

“When it comes to AMRs, the pandemic has demonstrated the importance of cloud connectivity like never before, both for remote deployment and for ongoing device management,” Nusser said.

Additionally, cloud-based AMRs can communicate with each other in the facility to optimize the flow of traffic, and can be incorporated with other connected devices in a smart factory via the Internet of Things (IoT) to further heighten facility efficiency.

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