In times of need, manufacturing is driven by a philosophy John Lennon said best, “There are no problems, only solutions.” Today, manufacturers have pivoted to produce the critical supplies and equipment necessary to battle COVID-19 at a rate never seen before. SME’s Humans of Manufacturing Heroes Edition tells the stories of the teams, companies and partnerships adapting to produce the tools needed to fight this global pandemic. Going behind the scenes to share how these once-in-a-lifetime transformations are happening and the people making it all possible.
In the United States, the first case of COVID-19, caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, was discovered on January 21—by the end of May there were over 1.8 million cases and more than 100,000 had died. So, when Juan Aparicio and his research team at Siemens Technology got word in June that the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing (ARM) Institute was looking for robotic and automated solutions to increase the speed and scale at which the United States can diagnose COVID-19, they knew they had to work fast.
Six short weeks later, in “record time,” they wrote a winning proposal and signed, sealed and delivered the contracts needed for ARM’s choice of partners—Siemens Technology, Maxim BioMedical and Siemens Healthineers—to get started.
That effort—teaming and writing the proposal and then negotiating all of the related contracts—normally takes six months or a year, Aparicio said. “We don’t have that kind of luxury with COVID,” he added. “We are all sitting in our homes. We are all waiting for that vaccine. But we also need a fast test—one you could do at your home every morning before you go out into the world, right?”
The partners are automating the test strip evaluation in Lateral Flow Assay (LFA) tests—like those used in pregnancy tests women take at home—so the U.S. can reach the scale needed for effective management and control of things like coronavirus. With today’s COVID-19 Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests, it takes two or three days to get lab results.
At the moment, LFA test strip evaluation requires at least two technicians—one to run the assay and one to interpret results using analyzers that image and quantify individual strips. The three firms ARM chose as partners are developing a way to use advanced vision systems and flexible robots to automate LFA test-strip evaluation.
Throughout the next 11 months, Siemens Healthineers and Siemens Technology will transfer technology as it matures to Maxim BioMedical. “But the bulk of the technology will be ready in one year. So, we hope to impact COVID. But this is also for the time something like this happens.”
Getting to true automation with masks
Siemens is also working with Henderson Sewing Machine Co, Yaskawa America and HomTex to improve existing automated mask production in the U.S.—by including robotic, automatic visual inspection, picking-and-sorting and end-of-line packing and palletizing.
That project also kicked off in September, said Chengtao Wen, a colleague of Aparicio’s.
“Today’s popular face mask assembly lines still require labor-intensive tasks. And many that claim to be automated are not,” he said. “We want to reduce the human operators” who actually need to wear the masks.
Echoing Aparicio, Wen said that finding the right people with the right expertise to collaborate on such a project usually takes several months. “That’s really hard. But now we know we can do it within several weeks.”
Minimizing humans’ disinfection work
Additionally, Siemens is working with FedEx and Yaskawa America to improve the frequency and reliability of disinfection intended to control the spread of COVID-19 inside logistics and support operations for makers of medical supplies. Their goal is to maximize the disinfecting capabilities in warehouses and shipyards, by minimizing the human capital needed in disinfecting procedures—by developing an autonomous warehouse-disinfection system that can navigate, locate and disinfect potentially contaminated surfaces.
While FedEx and Yaskawa are taking the lead here with Siemens, the technology that’s developed will be robot-brand agnostic, and available to “anybody who wants it, not just FedEx,” Aparicio said. “We are going to have a demonstrator at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia. They also are very worried about the safety of their workers, and they also want to deploy such technology there.”
The tech partners on this project plan to start having impact around May, when they will handle the integration at a FedEx facility in Memphis, he said. The demo at the Air Force base is set for July or August.
Removing barriers to collaboration
The three pandemic-induced projects, all of which are under the ARM Institute umbrella, created “the perfect ecosystem to collaborate and remove barriers,” Aparicio said.
“Usually, with a company like FedEx, I will have a commercial relationship,” he added. “I will sell products, and they will buy them if the products fit their needs. But in this case, we are leveling the playing field and saying, ‘Let’s put our heads together and solve this problem!’”
Wen’s voice carried elation as he spoke about the automated mask production project, which will carry on for the next 11 months.
“It is pretty unique, offering big potential business and social impact,” he said. “Our research can help fight the coronavirus. Our technologies can help protect American people. We and our partners want to see the result immediately: tomorrow.”