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Pandemic makes case for more automation, robotics

Ilene Wolff
By Ilene Wolff Contributing Editor, SME Media

AUTOMATION & ROBOTICS: Outbreak poised to prompt changes in the way manufacturers use automation

Waypoint Robotics CEO Jason Walker said he has spoken with potential partners who make ultraviolet light sources and aerosol disinfectant sprayers about equipping one model of his autonomous, omnidirectional robots with a disinfection source to deep clean factories overnight.

CEO Jason Walker and part of his team at Waypoint Robotics had just returned from the Modex 2020 show in Atlanta when the governor of his company’s home state imposed a stay-at-home order because of COVID-19.

Walker and his teammates self-quarantined for 10 days after returning from the show. But due to a critical order, the group decided to get back together to work on building robots. They were able to ship a fleet of robots to their customer, a medical device e-commerce site whose clientele is almost exclusively elderly people, to use for picking operations in its distribution center.

“They really need those supplies at home so they can stay safe,” Walker said of his customer’s clientele. “The needs of the people who need those products—that’s what really was driving us to make sure we got that order out.”

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way we patronize restaurants, shop and see our doctors. During the pandemic, robots are spraying disinfectant on city streets, taking the temperature of hospital visitors, warning joggers to social distance from other people and cooking and serving food at restaurants.

The outbreak is poised to prompt changes in the way companies use automation from Waypoint and others—if they haven’t done so already—and is predicted by some to accelerate the rate at which that happens.

For example, Walker said he has spoken with potential partners who make ultraviolet light sources and aerosol disinfectant sprayers about equipping one model of his autonomous, omnidirectional robots with a disinfection source to deep clean offices, stores, factories and other large businesses overnight. The need for such disinfection is prompted by the knowledge that the highly infectious novel coronavirus can be detected on surfaces much longer than many other bugs.

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Ready Robotics CEO Ben Gibbs said increased automation will enable more manufacturing in the U.S.

“That can happen automatically without human intervention every night,” he said. “If you’re talking about disinfecting an entire Home Depot every night, then that’s something I think we can do right now.”

Efficiency vs. resiliency

Even before the novel coronavirus was known to have reached American shores, more than half of executives in a Reshoring Institute survey published last October said they were planning or considering bringing some production back to the United States in the next five years. At the time, their answers were in part due to the unpredictability of tariffs and trade regulations. Disruptions in the supply chain due to COVID-19 only add more impetus.

If a wave of reshoring happens, it will lead to a chain of events that increases the likelihood we’ll see more automation to increase resiliency in the supply chain for U.S. businesses, said Ready Robotics CEO Ben Gibbs. He explained that, during the last few decades, the U.S. supply chain has been maximized for efficiency, with just-in-time delivery, minimal inventory and off-shoring to benefit from low-cost labor.

“We saw the impact of that play out during the pandemic as supply chains were disrupted, making it extremely difficult for consumers and businesses to get the goods they needed.” he said. “A major driver of that disruption comes from outsourcing of supply chains.

“The counterpoint to efficiency is resiliency where we have increased local manufacturing, carry larger inventories and have a more responsive supply chain that can weather these shocks more effectively.”

Osaro’s Bastiane Huang said the pandemic is hastening the arrival of autonomous robots, but that we need to rethink metrics.

More domestic manufacturing will be enabled by increased automation, Gibbs said.

Automation will help with the labor shortage caused by the Baby Boomers retiring and the lack of people who can or want to fill those jobs. It will also mitigate the effects of higher wages in the U.S. compared with China and other low-wage countries, he said.

Bastiane Huang, product manager for the AI-software company Osaro, said she also sees the coronavirus creating urgency for customers to seriously think about automation.

“We can use machine learning to allow robots to recognize a wide variety of items, pick them up and place them,” she said. “That’s why now we can start to provide AI-enabled robotic arms to warehouses.”

With restrictions on air travel, Osaro has started to deploy its systems remotely instead of sending an engineer to set up the robotic cell, start collecting data and train the robot. As a result, the company is tweaking its systems to make them more intuitive in an effort to make the on-boarding process easier.

Independence Day not yet here

Osaro’s new practice of remote deployment reinforces the view that as virus-proof and technologically advanced as automation is, visionaries who foresee a totally automated factory, or even warehouse, will have to wait to see production devoid of humans.

“Based on my conversations with a security robot company and a delivery robot company, it’s still difficult,” Huang said. “Robots can probably handle [only] 80-85 percent of situations.”

It’s possible to view YouTube videos of highly automated warehouses like those of Ocado, a British online supermarket, and Alibaba, the world’s largest “e-tailer.” But humans work at both locations, too.

The virus is forcing robotics companies to up their game in terms of making truly autonomous robots.

“Suddenly, autonomous machines need to be better than just proof of concepts,” Huang wrote in a March 29 article for The Robot Report. “They can no longer depend on on-site engineering support for edge cases. They must be robust enough to work independently across various real-life situations.”

The industry needs to take on much-needed reforms toward real-world autonomous systems in the following three areas, she told Smart Manufacturing:

  • Rethink metrics and measure the reliability of the system considering uncertainties with robustness metrics. “If a delivery robot can reach a max speed of 4 mph but cannot complete a single delivery without human support, the robot is not creating much value to its users.”
  • Redesign error-handling and communication. “AI companies currently tend to spend much more resources on building autonomous systems and much less time thinking about error-handling and seamless hand-off between machines and humans.”
  • Redefine human-machine interaction. “Should we reconsider human-machine interfaces that go beyond tactile, for example, voice, virtual reality/augmented reality or brain-machine interface?”

Robots will need better vision and navigation technology before they can operate autonomously in unstructured environments, Gibbs said.
Waypoint’s Walker agreed that robots are going to need the help of a person at least in the foreseeable future.

“If one has their sights set on total automation with no humans involved, it’s going to be a very long time before that can really happen,” he said. “And even if we could do it right now, what would be the social consequences of that? We are reeling from the service industry being shut off overnight, and if the manufacturing industry were likewise shut off overnight, what would that look like?”

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