Robotics Industry Offers Solutions to Combat COVID-19

Coronavirus pandemic is driving up demand and spurring innovation.

By Nick Fortuna

For a long time, the robotics industry couldn’t avoid criticism that its products were replacing human workers, but public sentiment is shifting now that the coronavirus pandemic has brought much of the global economy to a screeching halt.

Social distancing makes it challenging to fully staff manufacturing plants, warehouses and distribution centers, but robots are helping to pick up the slack, and consumers are beginning to take notice, according to Mike Cicco, president and chief executive of the robotics manufacturer and MHI member FANUC America.

While automotive production has been “hit hard” by the pandemic, Cicco said, industries such as pharmaceuticals, food and beverages and consumer goods are plowing ahead to meet consumer demand, and robots are helping to make that possible.

“I think this is going to bring awareness to how much robots and automation are in our manufacturing companies around the country and certainly around the world,” Cicco said. “I think robots and automation are playing a critical role.”

Cicco made his remarks during an April 8 webinar hosted by the Robotic Industries Association and its parent organization, the Association for Advancing Automation. The webinar detailing how COVID-19 is affecting the robotics industry also featured Jürgen von Hollen, president of MHI member Universal Robots; Milton Guerry, president of SCHUNK USA; and Melonee Wise, CEO of MHI member Fetch Robotics.

Von Hollen said robots on manufacturing lines are quickly being retooled and repurposed to make personal protective equipment, test kits and other supplies for medical professionals.

“I think people are understanding how important technology, automation and robotics are to their industries, perhaps more than ever before,” he said.

Wise said autonomous guided vehicles at manufacturing plants, warehouses and fulfillment centers are allowing employees to meet social distancing requirements on operating floors, reducing the spread of the virus.

“If you look within a lot of the facilities, instead of people doing the transfer between locations, the robots are doing that transfer,” Wise said. “That’s been helping a lot.”

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