In this article, Megan R. Nichols, Schooled By Science, highlights the important role of automation during the current pandemic

The Fourth Industrial Revolution was well underway before the coronavirus pandemic of 2020. Now, the pace of change is accelerating.

Automation is a huge part of Industry 4.0’s push for efficiency, now more than ever. Many workers were furloughed or fell ill, and manufacturers and supply chain operators either closed plants or tried to get by with skeleton crews. As these events occurred, the advantages of automation became even more obvious.

The post-COVID supply chain will feature warehouse automation even more prominently than it does today. As nations return to work, maintaining social distancing and health practices throughout the workforce requires a new normal. One of the first steps is a robotics revolution in the world’s warehouses.

COVID-19 Spurs Warehouse Automation Adoption

Robotics and automation are long-term investments for warehousing companies, manufacturers and supply chain outfits. They help organisations insulate themselves against labour market fluctuations, and they improve and maintain high productivity levels.

Warehouses were already a good fit for automation because they’re home to large numbers of repeatable, specific, measurable tasks. For example, a robot might pick an order autonomously from warehouse racking and then bring the assembled items to a re-bin area for an employee to prepare for shipment.

It’s not just repeatable tasks, either. Automated guided vehicles (AGVs) easily stand in for human workers in functions that require lots of walking or pulling heavy pallets and totes.

According to representatives from the robotics industry, COVID-19 is increasing interest in automation even for companies that have been resistant to it so far: “Since COVID, we have seen an uptick in companies coming back to robotics. It helps in a time of reduced labor and enables labor to stay 6 feet apart in warehouses.”

There’s another complication that makes this challenge even more formidable — rising demand for shipped goods. In April, during the height of the pandemic and mandatory shutdowns and furloughs, e-commerce orders spiked by 49% in daily sales. This increase included a 58% rise in electronics purchases, a doubling of online book sales and a 110% rise in online grocery orders.

The sheer number of orders for unique stock keeping units (SKUs) during the pandemic all add up to one supremely compelling case for adopting warehouse automation. Many of these SKUs require refrigeration or specific handling, which is not always feasible at a time when the industry is already stretched thin labour-wise.

As the saying goes, there may be no putting the “order everything online, including fruit and fish” genie back in the bottle. This level of efficiency for companies, plus the convenience and choice for customers, will be a difficult combination to give up.

Thankfully, we won’t have to. Leaner manufacturing, with a stronger focus on essential products, services and processes, is essentially a dress rehearsal for global economics under climate change. Learning to use automation technology conscientiously today will make tomorrow’s challenges that much easier to weather.

How Automation Answers COVID-19’s Challenges

The supply chain challenges associated with COVID-19 are very much like the broader issues that prompted people to create automation in the first place. Rising demand for shipped goods, an unpredictable labour market, carbon emissions and efficiency standards and pressure from international competitors have all forced warehouses to adapt in recent years.

Now, with a pandemic unfolding, sales of industrial robotics and automation systems are soaring. One company saw its robot sales for grocery fulfillment centers rise by double digits since the beginning of the viral outbreak.

With existing and novel challenges throughout the industry, it’s a singular moment for robotics to step to the fore. Here are just a few ways warehouse automation answers COVID-19’s obstacles and existing industry pain points simultaneously:

1. Assist With Social Distancing

As large as they are, warehouses still see plenty of close human contact, whether it’s order pickers passing each other in aisles or packaging specialists working on the line. Automated pallet trucks, smart conveyor belts and other machines can easily move materials between work areas, no foot traffic or close human contact required.

2. Address Labour Shortages

COVID-19 is a public health and economic crisis. For essential companies forced to operate under restricted conditions, or other businesses looking to restart safely, hitting deadlines with a diminished workforce is a major challenge. Wise applications of warehouse automation technologies can boost product throughput from the top of the warehouse to the bottom and keep production schedules on track.

3. Keep Facilities Clean

While floors aren’t the most worrisome transmission vector for viruses, including COVID-19, keeping them clean is still a health and safety priority in warehouses. Some companies specialising in cleaning robots have seen their sales skyrocket by close to one-fourth during the pandemic. Automating floor cleaning means human facilities personnel can focus their attention elsewhere, like high-touch surfaces and common areas.

Warehouse Automation and the Post-COVID Supply Chain

A BCG report notes that robotics investments won’t be evenly distributed throughout the economy. Larger companies have always been more likely to invest in automation. About 90% of the businesses that earn $1 billion per year have already implemented advanced robotics systems. According to the report, adoption is “significantly lower” among companies making $250 million or less.

In hard economic times, companies with the means to rescue themselves usually find a way to do so, including in-house robotics investments. Coronavirus has hit mid-sized and smaller businesses especially hard, though. Too many smaller organisations are struggling to make payroll, to say nothing of ramping up their robotics spending to keep production going.

For these smaller businesses, there may be another way through the pandemic and into a new normal. Robotics-as-a-service (RaaS) has proven a fruitful middle-ground for companies that want access to the latest automation technologies without making the investments themselves or worrying about maintenance and upgrade cycles.

The Future of Automation

However the warehouse automation boom plays out, it’s clear the world ahead will be a bit different than the one we’re leaving behind. Robots will replace millions of jobs in the coming decades, and we’re getting a preview of what that world might look like.

With the right protections in place, robots don’t need to be a threat to anybody’s livelihood. More to today’s point, robots can keep human civilization and commerce going, even when we’re stuck at home.