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Industrial Automation and COVID-19: Are More Manufacturers Looking to Invest in Technology?

Posted by IndustrySelect on Wednesday, September 23, 2020



Due to fears about the transmissivity of COVID-19, remote interaction has become the method of choice for everything from schools to manufacturing. Controlling and operating complex design, construction and assembly of various products with limited human interaction has forced an industry-wide reset.

Here are some of the things that manufacturers discovered in their move to embrace automation at scale.

Automating jobs Away?

Prior to COVID-19, automation was seen as a threat to jobs. A major fear was that companies would purchase machines and software that could do the work of humans for a lower price, creating a technological recession where people were forced out of work by automation.

There is some justification for these fears. A study by the McKinsey Global Institute has shown that in some industries, there may be a 25% reduction in human workers by 2030.

However, there are also other studies that show that automation, at least before COVID-19, would work alongside humans to increase productivity without sacrificing jobs.

One study by the World Economic Forum predicts a loss of 75 million jobs alongside an increase of 133 million new jobs, making for a net gain of 58 million jobs.

Some companies that are fielding robotics in large numbers, such as Radwell International in New Jersey, are using robots to augment human workers. Rather than using humans for repetitive tasks, they have been reassigned to high-value labor, leaving the robots to do the simple work. When the company opens its new warehouse in Texas, it too will be supplemented by robotic workers.

State of the Automation and Robotics Industry

Manufacturers of robotics and automation equipment are hearing many stories like this: A company may have had a timeline of 2025 for fully embracing automation, but that schedule has moved up to perhaps 2021 or 2022. This will require a rapid ramp up on the part of automation providers to deal with the unexpected demand.

Despite this change in priorities, robotics and automation sales have not increased due to the heavy blow dealt to manufacturers.

Nearly half of the companies sampled in a recent survey expect a drop in revenue of more than 10% this year. Despite 44% of these same companies wishing to invest in automation, the balance sheets simply will not allow it at this time.

A key takeaway when talking to these companies is not to focus on a sale but to assist with planning.

This is a time when many manufacturers are operating at reduced capacity and are evaluating new ways of moving forward.

There may never be a better opportunity to educate them on the benefits of automation and robotics so that when the time is right, they will be ready to buy.

The Reality of Robots and Automation

A survey found that 59% of manufacturers utilize some type of production robot in their plants. Major uses include material handling, processing, assembly and quality control.

Fixed automation is very high in its initial investment requirements and is often customized for a specific task, but it has the advantage of extremely rapid production rates and accuracy.

Flexible automation is less capital intensive and is capable of being reprogrammed for various tasks but features a lower work rate.

Manufacturers still have many concerns about automation that stem from a lack of understanding of the systems and their capabilities.

There are might still be a few individuals who think that robots resemble the droid-like machines seen in movies. The reality is that industrial robots are purpose-built machines with some memory or learning capacity written into their software.

Teaching C-suite executives the reality of what robots and automation can do for their company will be the biggest part of making any sale.

Obviously, manufacturers are concerned with cost. Can they afford the initial capital investment and any recurring costs such as maintenance or software licenses? The nice thing about automation, especially as it pertains to IoT, is that it can be fielded in a modular fashion. There is no need to retrofit an entire facility all at once. While there may be certain logistical reasons why it may be smarter to perform the upgrade altogether, it is by no means mandatory. This may sway companies that were hesitant due to the perception of a massive up-front investment.

The long term benefits of automation and robotics are easier to see in a post-COVID-19 world. Automated systems do not have to social distance during a pandemic. In fact, if configured properly, production may not be affected at all. The ability to maintain predicted revenue even during a pandemic may be all that an executive needs to hear.

If your business provides industrial automation services, now is the time to reach out to decision makers in the manufacturing world. An IndustrySelect subscription can put you in direct contact with 500,000 industrial companies and one million executives. Click here to learn more


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