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Factories And Warehouses Look To Autonomous Robots To Protect Workers

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the manufacturing and logistics sectors have faced immense pressure to continue operations while protecting their frontline workers.

While the pandemic’s effects have brought service and hospitality businesses to a halt, companies producing vital healthcare and personal protective equipment, or household staples and consumer electronics have seen skyrocketing demand. For the manufacturers, warehouses, and logistics firms that produce and distribute these goods, there is an urgent need to step up operations to meet increasing product demand without risking the health of their employees. 

Finding and maintaining these employees, however, is a growing challenge. Even before the pandemic, manufacturers and distributors found it difficult to find human labor because unemployment was running at historic lows and key facilities weren’t close to major populations of job seekers. In the presence of COVID-19, some facilities are faced with the additional challenges of doing more with even fewer workers, as many employees are staying home to take care of children who are no longer in school and/or are simply concerned for their own safety in the workplace. Even for individuals that are able to continue working, social distancing guidelines recommend that they be at least six feet apart, limiting the amount of workers that can be in a facility at any one time.

Autonomous robots to the rescue

To close the gap between a reduced workforce and rising demand, essential businesses have turned to flexible automation, and specifically to autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), to keep current workers safe and make it easier for facilities to address temporary labor shortfalls. AMRs are a class of robots packed with sensors and on-board computers so they can understand their operating environment and navigate through facilities without any human intervention.

In manufacturing facilities, AMRs are used to enable employees to work at safer distances by acting as the ‘go-betweens’ or runners between workcells or manufacturing line positions. In distribution and fulfillment centers, AMRs enable associates to spend 100 percent of their time picking instead of 50 percent of their time moving material around the warehouse in close contact with their colleagues. In both cases, AMRs make it possible for facilities to protect employees by maintaining social distancing while also increasing overall productivity.

As the pandemic has continued to spread, many organizations have implemented routine sanitization procedures to eliminate traces of the novel coronavirus from public spaces, and industrial facilities are now turning to AMRs to conduct this disinfection between shifts or during overnight hours. Disinfection is a time-intensive task for spaces of any size, as every surface – from visible ones like door handles to less-visible areas like the undersides of seats and tables – has to be sanitized in order to fully eliminate the virus. AMRs are already used for work that can be dull or dangerous for humans, so disinfection is a natural use case being explored by facilities of many sizes.

Cloud technology is also making it safer for companies to install AMRs in an entirely remote, contactless fashion. Traditionally, installing a new automated system requires vendors to work in the facility for months to complete the initial implementation, but in the era of COVID-19, this exposes employees to increased – and unnecessary – risk. Utilizing cloud-based deployment, vendors can now ship AMRs directly to customer sites, and then use video conferencing to help the customer install the robots and program customized workflows. This entire process can all be done in less than a day for many facilities.

Once deployed, companies can also change their workflows on the fly even if they are not able to come to the office. A process engineer or automation engineer can then modify existing workflows to accommodate additional shifts in fulfillment and distribution centers or create new pick-up locations to align with changes in manufacturing workcell positions. 

COVID-19 is forcing essential businesses around the world to rapidly adapt to a new normal of social distancing. For traditionally labor-intensive industries like manufacturing and distribution, this means finding new ways to meet demand without adding to, or endangering, their current workforce. As the pandemic continues to spread, companies are increasingly turning to autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), a new class of flexible automation solutions that can be rapidly deployed and easily reconfigured to meet the changing needs of a facility. This is immensely useful to warehousing, logistics, and manufacturing companies looking to operate efficiently while maintaining the social distancing guidelines that are essential in mitigating the spread of coronavirus.

Enjoyed this article in our SAP Startup Spotlight Series? You might also like our piece on TradeIX, a startup offering the missing link in supply chain finance.

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About the author

Stefan Nusser, Fetch Robotics

Stefan Nusser is Chief Product Officer at Fetch Robotics, overseeing product strategy for all Fetch robots and solutions. Before joining Fetch, Stefan was Senior Product Manager at Google, where he led product development efforts in the area of Cloud AI, Robotics and Search Infrastructure. Prior to that, Stefan served as CEO of collaborative robot startup Redwood Robotics (acquired by Google) and Executive Director of Solutions at robotics incubator Willow Garage. Before venturing into robotics, Stefan spent 15 years at IBM Research, leading world-class research teams in the areas of Security, HCI and Services Science. Stefan is named co-inventor on more than 20 US patents, has co-authored two books and over 15 peer-reviewed publications. He holds an MBA and a PhD in Business Informatics from Vienna University for Business Administration and Economics.

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