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As Workers Spread Out to Halt the Virus, Robots Fill the Gaps

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As the coronavirus began to spread through Japan in March, workers at a warehouse in Sugito that processes millions of personal care products each day were overrun by a spike in demand for masks, gloves, soap, and hand sanitizer.

To prevent workers from spreading the deadly virus, the company that operates the center, PalTac, introduced temperature checks, masks, and regular decontaminations. In coming weeks, it plans a more radical solution—hiring more robots.

“We have to consider more automation, more use of robotics, in order for people to be spaced apart,” says Shohei Matsumoto, deputy general manager of the company’s R&D division. “There are going to be fewer opportunities for humans to touch the items.”

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The coronavirus pandemic has cost millions of jobs. Now, it may transform work in other ways. As manufacturers and ecommerce companies struggle to adapt to social distancing, regular cleaning, and a potential shortage of workers because of quarantines, some may invest in robots.

PalTac already uses robots from the US company RightHand Robotics to pick objects from bins and assemble orders. Matsumoto says it should be possible to expand the use of these robots with software updates, allowing them to recognize and grasp a new object, or retrieve items from new types of bins. Many industrial robots, including those found in car factories, take hours to program, cannot easily be moved, and blindly follow precise commands. The flexibility offered by these newer robotic systems makes it possible to redeploy them quickly.

Not every factory or warehouse will be able to use robots. In some ways, the coronavirus crisis has only highlighted how limited most workplace robots still are. They typically lack the ability to sense, respond, and adapt to the real world, so humans are still crucial even in the most automated facilities.

But the return to work may accelerate adoption of more flexible, cloud-connected collaborative robots with basic sensing capabilities. That might lead to more automation of work involving picking, packing, and handling products and components.

Robots at Japan’s PalTac pick items from bins to assemble orders.

Courtesy of Righthand Robotics/PalTac

“If you have to space out the people throughout your facility differently than you used to for manufacturing, or even picking, then you can’t keep the automation in the same places,” says Melonee Wise, CEO of Fetch Robotics, which makes wheeled robots capable of ferrying items around factories and warehouses.

Fetch is working with a large US ecommerce company to reprogram its robots to adapt to staggered shifts with fewer workers to allow for social distancing. It is also working on versions of its robots that can autonomously disinfect workplaces.


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