For most of the year 2020, we have been experiencing a global-scale pandemic, and it is safe to say COVID-19 has had a substantial effect on many people’s lives. As our priorities shifted to protecting ourselves and others from the virus, our daily habits also changed. We transformed the way we shop for groceries, how we communicate with family, and even our means of earning money.
To help us with this sudden and considerable shift in the way we live, a wide spectrum of technologies became a much bigger part of our lives. Automation has been particularly helpful throughout the lockdowns of 2020, and now a report has found that 41% of bosses in 45 countries plan to invest in automation as they prepare for a post-coronavirus world.
Threat or friend?
The prospect of ‘robots’ replacing humans in their jobs is a subject of ongoing debate. While robots may have already replaced people in many highly repetitive tasks, automation also presents an opportunity to create jobs in advanced manufacturing.
As the pandemic forces us to rely on these technologies to keep us safe, people are warming up to the idea of incorporating more automated processes into our daily lives. Here are the top four ways automation has helped us cope with the pandemic—and how it will likely continue to do so.
According to a study by McKinsey, people expected to spend more than usual on groceries and at-home entertainment during the COVID-19 outbreak. The boost in FMCG sales across European countries during the lockdown period is clear evidence of this.
Supermarkets and physical retail stores are faced with the challenge of meeting this increased demand while enabling their staff and customers to socially distance. Naturally, this is causing many businesses to rethink their entire customer journey.
Where it once was favored to have a real person serving you at a till or checkout, it is now more common to see self-service kiosks taking a leading role. Self-service checkouts eliminate the risk related to staff handling every item purchased and can also be easily disinfected between uses. This is much less time-consuming than having staff members wash their hands after serving each customer.
Amazon has also opened an automated supermarket in America which relies completely on sensors to track what shoppers pick up. This “just walk out” technology not only supports social distancing guidelines but also puts an end to queuing up at tills. One thing is abundantly clear – as consumers become more aware of who they come into close contact with, they are becoming less concerned with personalized in-store service.
The self-service revolution isn’t reserved for just supermarkets, but for the hospitality industry too. McDonalds now has self-ordering kiosks in many of its restaurants across the globe, removing the need for customers to speak to staff to make their order. Wetherspoons in the UK also launched its ‘Order & Pay’ app in 2017, and it was heralded as ground-breaking even before the coronavirus outbreak. The app became particularly useful this year as pubs reopened with extra safety measures following lockdown.
Many hotel chains have also been offering their guests self-serve kiosks for checking in and out, removing the need to have a member of staff available at the reception desk 24/7.
Just as the pandemic is expected to have long term effects on our buying behaviors, supply chain processes will see a permanent impact too. A survey conducted in March found people spent 10-30% more online during lockdown. E-commerce businesses found traditional, manual warehouses no longer met this rise in demand, especially while adhering to social distancing rules.
Some businesses attempted to reduce the impact on their logistics processes with temporary measures. These included widening delivery windows, directing inventory to busy locations, bypassing distribution centers, lowering online order size, relaxing return windows, and capping purchases of high demand products. Others, however, took a more permanent approach to solving this challenge.
Automated warehouse solutions can help businesses prevent the overcrowding typical of busy manual warehouses. Ensuring businesses can respect social distancing rules, automation can significantly improve the working environment. While warehouse robots have a bad reputation for replacing human jobs, some concepts work alongside human operators. What’s more, these ‘goods-to-person’ solutions allow individuals to work in separate workstations that can be easily disinfected between shifts.
On the other hand, there are other – less popular – fully automated concepts, which only need human workers for routine maintenance and breakdowns. These solutions are stronger in terms of efficiency but are more likely to attract negative headlines.
Manufacturers of cleaning and sanitizing products have seen demand soar, and as businesses are encouraged to permit employees to work from home, automation is being used to perform tasks that workers are unable to carry out at home. In America, for example, Walmart uses robots to scrub the floors of its supermarkets.
A manufacturer of ultraviolet-light-disinfection robots, UVD Robots, delivers its machines to hospitals across the globe. An entirely automated hospital ward opened in Wuhan as a direct response to the coronavirus too. As well as cleaning, these robots can deliver food, drinks, and medication to patients.
Cleaning machines are becoming more popular among supermarkets and restaurants providing takeaway options, too. Meanwhile, businesses in South Korea have been using robots to measure temperatures and distribute hand sanitizer. As more businesses reopen after lockdown, we are likely to see more and more investment in this kind of technology.
The use of machines and robotics in place of human workers has always been a controversial topic. But as we shift our focus to staying healthy, it is only a matter of time before the population accepts the idea of automating tasks that have been traditionally manual.
It is our human instinct to survive, and that could mean taking full advantage of the technology we have available. Whether in supermarkets, warehouses, or hospitals—it is now apparent that automation has a bigger use case in our society than we ever dreamt.