How cobots can help with automation and productivity
Many of us entered lockdown armed with the best of intentions, prepared to learn a new skill or get caught up on reading. Instead, we seem to have spent most our time in front of screens—whether that be on Microsoft Teams, streaming movies, playing video games and/or video chatting with friends and family. A recent McKinsey survey found that the pandemic has accelerated the adoption of digital technologies, bringing it forward several years—in some cases as much as seven.
Robots—developed to do work in place of employees—are not a new concept, but have been around for decades. Cobots, or collaborative robots, however, were more recently designed to work alongside humans, enhancing an employee’s capabilities by taking over repetitive tasks. Rather than functioning completely on their own, cobots require maintenance and instruction, both of which come from human co-workers. Cobots are easily programmable and are capable of learning on the job. From cleaning to logistics to healthcare, cobots have become invaluable resources during this incredibly challenging time.
Cobots and Cleaning
COVID-19 has created the need to constantly clean and disinfect high foot traffic areas such as grocery stores, airports and hospitals. Fortunately, cobots are especially well equipped to handle these repetitive tasks. When the national shelter-in-place orders were lifted, consumers needed assurances that public places were safe. Since cobots can move about in places many of us can’t or may not want to, they help us socially distance by stepping in to do the close human-to-human work for us.
- HOSPITALS: Autonomous cleaning cobots can clean and disinfect a hospital room in 20 minutes, freeing up staff to focus on other critical care functions. About 70 Veterans Administration hospitals in the U.S. received LightStrike cobots to assist in the cleaning and disinfection process.1 These UV-light-zapping germicidal robots come with an approximate $125,000 price tag per unit.
- GROCERY STORES: Cobots have enabled grocery store workers, considered essential workers, to focus on keeping shelves stocked for customers as cobots cleaned and disinfected in the background. Brain Corp, an AI software company, partnered with several original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and have supplied cleaning robots to grocery stores nationwide, including Walmart.2
- AIRPORTS: Cleaning and disinfecting cobots have been deployed at several airports around the world. At Pittsburgh Airport, Carnegie Robotics modified floor scrubbers to autonomously clean and disinfect with both a chemical disinfectant and UV lights mounted on the front of the units.3
Cobots in the Workplace
Developments in artificial intelligence (AI) have accelerated intelligence in robotics—so much so that cobots that work with humans can actually learn on the job. For instance, through human machine interfaces (HMIs) similar to a smartphone, human workers can teach cobots a series of steps to complete a task. Once learned, the cobot will be able to repeat the task as needed—the perfect co-worker.
Cobots have also become a fixture in warehousing and logistics where they help sort, pick and pack your daily purchases. During this pandemic, they have become especially critical to operations as they allow the flow of work to continue with minor interruptions when warehouse staff need to socially distance. Due to the non-repetitive nature of fulfillment tasks, cobots are not advanced enough to entirely replace the human touch. Instead, they act as a significant productivity enhancement.
Manufacturing facilities have also found cobots useful during the pandemic. When a coronavirus outbreak at a meat packing plant recently forced some of the workers to quarantine, cobots were deployed to keep the plant running and keep the food supply chain moving seamlessly.⁴
As more workers begin to return to offices around the country, cobots can be instrumental in assisting owners and occupiers to promote health and safety. In addition to being coworkers, cobots can take on the role of care takers as well. Here are some examples of cobots that you may potentially encounter as you return to the office:
- NURSE-BOT: Programmed with healthcare capabilities, these cobots can take employee temperatures as they arrive at the office as well as ask simple yes/no health questions.
- TEST-BOT: Currently under development are cobots that can administer a COVID-19 swab test for companies that want their employees tested regularly.
- DELIVERY-BOT: Delivery cobots can alleviate some of the anxiety around picking up your daily lunch. In several European cities, it’s common for cobots to make office building deliveries, including retail purchases.
- JANITOR-BOT: Disinfecting cobots can roll down the hallways during the evenings to deep clean the office after employees leave for the day.
Cobots in the Future
Advances in automation and artificial intelligence have improved cobots’ ability to move about in the public domain, untethered to workstations. But to ensure wider adoption takes place, cobots will need to overcome the hurdle of open, uncontrolled spaces.
Connectivity is key for cobots to function in open spaces. The rolling out of 5G communications improves the ability of cobots to function autonomously by decreasing latency. Additionally, the pandemic has accelerated the implementation of cloud and edge computing capabilities among many large and small enterprises. This increased capability allows cobots the flexibility to be connected both at the source (edge) and remotely (cloud).
According to a recent Accenture report, the mobile robotics market is expected to grow from $8.6 billion in 2016 to $31.0 billion in 2025, a 361 percent increase.⁵ Additionally, 61 percent of business executives surveyed expect their organizations to use robotics in uncontrolled environments in the next two years. As the confidence in robotics being able to navigate in the open increases, expect to encounter cobots with higher regularity.
Potential applications of cobots are countless. In the coming decade, our interactions with cobots will inevitably increase from non-existent to several a day. Accenture makes a bold prediction that in 10 years, “there will be a 1:1 ratio between autonomous robots and healthcare professionals in every major hospital.”
Given the current environment, it’s probably safe to say that this timeline has been accelerated as well— since the cobots are already here.
New robotic floor scrubbers are handling the tough stuff at Sea-Tac – autonomously polishing high traffic floors and charming passing travelers while they’re at it. Watch why our staff loves working with the robots, how they’re increasing efficiency for the SeaTac cleaning team, and how they can work in your facility: