No matter where you live in the world, it's safe to say that 2020 was a difficult year. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic forced many millions of people into prolonged isolation, disrupting economies around the globe. But their struggles masked a much larger economic problem caused by the pandemic – the toll on the essential workers who didn't have the option of staying home and working remotely.
Those workers, manning food processing facilities and fulfillment centers – often in close quarters – suffered mightily to stay at their posts. Preliminary studies have shown that they had disproportionally high infection and death rates, and it's easy to understand why. And the affected industries have also paid a high economic price in terms of lost productivity and weaker bottom-line results.
But as terrible as those effects have been, they have served at least one useful purpose: to highlight the fact that our industrial facilities are in need of a modern makeover. And now that the worst effects of the pandemic seem to be in the rearview mirror, it appears that help is on the way. Manufacturers and industrial facilities are now rushing to deploy automation in the form of collaborative robots. Here's a look at what they are, and why they look like a solution tailor-made for the present situation as well as the future of the global economy.
What is a Cobot?
A collaborative robot – or cobot, as they're known – are industrial robots built to work safely alongside human workers. They're a distinct type of technology from previous industrial-scale robotics solutions, which often operate in separate fenced-off parts of large facilities.
And there are additional benefits, too. Cobots are easier to program than larger-scale industrial robots, so they can be repurposed as needed. That means they offer more flexibility and a shorter path to an ROI for companies that deploy them.
Because they're safe to operate around humans, they're also far easier to integrate into existing facilities and workflows. They also tend to be cheaper than full-automation solutions. Right now, full automation is typically confined to facilities with no on-site workers, such as IBM's cloud-based drug discovery lab RoboRXN.
Why are Cobots Well-Suited for Post-Pandemic Industrial Needs?
Even though cobots aren't designed to replace human employees in most industrial and manufacturing settings, they offer some advantages that make them perfect for a post-Covid economy. First, they can be integrated into existing workflows to provide additional social distancing between human workers without sacrificing productivity. And since they feature safeguards to prevent them from harming any workers in their proximity, they create an instant physical safety buffer between workers, too.
But health and safety benefits are only the beginning. Today's cobots can already adapt to their surroundings, taking real-time environmental changes into account as they work. But the next generation of cobots will soon include adaptive AI engines that can effectively learn tasks from human workers without a need for specific programming. That will make them a near-perfect drop-in solution for industrial and manufacturing processes of all kinds.
A Solution for Tomorrow's Workforce
Cobots aren't only a solution to the needs created by the coronavirus pandemic. They're also a solution to demographic changes that were well underway before the pandemic struck. If you examine the population trends in the world's industrialized economies, you'll find that every one of them is in a state of decline. The same thing is true in rising industrial powerhouses like China, which appears on track to fall victim to the same demographic forces.
But there's a danger involved for those countries if they move toward a full-automation paradigm all at once. First, that would risk a massive loss of jobs for today's workers, which could have grave short and long-term economic consequences. And second, valuable and hard-earned hands-on skills will be lost in the rush to automate. By using cobots, businesses in developed nations can make a slow and steady transition to automation, allowing today's workers to train a modern equivalent of apprentices to take over for them when they retire.
The Bottom Line
In short, cobots look to be an automation solution that fits quite well into the post-pandemic economic landscape, as well as into the broader trends shaping our economic future. That they offer something of a bridge to an all-automation future makes them even more attractive in the near term. They will go a long way toward easing widespread fears of massive job losses as automation takes hold.
And as the feature sets and capabilities of today's cobots expand to make them more adaptable and able to learn as they work, they'll be able to take the place of workers that age out of the workforce. As long as any of those workers remain on the job, businesses will have a need for automation that can coexist with them. For all of those reasons, it appears certain that cobots will play a decisive role in the post-pandemic transformation of industrial and manufacturing facilities – and will pave the way to an automated future that's been inevitable for some time.