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The new norm

27 April 2020

If there’s one thing that the coronavirus pandemic has shown us, it’s that industry can be agile and innovative under the most arduous circumstances.

While government management of supply chains might not have been all it could be, there have been huge numbers of businesses stepping up the mark and adapting production processes to help provide much needed PPE. From the many one-man bands with a 3D printer producing visors for their local hospitals, to international clothing brands Barbour producing between 1000 to 1500 disposable gowns per day, the response has been beyond impressive.

It’s not just the producers of the end products that are putting in the extra effort, but also the companies that supply them with components and even in some cases with the actual production equipment. For example, Barbour has been helped in its efforts by by Jarrow-based UTS Engineering, which has donated two rigs that were produced from scratch for the process.

And although at time of writing we have not yet seen much in the way of ventilators from Dyson, which are still being reported as work-in-progress, there are huge numbers of companies re-allocating both production and brain-power in the widespread effort to ensure no one who needs a ventilator is left unable to access one.

Although it may not immediately be obvious, the Covid-19 will also undoubtedly have an impact on the uptake of automation. Already, we have seen examples of disinfecting robots, both within hospitals and wider public spaces. In China, teams of robots have been used in the care of Coronavirus patients on wards, delivering food and monitoring individuals via wristbands that gather data such as temperature and blood pressure.

Interestingly, in the UK agriculture sector it has been made apparent that we still have a way to go before we see widespread automation. Despite recent developments in robotic harvesting systems, fruit pickers and the like, when it became apparent that Joe Public has no wish to join the new Land Army and prevent food being left to rot in the field, it was to a plane full of Romanian field labourers that the farmers turned, not an army of robots – but that’s not to say that this won’t change in future as the technology becomes both more sophisticated and cheaper.

As the lockdown is eased, as it will inevitably have to be to preserve the economy, we will need to adhere to safe distances in the workplace, and what better way to achieve this than with automation. That collaborative robot that looked interesting before the pandemic might now be looking like more of a necessity. And of course, there’s the productivity angle - improved productivity will be vital for many businesses to survive it they are to overcome reduced revenue that has resulted from the pandemic, and automation will have a vital role to play.