Robotics help a post-pandemic world

Despite death and economic destruction from COVID-19, robots are effective tools to create social distancing, reduce touches, disinfect the workplace, safeguard hospital staff and keep companies running when workers are unavailable.

By Jeff Burnstein September 2, 2020



Learning Objectives

  • Robotics help with social distancing.
  • Skilled worker gap: Help wanted with robotics, automation.
  • Robots add efficiencies, save jobs.

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, the unemployment of tens of millions and nearly every industry has been disrupted. This includes the robotics industry, but the long-term future still looks bright as companies change their tactics.

First-half new orders in North America were down 18% according to the Robotic Industries Association (RIA) and a noticeable downturn is expected globally.

However, optimism about the robotics industry in a post-pandemic world is at an all-time high, in part because of what the pandemic has revealed about the way work has always been done in factories, warehouses, food processing plants and other key sectors of the economy.

Large numbers of people working in close proximity to meet production levels, items ordered online being touched dozens of times before they reach their destination, technicians required to go to a facility to diagnose problems – these “normal” ways of conducting business have revealed potential health risks for people that require new solutions.

Robotics help with social distancing

Robots are now seen as effective tools to create social distancing. They reduce touches on items and packages, disinfect the workplace, safeguard hospital staff and keep companies up and running when large segments of the workforce are required to stay home. Remote diagnostic tools can often help make sure robots perform at a high level without technical staff being required to visit a work site.

As a result, studies indicate more companies in every industry are considering expanding their use of robotics and automation. A recent study of 1,000 American manufacturing companies by Thomas showed one in four plan to expand use of industrial automation in the wake of COVID-19. A study from Robotic Industries Association found similar trends.  Other studies have shown an even higher percentage of companies expect to accelerate their use of automation as the pandemic continues.

Additionally, the Thomas study showed 64% of the companies plan to bring some of their manufacturing production and sourcing back to North America, creating new opportunities for increased adoption of robotics and automation.

The e-commerce boom also has expanded the use of autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), robotic forklifts, and related technologies not captured in robotics statistics. The same is true of collaborative robots, a rapidly-growing segment of the market that is likely underreported in publicly available numbers about the size and growth of the robotics market.

In retail, we’re now seeing robots counting inventory, cleaning floors, delivering groceries and fast food – many of these service tasks aren’t counted in robot totals yet, either.

While new robot tasks continue to emerge, well-established tasks such as welding and painting cars, assembling consumer electronics products and packaging consumer products will continue growing. There also are still tasks robots could be doing such as picking and packing that aren’t being done at scale yet.

Improved enabling technologies such as machine vision, machine learning, cloud computing and other automation are opening new opportunities for robots.

Skilled worker gap: Help wanted

One of the barriers to an even more rapid adoption of robotics is the shortage of skilled workers needed to take advantage of these new opportunities. According to a National Association of Manufacturing (NAM) and Deloitte report, the United States will have to fill 3.5 million science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) jobs by 2025, with more than 2 million going unfilled because of the lack of highly skilled candidates.

Will the accelerated use of robots mean massive job losses, as some studies claim? I think the answer is no. If you look at the pre-pandemic period over the past decade with U.S. robot use at its highest level ever, unemployment had fallen from near 10% to around 3.5%. This is similar to global trends, where the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) reports that in countries with the greatest adoption of robots, unemployment is lower than in countries with low adoption of robots. Why?

Robots add efficiencies, save jobs

The real threat to jobs is when companies can no longer compete – that’s when all the jobs at risk. Robots have proven they can help companies become more competitive, creating more business, and opening up better, safer and higher-paying jobs.

The future I envision is people and automation working together rather than automation replacing people. Robots will augment people and perform jobs people don’t want to do or aren’t as good at. This will allow people will do jobs they are better at and want to do.

To benefit from more robots in life, we need to ensure they are making the world better. This will allow us to do more meaningful work and make us safer while lowering the cost of goods and services, and helping us live longer and healthier lives. Based on current innovations, I expect us to accomplish all these goals in the future.

Jeff Burnstein is president, Association for Advancing Automation (A3), a CFE Media and Technology content partner, Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media,

KEYWORDS: Robotics, manufacturing efficiency, robots protect jobs

Robotics help with social distancing.

Skilled worker gap: Help wanted with robotics, automation.

Robots add efficiencies, save jobs.


Are robots advancing your company or your competitors?


Information on how to get started with robots or to expand current usage is available online at RIA Robotics Week conference, Sept. 8-11 (if you miss it live, view it archived later).

Automate 2021, North America’s largest robotics and automation trade show, with about 500 company exhibits, is planned for Detroit, May 17-20, 2021.

Association for Advancing Automation helps apply robots, machine vision, AI, motion control and motors and related automation technologies.

Original content can be found at Control Engineering.

Author Bio: Jeff Burnstein, Association for Advancing Automation (A3)