After 2 years of wading through business in a pandemic it is difficult to see who the winners are…
Many sectors of the domestic economy have been severely affected with widescale job losses, the unemployment rate stood at 14.7 per cent in September 2020 which is much higher than the pre-pandemic level and household spending declined by 22 and 24 per cent respectively in the second quarter of that year according to the ESRI.
On the other hand, Irish export figures were strong due to medicinal and pharmaceutical products and computer services. With extra pressures being inflicted on an already struggling manufacturing sector such as health and safety covid measures, social distancing on production lines, illness, pandemic payments and covid outbreaks, many businesses had to seek out an alternative way to continue trading safely.
Reliance Automation, a large automation technologies supply partner serving the Island of Ireland, identified a shift in the type of automation being requested by their customers. Peter Creighton, MD of the company comments “We have had two difficult years just as every other business; however, we continue to experience demand for automation resulting from the Covid pandemic situation. Production lines of people who were tightly packed within one metre of each other suddenly needed to distance themselves 2m apart and there was also a huge increase in demand for covid related products such as testing and vaccines.”
“Many factories found themselves introducing extra shifts to split the workers for safety reasons and introducing automation to ensure demand was met. One large customer introduced robotics to significantly increase covid samples being tested quickly and safely. Within the food industry, which is traditionally very slow to adopt automation, there has been a significant shift towards automation due of significant increased demand.”
Looking outside of Ireland the trend has continued in the USA and Europe. In 2021, robots imported into the USA increased by 26.3% according to the Financial Times. Within Europe it was also reported that many factories chose to adopt “lights out manufacturing” with production continuing with 100% automation and operators controlling systems remotely from home. The International Federation for Robotics (IFR) testified that automation has now been deployed 25 times faster than was expected pre-pandemic.
Let us address the elephant in the room, job losses. The pandemic seems to have also brought the controversial debate about automation and job losses to the fore and finally proven that automation is a necessary part of industrial evolution. The IFR also conveyed that digitisation will create significantly more jobs than it destroys in the next 5 years. Due to an increase in automation jobs like engineering, IT and programming, there has merely been a shift in the types of jobs that are now in high demand. UiPath, a software company founded in Romania and now headquartered in New York, reported that they have employed 60% more programmers since the pandemic began in 2019 and they expect to recruit a further 70% more this year.
Does Ireland reflect the global trend? Peter Creighton of Reliance Automation confirms it does. “I can honestly confirm that, for the robots and automation solutions we have supplied to our customers since the Covid pandemic began, no staff members have been replaced as a direct result with redeployment to more interesting roles being the main change for many. Demand continues to be driven by an increase in sales or a lack of available people. There has been a huge change in attitudes of both our customers and the public in general and there now seems to be an understanding of the benefits of automation. Afterall, automation kept the public safe from the virus for the past 2 years in many cases.”
According to Reliance Automation, there have been huge strides in robotics and automation innovations in recent years to allow for humans to work side by side with machines. Collaborative robots, often termed ‘cobots’ are specifically designed to engage with operators safely. Cobots take repetitive and dangerous tasks from humans but still allow humans to interact with them closely. Rather than replacing humans, cobots are carving out a future for human and machine cooperation to achieve the best manufacturing solutions.
Robotics and automation is here to stay and is now being embraced more rapidly due to demand, safety and future proofing necessities. The pandemic has removed the fear factor and sky-rocketed the raw need for automation to enhance performance, efficiency, and reliability. The future may be a little different, full of digital innovations and automation, however it is safe, and it is bright.
If you would like to find out more about robotics, automation or cobots contact Reliance Automation www.relianceautomation.ie or email firstname.lastname@example.org. The Reliance Automation website hosts lots of videos showing automation applications in manufacturing that have promoted health and safety and webinars for further learning.