Improving Automation to Support Living, Working Post-COVID

Susan Barkal - Senior Vice President - Chief of Staff, Quality & Chief Compliance Officer at KEMET Corp.


Given the overall economic damage sustained during the coronavirus pandemic, the immediate prospects for many businesses are challenging

The longer-term prospects for business in a post-COVID-19 world look decent, as analysis adjusted for COVID-19 predicts exponential growth between now and 2025. The ability to reduce costs, improve quality, and increase output are all well-known reasons for businesses to introduce robots to their operations. But now, companies also see the opportunity to ease social distancing and pandemic-proof their operations by replacing human workers.

Technology to Beat the Crisis

The human response to this crisis has shown many positives, combining skills and existing technologies in new ways to come up with needed solutions.

Enterprises ranging from one-person work-from-home makers to major fashion brands have quickly turned their creativity towards producing personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gowns, masks, and visors, sometimes leveraging the power of Internet-enabled crowdfunding.

High-tech organizations, for their part, have applied their resources to the challenges of producing complex equipment such as respirators. To provide the right help to a patient in distress, these must be designed and built to exacting specifications. Companies involved have included top motorsport teams, which are accustomed to short turnaround times. Although they are known for having well-developed facilities for rapid prototyping, it’s worth noting that usually their manufacturing capabilities are set up for producing just a few units and not the hundreds or thousands of respirators that were in demand at the height of the pandemic. Still, they were able to quickly create and verify a design that could be built using the production equipment available to them.

The Next Steps

Although the situation has been dire, solutions were created, and societies were able to move forward. As the demand for emergency patient care subsides, the next challenges include working out how to sustain activities and livelihoods in the emerging era of social distancing. More automation, and robots in particular, will have a major role and could drive some ambitious high-tech projects of recent years into the mainstream more quickly than expected. Delivery drones are one example.

As stores were forced to close as a part of lockdown measures, in the attempt to reduce virus transmission by preventing people from mingling, online businesses were able to continue by establishing contactless delivery protocols. Autonomous delivery drones and mobile robots could now take this to the next level by removing human contact even further from the doorstep. Takeaway-food delivery could be one of the first candidates for automation. A major pizza chain with branches worldwide began experimenting with robots before the crisis (figure 1), as a means of delivering to local customers, and at least one group of tech entrepreneurs in the US is rolling out commercial services in several cities. The use of delivery robots is on the rise in China, too.

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Figure 1. “DOM” the commercial autonomous delivery robot (Image courtesy of Dominos Pizza Enterprises)

To ensure virus-safe loading, a worker needs to sanitize the cargo bay and the lid before placing the package to be delivered inside. Once the lid is closed, it is locked until opened by the customer using a smartphone app. The robot’s location can be tracked for the entire journey, and the customer notified of its progress, to ensure secure delivery.

COVID-Inspired Design

Unlike airborne drones, ground-based robots can be exposed to human contact during a journey - from the point of loading to delivery. Anyone could touch the lid, for example, attempting to gain access to the contents or through curiosity. The recipient can be made aware of the possibility and advised to take precautions. On the other hand, a contactless opening and closing mechanism, which could be powered in one or both directions using a small electric motor, can maximize the protection provided for the customer. The robot can then be sanitized back at base before setting off on the next delivery.

Sensors and Actuators to Power the Revolution

Inside factories, autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs) (figure 2) can minimize any requirements for workers to move between locations to deliver and collect items such as components and finished assemblies. Although AGVs are an intrinsic part of the vision for tomorrow’s smart factories, they have not seen wide adoption in industrial applications. However, this could change given moves toward social distancing in the workplace. With suitable actuators integrated to aid autonomous loading and unloading of items, these can eliminate any need for human workers to make physical contact with parts, and assemblies, moving around the factory.

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Figure 2: AGVs offer a potential solution to facilitating socially-distanced working

Generally, industrial digital transformation could take on a more far-reaching meaning for businesses, which will involve using captured data to manage operations in real-time. Before the pandemic, a survey by the Eclipse Foundation found that respondents rated sensors as the most important aspect of IoT, while actuators were the least important. This finding is consistent with the notion that businesses have tended to start their digital transformation journeys by first deciding to collect some data. The next step is to practice analyzing that data and working out how to interpret the results. Finally, there is an action taken, and policies are changed, based on the analysis, to take the business forward. This style of project management has been an effective way to approach the vastness of IoT, creating manageable projects that can be accomplished and then assessed in terms of their impact.

However, Post-COVID, the prospects for using IoT technologies to monitor and control factory equipment autonomously could become more interesting to larger numbers of companies. The hunger for data will remain, although increasingly fused with a desire to control the equipment remotely, leveraging the sensed data.

Growing demand for actuators within IoT projects will bring opportunities for familiar electromagnetic or motor-driven devices and could also drive the adoption of piezoelectric actuators in applications such as positioning mechanisms, fine adjusters, and valve drives. These can deliver advantages such as increased reliability and high-temperature capability. One example is KEMET’s metal-sealed piezoelectric actuators(figure 3), which can withstand high humidity and operate up to 150°C making them able to withstand treatment such as use outdoors in mobile robots or harsh factory environments. The unique ceramic element structure of these devices allows the actuator to generate large displacements and forces up to 800N at low voltage.

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Figure 3: Metal-sealed piezoelectric actuators, such as the ASL340C801FD0LF from KEMET, offer increased reliability under high-temperatures for robotics applications in harsh environments                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          


It’s no secret that many are looking to automation to help the world re-establish activities that are essential for life and livelihoods after COVID-19.

The technologies needed to build mobile robots and introduce lights-out autonomous operation to smart factories are already available. Historically, their transition from academia to prototyping and finally into widespread use has been long and protracted. Various concerns, such as cost, cybersecurity, and the impact on work and society, have had a role in delaying adoption - although some leading industrial players have begun to take the plunge.

Now, perhaps, the motivation for companies to make the change in a big way has arrived. The COVID-19 situation has highlighted compelling arguments in favor of advanced automation. The next generation, designed not only to be intelligent and flexible but also touchless, contactless, robust, and reliable, has the power to define a new era of automation.