In the UK, nation-wide lockdown has been eased in favour of localised lockdowns to contain emerging coronavirus hotspots. While the global search for a vaccine continues, the best way for us to understand the virus and how it spreads, is through a strong test and trace programme according to Mark Gray, Universal Robots
UK and Ireland sales manager.
He points out that while the number of mobile testing units in the UK has grown, it is fair to say that the UK Government has struggled with meeting its ambitious testing targets, and getting full and accurate data remains a hurdle.
Existing testing facilities are still struggling with labour shortages and changing Government advice on safety regulations. In order to stay flexible and adapt quickly to a rapidly changing environment, Mr Gray says testing facilities should consider deploying automation in order to scale-up effectively and sustainably to meet higher testing targets.
When collaborative robots (cobots) work alongside people, productivity can increase dramatically, and allow the workforce to grow by as much as 22%.Rethinking productivity
Mr Gray says cobots are extremely flexible and easy to redeploy in multiple functions as need arises. In a testing facility, a cobot could be deployed within less than a day to help with physically straining and repetitive activities that human workers find tiring.
By taking over a task such as moving test samples in and out of diagnostics machines or packing testing samples, the time between testing and results would be much quicker.
In some cases, they have even been used to carry out tests, taking human workers away from the frontline and reducing potential downtime. Cobots can carry out such tasks around the clock, with no need for breaks.
While cobots can take on tasks, they do not take jobs. They can take care of physically demanding jobs, however, human intelligence is still crucial in developing testing strategies, ensuring efficient operations, and evaluating how to improve operations. Robots are unable to match humans when it comes to strategic intelligence.
However, automation in UK production lines is at a much lower level than the rest of Europe. The UK has just 85 units per 10,000 employees, versus the European average of 105. This places the UK at 22nd in the world rankings.
There are a number of reasons for this according to Mr Gray, ranging from the ease of accessing cheap labour and an historic lack of funding in robotic solutions.
However, cheap labour is becoming more and more difficult to access, as Brexit stands to reduce the flow of labour, and Covid-19 necessitates social distancing regulations.Effective solution
He says cobots are an effective solution, and can be rapidly and flexibly deployed into any production line, delivering immediate results for productivity and cost-effectiveness.
They can be reprogrammed to accommodate changing manufacturing needs and demand, as well as repaying investment costs by increasing production as soon as they are deployed.
When cobots are implemented, businesses can expect increases in not only revenue, but also workforce. When Danish company, Trelleborg Sealing Solutions implemented cobots into its workforce, not only was the business able to increase its number of orders, but it also increased its workforce by an additional 50 members of staff.
During these uncertain times, it is natural for all businesses to be re-assessing their budgets. Cobots are cleanroom certified, and can help keep jobs safe, reduce downtime, allow businesses to adapt to changing social distancing regulations, and maintain profits.
In test facilities, reducing the number of people handling test samples will also reduce the risk of virus transmission or sample contamination.
As the world continues the search for a safe vaccine for Covid-19, automation has a crucial role in ensuring that the vaccine is easily accessible and ready on time, points out Mr Gray.
When the focus has shifted from the trial stage of vaccine development, the next challenge will be rapid production at scale, and swift and equal distribution across the globe.
If cobots are introduced early in the production stage, this will remove over reliance on human workers, and ensure the safe, scaled-up productivity.