Manufacturing AUTOMATION

COVID-19 Updates Features Robotics
Robots play important role during COVID-19 crisis


Photo: Getty Images

As Canada continues to lift restrictions put in place to stop the spread of COVID-19 and more people head back to work, things are looking quite different than they were a few months ago.

First off, there are fewer workers on factory floors, as companies have introduced staggered shifts and physical distancing measures. Then there are the new safety barriers, such as Plexiglass dividers and increased personal protective equipment – all rigorous, even for an industry that already placed worker safety at the forefront before the pandemic.

It will be a considerable amount of time before manufacturers are able to ramp up to normal volumes again, but automation can fill in some of the gaps when it comes to staffing and production efficiency challenges. And, as we’ve seen throughout the pandemic, robots can also help to solve problems created by the crisis.

Slowing the spread of COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of robotic systems, according to a recent report called “How Robots and Automation are Fighting COVID-19” by the Association for Advancing Automation (A3).

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“These critical automation technologies are keeping people safe, helping develop new medicines and treatments, producing key products people need today, and filling other essential roles,” says Jeff Burnstein, president of A3, in a release. “We are proud to see our members in action helping people all over the world cope with this global pandemic.”

Let’s take a look at what’s been happening around the world, courtesy of A3.

Robots manufacturing supplies

As the need for more essential equipment arises, manufacturing lines are being re-tooled across the globe.

Many suppliers and integrators have responded by ensuring faster turnaround times, like Quebec-based Robotiq, who is offering to deploy collaborative robot cells and software in under two weeks. The goal is to increase capacity to businesses that have been identified as essential by the government.

PIA Automation, an international group of companies offering automation solutions, purchased two abandoned production lines from a Chinese medical device manufacturer in order to develop them into fully automated lines for the production of surgical face masks.

A team of 24 specialists are now working around the clock to complete the modification within the next two to three weeks. With a production volume of up to 200,000 masks per day, the two modernized facilities will help to massively improve the urgently needed medical care, especially locally in China’s Zhejiang province.

At the end of March, JR Automation partnered with General Motors to deploy a medical mask assembly line in just six days. GM needed the equipment running in less than a week, and JR Automation solved the complex task to build an entire assembly line capable of producing 50,000 masks a day.

3M, which produces N95 respirators, is activating more production lines to support public health across its global manufacturing facilities, and has donated personal protective equipment and medical supplies.

It will be a considerable amount of time before manufacturers are able to ramp up to normal volumes again, but automation can fill in some of the gaps when it comes to staffing and production efficiency challenges.

Just as the need is high for personal protective equipment (PPE) for medical facilities, so is the need for protective equipment for civilians as the virus continues to spread.

In Spain, Somtech Technologies has switched production from automotive, rail and packing to producing visors. These visors are available to shield the general public when they must venture out of their homes.

To keep up with requirements, production technology was shifted from 3D printing to injection moulding to meet the ever-increasing demand of the newly developed visors.

This change to an injection moulding process was only possible by installing an automated removal system with a suitable gripper to be attached to the robot. PIAB USA, Inc. was able to match the request with an immediate delivery and part switch, allowing the production of 56,000 visors a week.

Robots detecting symptoms

CloudMinds, a provider of cloud-based systems for robots, donated 12 sets of robots to a smart hospital in Wuhan, China.

The robots performed a variety of essential tasks, including flagging patients at the entrance to the field hospital who displayed fever symptoms, monitoring heart rates and blood oxygen levels and delivering medication.

These robots also cleaned and disinfected hospital areas and led exercise routines for sick patients. Medical workers remotely directed and controlled the robot systems over a 5G network.

The robots performed a variety of essential tasks, including flagging patients at the entrance to the field hospital who displayed fever symptoms, monitoring heart rates and blood oxygen levels and delivering medication.

Thermal cameras are being used in tandem with robots as part of this human body temperature scanning process. Not only are they being deployed at hospitals, but these systems are also being used at airports and other public places.

Airports in particular are actively employing FLIR thermal cameras as part of their screening measures for passengers and flight crews, according to a story posted on their website. They work as a tool to identify elevated body temperature, which can indicate further screening is necessary.

In the United States, Roche Molecular Solutions is using ABB robots to rapidly produce COVID-19 tests newly approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Now, instead of days, doctors and patients will receive results in three hours.

The emergency authorization is allowing these tests to be manufactured at a rate of 400,000 a day, equivalent to about 1.5 million tests a month.

“As the coronavirus cases continue to spike, healthcare workers will need access to more and more tests, and we can all be thankful automation is helping to solve the shortage problem,” says A3’s president Jeff Burnstein.

This article originally appeared in the June 2020 edition of Robotics Insider, a quarterly e-book on robotics produced by Manufacturing AUTOMATION.