Autonomous robots are playing a vital role in helping workers, retailers and manufacturing enterprises at the front lines during the COVID-19 pandemic. Dozens of factories designed to build cars, washing machines, and other consumer goods are being transformed to help build ventilators and masks that are desperately needed by hospitals as they try to save lives.

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Retailers providing millions with food and supplies are also seeing drastic changes in how they function. To protect those continuing to work in stores during the coronavirus crisis, retail businesses have to clean more frequently and deliver more cleaning coverage.

Robotics has become a key aspect of both tasks, helping human workers stay safe and ramp up production as the world works to help the sick and protect as many people as possible.

“One thing this crisis has underscored is the need for flexibility. Traditionally, manufacturing was all about scale. You make the same thing for 15 years, and you wanted to squeeze out every bit of waste in the process for making it and get the quality as high as possible,” said Patrick Sobalvarro, CEO and founder of Veo Robotics.

“Now, manufacturing is all about being really responsive to needs. This crisis has underscored that what people need is flexible manufacturing and automation.”

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Robots helping transform factories into ventilator builders

Hundreds of companies across the world are jumping in to help the effort to fight the coronavirus pandemic by reorganizing their factories to create personal protective equipment for healthcare workers and ventilators, which have become vital machines in the effort to keep people alivem considering how the virus attacks the lungs.

Much has been made in recent weeks about how few ventilators are available for states in desperate need of them, and the dearth of devices has led to heartbreaking stories of doctors having to choose between patients or patients offering to give up their ventilators just to save others.

To help address the shortage, car manufacturers and other companies that make washing machines, dryers, and other consumer goods are reformatting their factories to build ventilators. Ford Motor Company recently agreed to turn its Rawsonville Plant in Michigan into a ventilator factory, hoping to deliver 50,000 by July 4.

Sobalvarro’s company works to provide the software and some of the hardware for the four biggest robot manufacturers in the world — FANUC, Yaskawa Motoman Robotics, ABB and KUKA — as well as other companies involved in the manufacturing supply chain.

Sobalvarro said that since his company was founded four years ago, it has worked with companies that make cars, airplanes, and household appliances. While Veo Robotics does not work directly with any companies shifting to building ventilators, Sobalvarro explained that typically the factories designed for building components, rather than final assembly lines, are better suited for ventilator construction.

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“Where you’ll go and you’ll make those ventilators is on a component line. Some of the components are made by the original equipment manufacturer, and some of them aren’t,” Sobalvarro said. “But what they’ve had to do in repurposing the operations that make things like components is they’ll take a place where they might be assembling the ventilation system for a car, and that will often not be organized on an assembly line.”

Big manufacturers are tailor-made to produce more things at scale and are also experienced with the kind of regulatory hurdles that come with building medical equipment.

Companies involved in manufacturing have long struggled to be flexible and adapt to changes, but parts of the supply chain are more able to evolve for a variety of uses, he added.

“The automotive original equipment manufacturers are able to take their supply chain that makes pistons for other things and they’re able to say ‘OK, we really need to put this supply chain to the service of a ventilator manufacturer.’ That’s what these big manufacturers are really bringing to the table, as well as the expertise of their manufacturing engineers,” Sobalvarro said. “They can work on something like a ventilator, which is a complicated piece of equipment, but it’s so much less complicated than what goes into a car.”

Robots assisting in the retail effort

Robots are also being tasked with helping retail workers keep stores clean as part of the effort to keep employees and customers safe from the virus. Autonomous floor care robots are providing more than 8,000 hours of daily work, and over 250,000 hours over the next 30 days, that otherwise would have to be done by an essential worker, according to Phil Duffy, vice president of product management and marketing at robotic software company Brain Corp.

The cleaning robots allow workers to focus on other tasks that are essential during the COVID-19 outbreak, such as disinfecting high-contact surfaces, re-stocking, supporting customers, or even taking a much-needed break.

Duffy said Brain Corp’s team builds the brains behind the robots and the AI technology that enables robots to operate in very complex and dynamic spaces in retail stores. The company has long helped robotics companies in the cleaning space build tools to help keep retail stores, airports and other facilities spotless, but now it’s a vital part of the effort to help essential workers with their tough jobs.

“Robots are very good at doing the dull, dirty, and dangerous work. But robots aren’t as flexible as humans. Humans can do many different tasks. At retail, there are often several hours spent during a day cleaning floors as well as other tasks. On average, the floor cleaning of a retail store is about 20% of a janitor’s workload. But if the janitor is doing that work, then often they have difficulty getting to the really difficult tasks that are important today, which is the sanitation,” Duffy said.

“In a retail store, there are lots of areas that need to be sanitized to make it safe for employees and for customers. Handles on doors, the areas around the checkout counter and areas on shelves now need to be kept clean. What robots allow people to do is take the monotonous work of cleaning the floor and allow the staff time to really deal with the critical elements such as sanitation and cleaning within the speciality sections of a retail store. That helps customers really get the level of clean they need and it helps provide a safe environment for the workers that work there.”

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Robots are also able to provide retailers with data on how often areas of a store need to be cleaned and other information that can help essential workers manage stores, especially now that staffing is at times reduced.

These machines also provide a level of efficiency and consistency that can provide certainty to workers and customers who may be afraid of surfaces due to the spread of coronavirus.

Brain works with airports, malls, retail stores warehouses and commercial sites across the United States, Japan and soon Europe, including major at major big box outlets like Walmart and Krogers.

According to Duffy, from January to March 2020, Brain has seen an increase of 13% in average daily usage of BrainOS-powered robots in retail locations. The retail industry has been an early adopter for robotics and many stores had been looking into automation long before this pandemic. However, COVID-19 has made the need for these cleaning robots more prevalent as they are well-suited to solve many of the problems essential businesses like retailers are experiencing now.

“The heroes of coronavirus are the nurses, doctors in hospitals. But it’s also the janitors that are cleaning stores, it’s the retail workers that are keeping these places open and allowing us to live our lives while everyone else is on lockdown,” Duffy said.

“There are a lot of heroes out there, and really Brain Corp is trying to provide technology to support them.”

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