Businesses across the country are being forced to close permanently in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, but many companies who specialize in robotics and artificial intelligence say their phones are ringing off the hook because of the pandemic.
“Robots and artificial intelligence are going to change how we do business,” said professor of supply chain management at Arizona State University Hitendra Chaturvedi.
Melonee Wise and Matanya Horowitz both run robotics companies. During the pandemic, Wise’s company, Fetch Robotics, has seen a 60 percent spike in requests for their robots who assist warehouse workers across the country.
“They were already suffering from a massive labor shortage, and then COVID came in and forced them to have even less people in the building, and so they need automation to stay competitive,” said Wise.
Horowitz says his earnings at AMP Robotics doubled in the first quarter this year over last year, and that only included orders during the first few weeks of the pandemic.
The artificial intelligence can recognize and properly sort materials in recycling plants where employees usually work in close quarters.
“These facilities weren’t designed with social distancing in mind, so people are working shoulder to shoulder on these lines, and I’ve heard of all kinds of things—people putting up shower curtains to try and keep people separated. It’s hard,” said Horowitz.
With robots in between the humans, it forces social distancing and spreads out responsibility.
“The sorters actually like the robots because when they’re next to them, they don’t have to do two people’s jobs,” explained Horowitz.
But, do more robots and fewer workers on the line mean job loss? Supply chain management expert Hitendra Chautvedi said not for Americans.
“We are not going to take jobs away from us, we will take jobs away from China,” Chaturvedi said.
“What it creates is higher tech jobs where you have data analysts in these facilities, and so we hope we’re trying to create different kinds of jobs,” said Horowitz.
New jobs for an age where technology takes a front seat, so businesses can leave the heavy lifting to the robots.
“People are seeing these facilities that are heavily automated are able to weather the crisis really well, they’re saying: this is ready for prime time. This is really going to help secure my business,” said Horowitz.
The rise in automation may eventually lead to more countries relying less on offshore production and allow manufacturing to re-emerge in the United States or North America.
Co-founder of Bossanova Robotics, Sarjourn Skaff, said he believes this pandemic could help drive down costs of automation.
"It levels the cost playing field, and then onshoring gives you more advantages in going to market and allows lower shipping costs, so it stands to reason that automation would be a catalyst to onshoring manufacturing," Skaff said.
His company makes robots that work inside big retailers to scan store shelves and let employees know what needs to be restocked, so the customer doesn't have to ask employees to do just that. Skaff is hoping his company, along with others pushing automation into the forefront, can help make consumer experiences easier and make companies more efficient for years to come.