The corona pandemic and the containment measures have plunged German industry into a deep recession. The consequences are the threat of job losses, a significant decline in sales, reduced working hours and a huge investment drop. Production at Volkswagen, BMW and Continental, for example, had to be cut back or completely suspended. The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has made health and safety policies necessary not only for systemically important branches of industry such as the food, the chemical and the pharmaceutical industry. Many companies had to and still have to rethink their processes in order to protect the health of their employees. Robotics and automation can make an important contribution to this.
Automation: the way out of the Corona crisis
Automation and robotics are a powerful weapon in order to avoid exposing people to unnecessary contact to other people and to minimize the risk of infection within the company. Above all, it is convenient to automate non-value-adding, repetitive activities such as the internal transport of goods and merchandise, which can be handled by an automated guided vehicle system (AGV) or by a transport robot. In many sectors, such as the food industry, but also in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, health regulations have been crucial not only since the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. In order to minimize the meetings between systemically important employees, work is organized in shifts, working groups or in the home office.
However, one source of risk remains: normally, material get transported from one department to another, for example when components need to be sent to picking stations for further processing or when bread products have to be brought from production to the warehouse. Instead of having humans taking care of the transport, automated routes and deliveries enables safe transports. By integrating a transport robot, the material flow between the departments can run smoothly without an employee having to leave his workplace for transport tasks. The risk of employees becoming infected within the team, departments being closed due to quarantine or even production downtimes cannot be completely ruled out, but it decreases significantly.
Benefits of transport robots
Transport robots can be integrated into the production environment without great disruption. Current models that navigate autonomously no longer require magnetic tracks, but use laser scanners for orientation. Furthermore, they can be customized to carry different loads. Even demanding environments, such as elevator systems and automatic doors, but also applications in clean room zones are no longer a problem for today’s transport robot models. At the Swiss technology company DYCONEX, for example, the autonomous material flow takes place over three floors. The transport robots navigate through various clean room zones. In Großlöbichau, Thuringia, at the VACOM Vakuum Komponenten und Messtechnik GmbH plant, the transport robots have even been given their own names by the employees. Here the integration has been particularly successful. Fritzchen, Robo, Jürgen, Sam and James are the names of the new colleagues who are responsible for transport in a 112-meter long and 35-meter wide factory environment.
Transport robots trend
The trend in transport robotics is also moving towards the development of self-organizing logistics systems that optimize themselves during operation using methods of artificial intelligence (AI) and do not require human assistance. ASTI InSystems is currently researching the fundamentals of such a system in the “FlowPro” research project, which is financed by the Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure (BMVI) with around four million euros. “Flow-Pro” should enable the micromobility of goods up to batch size 1 in industrial parks and to optimize air and land intralogistics across companies.
More safety with disinfection robots
In its economic forecast, the ifo Institute for Economic Research makes a gloomy prediction for the German economy in 2020: during the shutdown between March and April, overall value creation shrank by 16%. The gross domestic product (GDP) suffered a never seen record drop. The Mechanical Engineering Industry Association (VDMA) even estimates a 20% drop in sales for its sector. Due to the high risk of infection posed by the COVID-19 virus, many manufacturing activities that were not fundamental for the system or belonged to the consumer goods industry were stopped or at least reduced. A normalization of the situation is not in sight for the time being, especially since new infections are increasing again.
In addition to the use of transport robots, there is another way to improve health and safety in production and keep surfaces free of viruses and bacteria. With so-called UV-disinfection robots, viruses such as the corona virus can be effectively killed in the air, on surfaces and objects. Together with the Spanish machine manufacturer ASTI Mobile Robotics, with whom InSystems Automation merged in 2019, and BOOS Technical Lithing, such a solution with the brand name “ZenZoe” was developed at the beginning of this year. The design and the whole project were driven by the idea of using the robot to make an important, life-saving contribution to the fight of the corona virus.
“ZenZoe” has a special light column which emits ultraviolet light (UV-C light). The UV-C lamp is mounted on the lifting device of our autonomously navigating transport robot and can therefore be lifted to the best height for optimal treatment. Due to the high concentrated light intensity of the UV lamp, continuous disinfection can be guaranteed in a single pass. This means that surfaces and objects do not have to be disinfected several times, which considerably reduces the disinfection time of a room. With cloud-based software, user can track and report efficiency in real time.
Automation and robotics provide safe workplaces and can make the difference in the corona pandemic. Automated processes help to minimize the infection risk in teams and thus prevent a production stop due to quarantine. In addition, disinfection robots such as “ZenZoe” can be used to clean surfaces and rooms from viruses to protect the health of employees.