COVID-19 pushes automation to the forefront of business strategies

Automation shifts from a discussion to an imperative across all industries

The decision to embrace automation typically requires an organization to engage in careful strategic planning and analysis over a period of time. On one hand, automation enables a level of efficiency, consistency and quality that manual deployment alone cannot achieve. On the other hand, skeptics have long questioned the point at which automation can go too far and how to find balance and decide which tasks should and should not be automated. That debate is now over, as the deployment of automated processes and technology is imperative to fill in the innumerable voids in a new reality where COVID-19 is not just part of our vocabulary but a new abnormal in which we all live. 

Past discussions of whether to automate were typically highly dependent upon factors like industry vertical, whereby sectors with a heavy manufacturing arm, for instance, were much more likely to embrace automation than others. Massive staffing shortages are now the primary driver behind the call for widespread automation, and the interest has manifested itself in multiple forms, such as the deployment of robots, drones and AI — technologies that are being leveraged by industry verticals across the board.

Staffing shortages have affected every grocery store and pharmacy, and many are relying on robots to transport goods from warehouses and stores to delivery vehicles. In agriculture, there has been an increase in the use of terrain-based robots to convert agricultural units into disinfectant sprayers. In manufacturing and delivery, Baidu (Nasdaq: BIDU) has partnered with Neolix to deliver critical items such as food and supplies to hospitals in Beijing with the use of the Apollo autonomous vehicle. Baidu has additionally applied AI algorithms to track the spread of infection and predict where the next hot zone may crop up so that local facilities are better prepared. While the number of riders of public transport has plummeted, railways, buses and subways still must operate even if on a skeleton schedule. The deployment of automated technology such as self-driving trains has increased dramatically, as has the use of robots to disinfect and clean cars.

The healthcare industry faces the most pressing challenges as it seeks to employ remote workforce programs and develop scalable solutions on an emergency-fueled time line. While some degree of on-site presence is unavoidable, the risk is being mitigated, in some cases, by the use of disinfection robots, which were deployed by Xenex Corp. to over 500 hospitals in China and are also now being shipped to Italy. Drone delivery of medication is anticipated to be the next wave of automation, and companies like Drone Delivery Canada (DDC) Corp. predict that they will become commonplace, and soon. DDC President and CEO Michael Zahra stated, “The company is in dialogue with governments at various ministries and levels emphasizing that the current situation is an ideal use case for our proven drone logistics solution to limit person-to-person contact; bring needed medical and pharmaceutical supplies to remote, rural, and suburban communities; transport blood samples to laboratories for testing; and deliver other relevant supplies.”

The application of automated technologies is clearly not confined to one area and will continue to ease the burden that COVID-19 has placed on all of our lives. When the pandemic eventually subsides, the silver lining to the shortages, panic and crippling effect on the economy will be that healthcare providers, companies and individuals will be more apt to embrace the use of automated technology in almost every aspect of their daily lives.

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