3 Reasons Why the COVID-19 Pandemic Is Driving Greater Demand for Cobots

Find out why some companies have become more open to adopting collaborative robotics in recent months (and you should too).

An overhead shot of a warehouse where people and cobots are working together to pick items for orders
by Richard Thompson
April 09, 2021

I have watched with interest as the robotics industry has enjoyed accelerated growth over the past couple of years. We saw around a 38% rise in robots used for professional services in 2020 and can expect to see a doubling of robots used in logistics between 2019 and 2021.[1] And the World Robotics 2020 Industrial Robots reports that 2.7 million industrial robots are currently operating in factories around the world. These numbers don’t account for the intelligent automation solutions that retailers are increasingly employing to improve operational visibility or the smart robotics solutions being put to work in warehouses to augment the human workforce.

Cobots Plug Resource Gaps during COVID-19

With consumers staying at home and ordering online during the pandemic, demand for warehouse workers skyrocketed. Unfortunately, those positions often went unfilled, and even facilities that hired pickers had to ensure safety and social distancing. This is where robots, and specifically cobots (robots that collaborate with people) started to prove extremely valuable. They were able to take some of the mundane task load off human workers to help drive productivity and meet customer demand. They also helped to offset labour losses by running picked items over to packers and automating processes that allowed workers to stay focused on getting orders out the door. In fact, the impact of robotics automation has been so impressive that other sectors have also started to embrace this technology on a greater scale.

Retailers are employing inventory counting robots so that associates can stay focused on replenishment, merchandising and sales. Healthcare providers are investing in medicine delivery robots. And multiple industries are using robots to disinfect facilities.  Without a doubt, the adoption of robotics has accelerated across the board. As Zebra’s robotics automation expert Jim Lawton recently noted in a podcast interview, more companies are starting to realize the value of collaborative robots (cobots) in supporting both human workers and overall operational execution and increasing deployments as a result. ABI Research actually expects the yearly revenue for cobot arms alone will reach $11.8 billion USD by 2030, up from $711 million in 2019. When you factor in additional software-related revenues and end-of-arm tooling (EOAT) accessories, the anticipated value of the cobot ecosystem jumps to $24 billion by 2030, which is up from its $1 billion valuation in 2019.

Evolving Motivations for Cobots

Although much of the technology has been around for some time, improvements in sensors, software, collision avoidance and navigation technology has created believers.

The threat of COVID-19 to people and industries has also broken down many objections, and cobots have become a much more attractive option for those looking for ways to improve workflows without causing further disruption. Indeed, many robotics specialists who expressed fears over safety, privacy and job losses have been surprised at just how quickly this long-standing resistance has disappeared in the face of new fears around COVID-19.

But company motivation behind the investment in cobots has also changed. Rather than traditional objectives around cutting costs, the focus now is on gaining a competitive advantage, as identified by the McKinsey report.[3]

The short-term goals have been to:

1. Keep consumers and patients safe from cross-contamination with disinfecting robots. In March 2020, Chinese hospitals were reported to have ordered over 2,000 ultraviolet disinfection (UVD) units.

2. Provide for social distancing by using smart robots to take on simpler tasks and allow workers to spread out more.

3. Maintain business operations in the face of staff shortages.

Navigating the way through the pandemic has clearly been the immediate priority for many businesses. And for those that have chosen to invest in robotics automation solutions during this time are poised to realise a long-term benefit that is unlikely to disappear once the pandemic is over. They will retain operational advantages, such as increased productivity, while gaining the flexibility to scale as needed to expand capacity and meet growing customer demands at a lower operating cost point. Plus, many real-world deployments of robotics automation solutions such as cobots have proven just how seamlessly the technology can be integrated into existing workflows, so all of these actions can be taken without further disrupting operations.

Plus, with robotics-as-a-service (RaaS) on the rise, any risk around capital expenditure is reduced. Companies can see exactly how cobots will work in their businesses and the potential return on investment (ROI). If partnered with the right solution provider, it will also be easy to scale the solution to support new workflow modeling and process execution frameworks, all of which can further enhance the ROI. Plus, RaaS helps to alleviate any fears that your company is investing in a technology that will soon become outdated. It’s a win-win for everyone involved.

Don’t Miss the Window of Opportunity

As with any change, the window of opportunity won’t be around for long, and right now robotics are on the cusp of mass uptake.

Robotics automation OEMs need to take advantage of the growing demand quickly. Speed in the product development lifecycle is crucial to success, as is the delivery of high-quality products. Make sure you’re one of the first out the gates by partnering with an OEM supplier who can provide a full range of first-class components with financial and time-saving benefits to you.

Zebra provides leading-edge technologies such as scan engines, RFID readers and mobile printers that can easily be integrated into robotics solutions. If you’re looking for inspiration on new solutions that can benefit your customers or want to learn more about how Zebra’s extensive OEM product portfolio can help take time and development costs out of your product development cycles, download the robotics application brief for OEMs.

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Richard Thompson
Richard Thompson has worked in the IT & Telecommunications Industry for almost 30 years and has held sales, management and senior management rolls in a number of global organisations. He is currently the Global Director of Sales for the OEM business within Zebra Technologies which in turn is part of Zebra’s Global Sales & Services Organisation. Richard is responsible for the sales of key component technologies which Zebra manufactures and sells to a hugely diverse range of customers around the world who build these components into their own final products.
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