COVID-19 AND THE GREAT RESIGNATION SPUR AUTOMATION ADOPTION
With no end to COVID-19-related supply-chain and labor woes in sight, myriad industries — from semiconductor manufacture to fast food and retail — have increased adoption of factory and process automation. It’s a response first observed to lesser extents during the past decade’s SARS and Ebola outbreaks, and predominantly employed by larger companies with the means to institute new and ambitiously innovative systems in daily operations. We cover just a few of these new applications in this, our seventh annual Design World Motion Casebook.
One burgeoning application in manufacturing and processing facilities has been the use of robotics to execute tasks that otherwise require workers to eschew social distancing to do their work.
Just consider the case of the meatpacking industry, where workers must do their jobs in proximity closer than any other. Work associated with the slaughter and processing of chickens, cattle, sheep, and pigs is inherently grueling and grisly work that can inflict physical and psychological harm on abattoir employees, and leave animals exposed to unintended cruelties. But making this work even more treacherous last year was the way in which COVID-19 infections tore through meatpacking facilities — disproportionately affecting the most socioeconomically vulnerable personnel. No wonder the $200B U.S. meatpacking industry has increased testing and adoption of automation technologies such as that from Germany slaughter-equipment company BANSS, for example. Here, the main challenges to roboticized equipment are the unlimited variability of animal-carcass morphologies along with cold and flesh-spattered factory settings requiring regular washdown.
Automation is a suitable fit for this space, as many abattoir jobs are “dangerous, dirty, and dull” indeed. Here, new motion technologies could help improve the physical and psychological welfare of employees by allowing more manageable pacing of tasks as well as better spacing of employees to reduce the spread of illness.
The caveat is that only large-scale social programs can ensure such workers aren’t completely disenfranchised by such technology. In contrast with Western European countries that have well-established job-training and retention programs on national levels, such protections in the U.S. would necessitate the institution of new solutions to support less-skilled workers in their efforts to maintain employability. In contrast with Asian countries, adoption of robotics automation in the U.S. is still in its early days, so still accelerating — making the need for reskilling and vocational programs in the U.S. particularly urgent.
As underscored by the Great Resignation currently driving millions of mid-level employees in the U.S. to quit their jobs each month, humans need dignity and respect in work as well as reasonable (sustainable) workloads and employment terms. These basic needs demand earnest dialog with and support of those in less mobile positions who (sooner rather than later) will be affected by automation in their industries.
LISA EITEL • @DW_LISAEITEL
Filed Under: DIGITAL ISSUES