Robotics and COVID-19: Highlights from A3’s panel discussion with four top leaders

As the world continues to fight the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, robots and automation are playing a critical role in helping to safeguard people while helping make and deliver critical supplies to health care workers and to the public as they shelter in place.

On April 8, the Association for Advancing Automation (A3) convened a live online panel with four industry leaders in the robotics industry:

  • Mike Cicco, President and CEO, FANUC America
  • Milton Guerry, President, SCHUNK USA
  • Melonee Wise, CEO and Founder, Fetch Robotics
  • Jürgen von Hollen, President, Universal Robots

The panel, moderated by Robert Huschka, the director of education strategies at A3, featured a wide-ranging conversation, covering topics such as the economic impact to automation, supply change disruptions, key business insights and crisis leadership. More than 900 attendees watch the discussion live, which was sponsored by Miller Resource Group.

Here’s an edited summary of some of the key topics that were covered:

How are robotics making a difference in this crisis?

Mike Cicco: “I think this is bringing a big awareness to how much robots and automation are in our manufacturing companies certainly around the company and around the world. Every time you go to a grocery store and you are hoping that toilet paper is on the shelves or that Clorox wipes are there or that there’s food – cheese and beverages and things like that -- you should really stop to think about how robots and automation play a factor in helping those things get into those stores.”

Jürgen von Hollen: “First of all, I would say I'm actually quite proud of the industry itself because I think the amount of innovation we're seeing by leveraging technology such as to repurpose or retool production lines, quickly -- I mean really quickly -- to deal with the demands and the requirements out there, whether it's PPE (Personal Protection equipment), or testing kits, or whatever it might be, I think is phenomenal.”

Melonee Wise: “We’ve been able to help companies put teams back to work. One of the nice things about mobile robots is that they can help with social distancing. And if you look within a lot of the facilities, instead of people doing transfers between locations, the robots are doing that transfer. That’s been helping a lot.”

How much do you think industries will reexamine their supply chains as we move on after this crisis?

Milton Guerry: “As hard as it can be to do while we're getting some of the news that we're getting -- as companies, we have to position ourselves where we have to look to the other side. And I think we have to take a long look at the supply chain of our products. I think the most successful companies are going to really take a good look, and they're going to see where they want to put their investments. Obviously, there's going to be some snapback, because there's this pent up demand that's going to happen. But after that, the companies that we all trust to supply our goods and services will start taking a strong look at investments that will make a difference for them.”

Jürgen von Hollen: For the first time, we, our company, we've moved away from supply chain robustness or vitality to business continuity. I think it's much more about -- for us -- how do we ensure that we can get the product to the customer? So when the pandemic started in China, we were, of course, immediately impacted. We took steps to figure out how do we make sure that we create a supply chain that is, first of all, viable in this kind of crisis, which is changing almost every day. And you have to shift and move.”

Mike Cicco: “I think companies have been considering and actually doing onshoring for a long time. I think most companies have gone through these cycles in terms of a lot of offshoring concept of onshore and has come back. Certainly robots and automation have played a key role in that. It's been happening. So we're hearing a lot of that from our customers of just trying to figure out what to do next. The one thing that I'll say about this pandemic … is what I felt today is not what I felt yesterday or the week before.”

Amid lockdown orders, how are you keeping customers up and running?

Mike Cicco: I would say a lot of my calls and my time during the first couple weeks of this pandemic has been talking to end users – whether it’s through a system integrator or directly – to ensure them that we will be there to help make sure those robots are up and running. That has us playing a critical role in this pandemic.

Melonee Wise: “Because we are in the cloud, we’ve been able to continue to deploy systems without having people on site. Everyone is locked down right now and they need to get these critical systems. This is showing not only the value of automation but the value of cloud paired with automation. … We’ve been able to help them very easily remotely reconfigure this system. That’s one of the things we will see after this crisis. An interest in flexible automation, not just ridged repetitive automation.”

 Automotive is getting hit hard amid the pandemic lockdowns. Are there other sectors faring better?

Mike Cicco: “A number of industries, like the pharmaceutical industry or the food, beverage, consumer products -- as you can imagine -- those places are running full tilt as fast as they can, making sure that all hands are on deck so they can produce and do the things that they need to do. Certainly automotive is getting a lot of headlines right now because many of the plants are shut down and not producing vehicles, but I think that many other industries are still running as best they can to comply with the government orders, and also still produce the things that they need for customers.”

Melonee Wise: “Anything that's doing essential business is taking off like a rocket ship, I think, -- but non-essential, it's slowing down for sure. Like clothing retailers are taking a pretty big hit. It turns out a lot of people don't need to buy pants. … But what we're seeing is a lot of new inbound around medical equipment, manufacturers, pharmaceuticals, certain types of consumer electronics. I guess people are buying laptops. A lot of things that are enabling this large shift to work-at-home. And then, one thing that has been very true for the mobile space, there is a huge amount of inbound around disinfection. So whether it's chemical disinfection or UV disinfection, we are probably fielding 10 or 20 leads a day on just how do we get people back to work in these facilities safe?

This crisis will end – eventually – even if we don’t know when. What will be the lasting effects?  How do we prepare to be ready when it’s over?

Mike Cicco: “I think that eventually we're going to get past this, but I think this is going to be one of those things that's going to have a lasting impact. … I think the Great Recession that we went through in 2008-2009 had an effect on how we feel about things. But it wasn't lasting. It's not like we did a whole lot of things differently. There was just that was something that happened to our economy. This (pandemic) is going to have a lasting effect on terms of how we fundamentally behave.”

Jürgen von Hollen: “I think one of the things this pandemic has done has created a huge amount of awareness of the requirement for flexibility. I believe that we will come to a new normal. I do believe that -- even in our own businesses -- the definition of what is considered optimal-and-effective resource utilization will be different. If I look at myself 70-80% of my time, I don't think that's going to happen. I think we're going to be looking at trying to leverage the (video conferencing) tools that we have here today, just trying to be more efficient and effective. And I think that's going to transcend not just our businesses, but all businesses, I think people will think a lot more about those things.”

Melonee Wise: “We kind of see this as three phases. The first phase is obviously this lockdown. The second is the transition period. And then the third is obviously the new norm -- whatever the new normal is. And one of the things we're preparing for: We think that coming out of the transition and into the new normal, there's going to be a significant uptick in demand. And so we've been working with our customers -- and we're already starting to see this because some companies have a little bit more time to layout new technology projects. We're telling them to start focusing on that now so that they can get ready to go when the lockdown is done, and we're in the transition phase.”

This crisis is a test of leadership. How do you maintain focus and keep your teams working toward your goals?

Milton Guerry: “We will operate differently. Our customers will operate differently. That's the foundation of this thing. But we have to, as leaders, look to ways to keep our teams engaged and focused, keep them in the game, make sure they know that there is a bright future of robotics and automation. … And also there’s an understanding that this is a very tough time for them. Because obviously, this economic uncertainty drives a lot of fear. But combine that with the uncertainty of the virus and the health aspects, and certainly it's a much bigger thing for our employees.”

Jürgen von Hollen: “What we have today is something that's never happened before. And I think it's global, and it's fragmented. It is difficult. And I think as a leader, with whichever company it is, you’ve got to make some fundamental decisions relatively quickly with very little information because it is changing that quickly. So I think one of the things that you have to do is you have to come back to your strengths and your core principles and beliefs. At Universal Robots, we talk about empowering people and our staff. And I fundamentally believe, first of all, that the market is there. It'll come back.”