Over the last couple of months, our world has undergone a seismic shift to a place where working from home and face masks are the “new normal.” Gone are the days of eating in neighborhood restaurants and taking part in social gatherings. Yet, in the United States, the light is starting to emerge at the end of the tunnel. Companies are shifting their focus from playing balance sheet defense to plotting their path back to this new reality, and figuring out how not just to survive, but to emerge stronger and more resilient. Robotic automation and artificial intelligence can play a key role in this roadmap to recovery.
The New Normal: Social Distancing
Governments and health authorities are stressing that social distancing measures are here to stay for the foreseeable future, until a vaccine is widely available. Companies have no choice but to address this new normal head on. For many businesses, social distancing will change the very nature of how their services will be delivered. Human interaction, once a desired commodity – with personalized service from the teller at the bank or a salesperson at the register – is now to be avoided.
In this new reality, customers care most about health and safety, and will flock toward businesses that lower their overall risk of exposure. This translates into more opportunities to apply robotic automation, with multiple examples hitting the headlines. These include:
- Tally, which can check 15,000 to 30,000 products per hour in grocery stores, auditing inventory with the help of cameras, computer vision, and machine learning ( Forbes, March 30). Tally is also able to keep track of availability, prices, product placement, and promotions. This supports the efforts of essential workers by automating tedious, repetitive tasks and freeing them to add more value to the shopper experience in-store.
- Amazonand other e-commerce retailers, which are predicted to increase their investment in automation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This could allow them to further reduce their dependence on human workers and better handle supply chain disruptions in the future ( S&P Global Market Intelligence, April 13). Amazon, Walmart, and Kroger already use technology to achieve efficiencies in physical stores and warehouses, including systems for picking customer orders, tracking inventory, and automating deliveries of groceries.
- The food-service industry, where automation could help reduce health risks and delays. For example, the BBC (April 19) reports that “fast-food chains like McDonald’s have been testing robots as cooks and servers.”
- Hospitals and long-term care facilities, where robots are being used to disinfect surfaces to help protect high-risk populations from infections. One example is Aethon’s TUG autonomous mobile robot, which is being “used in more than 140 hospitals to perform tasks like securely delivering medications, transporting linens and meals, and disposing of trash and biohazardous waste.” ( Protocol, April 3).
As social distancing protocols continue to drive changes in customer preferences and behaviors, companies that take advantage of robotic automation to address these challenges will emerge stronger than ever.
The Post-Pandemic Supply Chain
The COVID-19 pandemic has not just altered the consumer landscape; it has also revealed the shortcomings of existing supply chains. We have all experienced recent supply chain interruptions firsthand or seen them reported on the news: the empty aisles at the grocery stores or the shortage of PPE equipment for our essential workers.
What happens if goods and products can no longer cross borders as easily as before? The pandemic will likely force many companies to reexamine how their products are manufactured and transported across the world.
When the dust settles, many supply chains will be on-shored, with contingencies built into the system to mitigate shortages of the kind we’re experiencing today. All these changes will translate to higher operating costs for companies – unless they are able to leverage robotic automation and artificial intelligence (AI).
Greater adoption of robotic technologies will increase online retailers’ control of their supply chains, helping avoid future bottlenecks. An interesting indicator of this growing adoption is highlighted by a recent IDC study, which indicates that while “COVID-19 has wiped off almost $500 billion of worldwide Digital technology investment between 2020-2023 from our pre-COVID-19 forecast…pockets of growth opportunities exist across most industries when diving deep into specific use cases that solve specific business problems [such as] RPA-based claims processing in insurance, digital visualization in education, omnichannel commerce platforms in telecommunications, and clinical trial operational excellence in process manufacturing.”
How to thrive in the post-COVID-19 world
To emerge stronger from the pandemic, robotic automation needs to be part of the discussion. Digital leaders are already emerging by putting automation and AI at the core of their operating model – rather than being an afterthought in existing processes. Examples include:
- Facebook and Google, which are reportedly relying on AI to remove inappropriate posts, since the companies’ human content moderators are unable to perform some of these tasks from their home offices ( BBC, April 19).
- PayPal, which is reportedly using automated translation services to enable English-speaking representatives to help non-English speaking customers ( New York Times, April 10).
A cautionary note: as the Harvard Business Review (April 2020) points out, “Although the current crisis provides a clear opportunity to fast-forward robotic automation, businesses should be wary of pouring valuable capital into automating processes that are not strategic or are too difficult for the current generation of robots to perform effectively.”
To be ready for this transformation, organizations need to re-tool and transform their existing processes and technology to adapt and thrive. This often means a significant transformation to the existing operating model and organizational DNA – and will require a focus on change management. Selecting the right processes and activities will be key to reaping the benefits of automation.
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