As the U.S. economy rebounds from the COVID-19 pandemic, employers are turning to greater use of automation, including robots, rather than calling back workers or hiring new ones in many cases.
The trend is affecting almost every sector, including manufacturing, distribution, transportation, retail, restaurants and many kinds of personal and government services.
Airports have begun been using mobile robots to spray disinfecting chemicals on their facilities — work that janitors had initially done wearing moon suits and other personal protection equipment.
The Pennsylvania Turnpike eliminated toll collection by hand and switched to a cashless electronic system.
Procter & Gamble, the maker of detergents, diapers, toilet paper and a cornucopia of other household goods, found that strategically adding robots to its assembly lines made it possible to keep more workers on the job — and produce more goods — while complying with social distancing guidelines.
Orders for robots in North America, mostly the U.S., surged 20% in the first quarter compared with a year earlier and was up 16% from the same three-month period in 2019, well before the pandemic, according to the Assn. for Advancing Automation. Nearly 10,000 robots were ordered in last year's fourth quarter, the second-best quarter ever, statistics show.
Although increasing automation has long been a trend, the pandemic — as well as recent trade wars and supply bottlenecks — drove home for managers the high cost of unforeseen disruptions in production.
The World Economic Forum said last fall that 50% of employers plan to step up automation at their firms.
While car and car parts makers have been the dominant users of industrial robots, many more industries today also are buying smaller mobile robots. The biggest percentage growth in robot purchases is coming from the food and consumer goods sector — a reflection of the boom in online shopping over the past year.
"COVID just highlighted that some of this may accelerate because there are potential interruptions to your businesses that you need to be prepared for," said Mark Lewandowski, P&G's director of robotics innovation.