Bolstering COVID-19 testing with Cobots

3rd July 2020
Joe Bush

As nationwide lockdown measures begin to ease, we are still seeing virus hotspots emerging in places such as Leicester, shifting the focus to local lockdowns. Whilst the global search for a vaccine continues, a robust testing apparatus remains the most effective measure against spreading COVID-19. Here, Mark Gray, Sales Manager UK&I, Universal Robots explains the role of cobots.

According to recent news reports, the number of mobile testing units in the UK is set to double, with the military stepping in to staff them. It’s no secret that the UK government has also struggled with meeting its ambitious target to carry out 250,000 tests per day, such a rapid scaling up of testing facilities must be done sustainably and effectively.

Existing testing facilities continue to be beset by labour shortages and rapidly changing government advice on safety regulations. As the environment and conditions in which testing facilities are operating remain fluid, automation is an effective way to increase capacity and meet higher testing targets. Crucially, automation also takes the pressure off of medical staff on the frontline, increasing their ability to work quickly and safely. When collaborative robots (cobots) work together with human employees productivity can increase dramatically, and allow the workforce to grow by as much as 22%.

The productivity puzzle

In a testing facility, cobots could be deployed in less than a day to takeover physically intensive and repetitive tasks that would quickly tire a human employee. For example, cobots could move testing samples in and out of a diagnostics machine or pack testing samples. They could even be used to carry out tests, taking human staff away from the frontline. Cobots can carry out these tasks around the clock, with no need for a break.

It’s important to remember that cobots take tasks, not jobs. Whilst they can help with physically demanding jobs, human employees are crucial to developing efficient testing strategies, ensuring efficient operations and ultimately meeting testing targets. These skills can’t be matched by a robot.

However, automation in production lines is still yet to be incorporated in the UK at the same level as the rest of Europe. The UK has just 85 units per 10,000 employees, versus the European average of 105. This places the UK at 22nd worldwide. There are a number of factors that have contributed to low automation in the UK, ranging from the ease of accessing cheap labour and a lack of funding in robotic solutions. However, as Brexit stands to impact the flow of labour, and Covid-19 necessitates social distancing, cheap labour is no longer a viable option for productivity. Cobots can be rapidly and flexibly deployed into any production line, delivering immediate results. They can be reprogrammed to accommodate changing manufacturing needs and demand, as well as repaying investment with increased production as soon as they are implemented.

Organisations that deploy cobots can expect increases in not only revenue, but also workforce. When Danish company, Trelleborg Sealing Solutions implemented cobots into its workforce, not only was the business able to increase its number of orders but actually hire an additional 50 members of staff. During these difficult times when all businesses are reassessing their budgets, cobots can help keep jobs safe and maintain profits.

Automation is also essential when it comes to complying with changing safety regulations, and keeping employees socially distanced. Cobots are cleanroom certified and can be placed into a production line to allow for a safe distance between employees, without compromising on productivity. By reducing the number of people handling test samples, the risk of virus transmission or sample contamination is also reduced.

The vaccine challenge

As the world ramps up efforts to find a safe vaccine for COVID-19, automation has a crucial role in ensuring that the vaccine is easily accessible and ready on time. When the focus has shifted from the development process, the next challenge will be fast, scaled up production, and rapid distribution across the globe.

Cobots should be introduced to the production process as soon as possible, in order to remove over-dependence on human workers, ensuring safety without compromising productivity levels.

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