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Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The massive disruption caused by COVID-19 could lead companies to tap automation to manufacture products much closer to home.

Why it matters: The pandemic is revealing that the globalized supply chain that brings us many of our products is shockingly fragile. Easily programmable industrial robots could make it simpler to produce what we use here in the U.S., reducing that vulnerability.

Even before the novel coronavirus reached the U.S., the supply chain disruptions caused by the virus' spread in China were damaging the American economy.

  • On Feb. 17, when there were just 15 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.S., Apple issued an earnings warning because of the impact of the virus on its Chinese suppliers.
  • China made half the world's respiratory masks before COVID-19 hit and restricted exports once the pandemic was in full force, leaving other countries, including the U.S., with dwindling supplies.

Context: Obviously, the U.S. needs stronger domestic manufacturing capability, especially right now. But it's not just that American companies have grown dependent on international supply chains.

  • As of last fall, U.S. manufacturers reported more than 500,000 unfilled jobs, due in large part to a gap between the skills companies needed and the skills workers had.

If workers aren't available, one option might be robots.

  • Ready Robotics, a startup spun out of Johns Hopkins University, provides simple software to power industrial robots. The software allows workers with little to no experience in robotics to program industrial robots for manufacturing work.
  • With robots that are more easily customizable, manufacturers can employ them for short and custom runs, mixing up what they can produce. "If you do it today, it takes 4 to 8 weeks of setup time," says Ben Gibbs, Ready Robotics CEO. "With our software, it's 4 to 8 hours for a run."

These changes were already underway before the pandemic, but COVID-19 may accelerate them.

  • "The future of supply chain infrastructure will be focused on improving resiliency through onshoring and automation," says Rayfe Gaspar-Asaoka, a venture capitalist at Canaan. "It's the Zoom + Slack of manufacturing."

The bottom line: The first response in a pandemic is to stick close to home. That may prove true for manufacturing as well.

Go deeper...Report: Drop in medical supplies tied to decreased China imports as coronavirus spreads

Go deeper

Updated 2 hours ago - World

UK government: Kremlin has plan "to install pro-Russian leadership" in Ukraine

British Foreign Secretary Elizabeth Truss. Photo: Gints Ivuskans / AFP via Getty Images

The United Kingdom's Foreign Secretary on Saturday night said the government has "information that indicates the Russian Government is looking to install a pro-Russian leader in Kyiv as it considers whether to invade and occupy Ukraine."

Driving the news: U.S. National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne called the intelligence "deeply concerning" in a statement to Axios. The Biden administration has said Russia is actively manufacturing a pretext for invasion and warned that Putin could use joint military exercises in Belarus as cover to invade from the north.

Updated 4 hours ago - Science

This powerful new accelerator looks for keys to the center of atoms

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Nuclear physicists trying to piece together how atoms are built are about to get a powerful new tool.

Why it matters: When the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams begins experiments later this spring, physicists from around the world will use the particle accelerator to better understand the inner workings of atoms that make up all the matter that can be seen in the universe.

Updated 4 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Health: FDA OKs antiviral drug remdesivir for non-hospitalized COVID patients — Walensky: CDC language "pivoting" on "fully vaccinated" — Pfizer and Moderna boosters overwhelmingly prevent Omicron hospitalizations, CDC finds.
  2. Vaccines: The case for Operation Warp Speed 2.0 — Teens and adults missed 37 million vaccinations during COVID — Team USA 100% vaccinated against COVID ahead of Beijing Olympics — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America — Annual COVID vaccine preferable to boosters, says Pfizer CEO.
  3. Politics: Arizona governor sues Biden administration over COVID funds tied to mandates — Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" by Biden on anti-mask school policies.
  4. World: American Airlines flight to London forced to turn around over mask dispute — WHO: COVID health emergency could end this year — Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults — Beijing officials urge COVID-19 "emergency mode" before Winter Olympics.
  5. Variant tracker

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