Mar 21, 2020 - Technology

Robotic supply chains for a post-pandemic world

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

Coronavirus-related recession could spike automation

An employee at the Technical University of Munich checks a pipetting robot that prepares samples from people with suspected Covid-19. Photo: Sven Hoppe/picture alliance via Getty Images

The coronavirus pandemic could accelerate the rise of the robots, according to a Brookings Institution blog post Tuesday.

Why it matters: A COVID-19-caused recession will likely lead to a spike in automation, meaning some of the jobs lost to the virus will never return as companies restructure their operations to rely more on machines than people.

The workers feeding America

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

As worried shoppers buy in bulk, stress is mounting for retailers, warehouses and farms — which need more labor at the very time people are being told to stay at home.

Why it matters: America isn't running out of food. But there's increasing strain on the supply chain as the workers who produce and deliver our groceries are sheltering at home, quarantined or are (justifiably) too spooked to show up for work.

Coronavirus has disrupted supply chains for nearly 75% of U.S. companies

Employees produce medical masks at Madaran Medical Manufacturing Company in Robat Karim district of Tehran, Iran. Photo: Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The COVID-19 outbreak has caused supply chain disruptions for nearly three-quarters of U.S. companies, and many are already pricing in revenue losses this year as a result, according to a special ISM survey.

What's happening: Data show global production out of China fell to an all-time low last month, with freight and shipping slowing dramatically as the virus has shuttered factories and container ports.