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Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

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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

In photos: Protesters rally for George Floyd ahead of Derek Chauvin's trial

Chaz Neal, a Redwing community activist, outside the Minnesota Governor's residence during a protest in support of George Floyd in St.Paul, Minnesota, on March 6. Photo: Kerem Yucel/AFP via Getty Images

Dozens of protesters were rallying outside the Minnesota governor's mansion in St Paul Saturday, urging justice for George Floyd ahead of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin's trial over the 46-year-old's death.

The big picture: Chauvin faces charges for second-degree murder and manslaughter over Floyd's death last May, which ignited massive nationwide and global protests against racism and for police reform. His trial is due to start this Monday, with jury selection procedures.

Biden says $1,400 stimulus payments can start going out this month

Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

President Biden said Saturday that the Senate passage of his $1.9 trillion COVID relief package means the $1,400 direct payments for most Americans can begin going out later this month.

Driving the news: The Senate voted 50-49 Saturday to approve the sweeping legislation. The House is expected to pass the Senate's version of the bill next week before it heads to Biden's desk for his signature.

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