January 2022

42 n AUTOMATION January 2022 www.drivesncontrols.com Covid has made the case for automation M any of us would like to forget the hardships of 2020 and 2021, but few will. The pandemic ushered in a host of supply chain issues, labour shortages, economic hardships, and many more challenges. These repercussions will be felt for months, if not years, to come. One thing we learned from these difficulties is the importance of accelerating automation integration into manufacturing. Prior to Covid-19, it was understood that automation was the way of the future, but, aside from Bill Gates and perhaps a few Hollywood producers, many of us rarely considered the devastating impact a global pandemic might have on our supply chains and the ability to keep the world supplied with manufactured goods. Unfortunately, we now know the destructive consequences of a pandemic, but how will that knowledge influence our future? From raw materials for plastics and semiconductor chips to household products such as toilet paper and hand sanitiser, one thing is abundantly clear: the need for automated manufacturing is now. The pandemic has forced many manufacturers around the globe to reconsider their timelines for phasing in automation. Due to labour shortages induced by Covid-19 restrictions and social distancing safety concerns, manufacturers cannot create the same output they did pre-Covid. Automation, and the training to use it, will allow manufacturers to improve efficiencies that enable greater production without additional labour. Beyond the headache of supply chain issues, energy costs in Europe and North America are increasing rapidly, creating difficult choices for countries and companies alike. The UK, for example, despite its push to end the use of coal, recently had to buy coal due to the inflated cost of gas. Many manufacturers are evaluating alternative energies such as wind and solar to power their plants, with some, such as Phoenix Contact, already supplementing energy needs in their factories with solar power. Google, Amazon, FedEx and Apple have all implemented their own plans to become carbon negative as soon as 2030. The supply chain issues we face today could potentially be reduced in the future by reshoring some manufacturing. Manufacturers can reduce their overheads by building smart factories capable of maximising efficiency while maintaining the high level of quality that customers require. This could help reduce the bottlenecks we are currently seeing at ports, resulting in empty store shelves in some locations. Smart factories that rely on alternative energies such as wind and solar would have less impact on the environment and pull less energy from the grid as well. The cost of doing business has certainly increased at an alarming rate over the past two years and, with no end in sight, manufacturers will need to look to new ways to continue being viable in the coming years. While the pros and cons of reshoring will continue to be debated in the coming months, harnessing new technologies now in automation and energy throughout the manufacturing and transportation industries will improve efficiencies and lower overall costs. Initial expenditures to improve our factories and power grids will be significant, but the price of standing still is too high to contemplate. n The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the way that we run our lives and our businesses, possibly forever. Eric J. Halvorson, partnership marketing manager of strategic programmes at the global distributor Digi-Key Electronics, argues that manufacturers need to adopt more automation to operate successfully in the post-pandemic world. Flotillas of ships gathering outside the world’s major ports are a sign of the problems we are having to deal with in global supply chains.