How the coronavirus pandemic can deliver new opportunities for Australian industry

Omron Electronics Pty Ltd

By Harry Mulder
Monday, 06 April, 2020



How the coronavirus pandemic can deliver new opportunities for Australian industry

Global industry has been hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic, with many Australian businesses now struggling to survive. In many sectors, businesses have had no alternative but to close their doors.

The next few months will bring high levels of uncertainty, with disruptions certain to continue, before government recovery programs start to gain traction.

These tough times are obviously a worry for many organisations, but it could also be a period of new opportunity for others. Supply chains that are agile enough to react quicker than those of their competitors, or those with more robust risk management plans, might find themselves gaining greater market share as a result of this crisis.

For many businesses, the coronavirus crisis has pushed automation to the top of the agenda. Once again, it brings into focus the imperative to increase automation in the logistics and delivery chain.

In a global pandemic such as COVID-19, technology, AI and data science have become critical to helping societies effectively deal with the outbreak. In several countries the healthcare sector has been deploying mobile robots to complete vital tasks such as cleaning and sterilising and delivering food and medicine to reduce the amount of human-to-human contact. And most importantly, supercomputers are working globally in a race to find a coronavirus vaccine.

The crisis has put a spotlight on how automation can help smart companies to survive in these challenging times. Now, more than ever, companies are seeing the need to embrace Industry 4.0 technology incorporating the IIoT and AI systems.

But the IIoT works best when it’s fully integrated within the automation system. This means one total automation solution, involving control, motion, safety, machine vision systems and, of course, robotics.

One of the advantages gained from IIoT is the data it amasses. This data can be analysed and trawled through by high-powered computers to find anomalies, which in turn can lead to improvements in production.

Smaller scale systems can hold the data they generate into a locally maintained database, and from there it can be analysed, displayed and archived, as required. However, facilities within the cloud need to be utilised for larger-scale production systems. The data generated is often referred to as “big data”, because of its enormous size.

But the cloud offers far more than massive capacity. Data storage costs are lower, and systems are easily scalable. Also, high performance can be maintained and this is not dependent on the amount of data stored.

To analyse big data requires very sophisticated BI (business intelligence) tools. These are usually integrated with the services provided by the cloud vendor. Microsoft’s Azure, Google Cloud and Amazon Web Services are three such providers. However, data of this magnitude can only be generated effectively when it comes from one homogeneous control system that automates the entire process. It needs to be responsive to the interactions between the different aspects of the processes.

“Social isolation” is now the norm throughout society and this includes factories. In response, manufacturers are now looking to utilise robotics to overcome shortages of staff, who must be kept in isolation. Simple warehousing tasks, such as material transport from one area to another, can now be implemented easily by mobile robots.

Today’s mobile robots can reliably convey loads of several hundred kilos, at around the same speed as humans walking. They can detect obstacles and navigate around them by automatically re-routing from a map that’s stored internally. They no longer require tapes on the floor or beacons in the air — the inclusion of onboard scanner systems ensures safety is not compromised. Mobile robots can truly work collaboratively with humans.

Conventional fixed‑mounted pick-and-place robots have also provided many years of faithful service to food manufacturers in particular. These will continue to operate regardless of the virus!

A more recent development in the pick-and-place market has seen the emergence of cobots, specifically designed to work side by side with humans, without putting them in any danger.

Also, in coming months, expect to see more machines deployed in hazardous environments including the healthcare sector to protect workers from risks, such as infection.

This pandemic has also highlighted the need for greater hygiene in the workplace — particularly in the food and beverage, hospitality and pharmaceutical sectors — where human contact must be minimised.

Companies can better prepare for future supply chain risks by investing in capability, big data analytics and technology, like the IIoT. While it’s impossible to predict the ultimate cost of this pandemic, business should take COVID-19 as an opportunity to learn from the dire consequences caused by under-preparation.

The big question is whether Australia’s $100 billion manufacturing sector will take advantage of the opportunities that will eventually flow. Companies that can provide high-tech, automated solutions will be well placed to gain a competitive edge.

Harry Mulder is Engineering Manager, Omron Oceania, and has been working with industrial control systems for almost 30 years.

Image: ©stock.adobe.com/au/Thaut Images

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