Could a robot take your job? The pandemic means more Irish companies are relying on automation

The rapidly changing working environment has led to a surge in automation with fears that workers could be impacted
Could a robot take your job? The pandemic means more Irish companies are relying on automation

Workers at Reliance Automation with one the robotic devices they supply.

As the world economy struggles to emerge from the Covid pandemic the focus is switching increasingly to how the new world will operate and what changes will become permanent.

Remote working models, reconfigured office environments, and altering roles are all being considered by companies large and small. Strict social distancing was one of the first responses to the spread of the virus and is likely to the last to be lifted. Most office roles switched to remote work quite easily but many other sectors such as food and hospitality were severely impacted.

The unemployment rate soared as various lockdowns took hold with household spending plummeting. However, export figures were strong due to medicinal and pharmaceutical products and computer services.

With extra pressures being inflicted on an already struggling manufacturing sector such as health and safety covid measures, social distancing on production lines, illness, pandemic payments and Covid outbreaks, many businesses had to seek out an alternative way to continue trading safely.

It has led to an increase in the use of automation which is likely to continue long after the pandemic.

Peter Creighton, managing director of Cork firm Reliance Automation, said they have seen a shift
in the type of automation being requested by customers.

Peter Creighton, Managing Director of Cork firm Reliance Automation. 'Automation has now been deployed 25 times faster than was expected pre-pandemic.'
Peter Creighton, Managing Director of Cork firm Reliance Automation. 'Automation has now been deployed 25 times faster than was expected pre-pandemic.'

“We have had two difficult years just as every other business; however, we continue to experience demand for automation resulting from the Covid pandemic situation,” he said.

“Production lines of people who were tightly packed within 1m of each other suddenly needed to distance themselves 2m apart and there was also a huge increase in demand for Covid-related products such as testing and vaccines.”

Many factories found themselves introducing extra shifts to split the workers for safety reasons and introducing automation to ensure demand was met. Mr Creighton said one of their larger customers introduced robotics to significantly increase Covid samples being tested quickly and safely.

“Within the food industry, which is traditionally very slow to adopt automation, there has been a significant shift towards automation, due of significant increased demand.”

For more than 30 years, Mr Creighton’s firm has been providing a wide range of robotic and automation that are utilised in a wide range of sectors with demand increasing in the past two years.

The trend is not confined to Ireland.

In 2021, robots imported into the USA increased by 26.3%. Within Europe, it was also reported that many factories chose to adopt “lights out manufacturing” with production continuing with 100% automation and operators controlling systems remotely from home.

The International Federation for Robotics (IFR) has said that automation has now been deployed 25 times faster than was expected pre-pandemic.

Automation has long been a central part of the explosion of manufacturing in recent centuries.

However, innovations in robotics have accelerated this growth with the pandemic creating greater demand.

Much of this automation takes place behind factory doors or in laboratories but is also becoming more commonplace facing the public.

Supermarket customers are now familiar with self-service checkouts and tills. Cork firm Everseen is the global leader in video technology that monitors such checkouts.

Cork company Everseen has tested a cashier-less shop on French Church Street that uses its video technology to track products.
Cork company Everseen has tested a cashier-less shop on French Church Street that uses its video technology to track products.

The company’s founder Alan O’Herlihy recently told the Irish Examiner the pandemic has accelerated demand for self-service checkouts and their technology.

No conversation on automation can take place without talk of job losses, as robots take over tasks once carried out by humans.

“I can honestly confirm that, for the robots and automation solutions we have supplied to our customers since the Covid pandemic began, no staff members have been replaced as a direct result, with redeployment to more interesting roles being the main change for many,” Mr Creighton said.

“Demand continues to be driven by an increase in sales or a lack of available people. There has been a huge change in attitudes of both our customers and the public in general and there now seems to be an understanding of the benefits of automation.

“After all, automation kept the public safe from the virus for the past two years in many cases.”

“Rather than replacing humans, robots are carving out a future for human and machine cooperation to achieve the best manufacturing solutions.

Robotics and automation is here to stay and is now being embraced more rapidly due to demand, safety and future-proofing necessities.

“The pandemic has removed the fear factor and sky-rocketed the raw need for automation to enhance performance, efficiency, and reliability,” Mr Creighton added.

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