ABB's robots to meet post pandemic demand for workforce that never gets sick

A handout photo. Head of ABB Robotics and Discrete Automation business Sami Atiya poses next to robots in Zurich, Switzerland, February 22, 2021.
PHOTO: ABB via Reuters

ZURICH  - ABB unveiled two additions to its robot family on Wednesday (Feb 24) which the Swiss engineering company expects will tap into increased demand for automated production after the Covid-19 crisis.

More companies in pharmaceuticals, logistics, electronics and food and beverage manufacturing want to use robots, ABB said, with investment set to increase as companies emerge from lockdowns.

ABB, which saw a 90 per cent surge in robot sales in China at the end of 2020, hopes the GoFa and SWIFTI collaborative robots - or cobots - can win orders from customers who have been forced to shut down during lockdowns or have struggled with ill workers.

“Customers want to be independent of these fluctuations in future,” said Sami Atiya, head of ABB’s Robotics & Discrete Automation business.

“The question of resilience has become fundamental,” he told Reuters. “The pandemic has accelerated the mind-shift.”

The big advantage of robots - they don’t catch coronavirus - has led to ABB supplying Singapore with robots from its existing product line to carry out 50,000 coronavirus tests per day.

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Atiya said: “You cannot do this with humans, and with robots you are not exposing them to health hazards.”

ABB expects robot demand to pick up after the pandemic, citing its survey which showed 84 per cent of 1,650 businesses intending to introduce or increase their use of robots in the next decade.

Atiya said companies were looking to spend more to raise productivity levels after pausing investments last year.

The demand for collaborative robots is estimated to grow 17 per cent per year, nearly double the rate for conventional robots, according to analysis by ABB and Interact Analysis, a market researcher.

ABB, which competes with Japan’s Fanuc Corp and Germany’s Kuka, also wants to reduce its reliance on the automotive industry, where it generates around 40 per cent of its sales in robotics.

It hopes the new machines will be attractive to faster growing sectors like food and beverage, and balance the ups and downs of carmaker demand which caused its overall robot sales to drop 12 per cent in 2020.

The new GoFa and SWIFTI cobots, which cost $25,000 (S$33,000) to $35,000 each, are packed with sensors to prevent accidents and so do away with the need for protective cages.

Both robots are faster than previous models, with the Swifti able to move its arm at up to 5 metres per second while carrying a load of 5 kg.

They could be used by smaller companies like bakeries which have never had a robot before, Atiya said, although they will never totally replace humans.

“I see our customers actually increasing their hiring,” he said. “The companies get more productive and have more work to do, so people will do more rewarding and creative work while the robots do the dirty and dull jobs.”

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