Estimated reading time: 2 minutes, 42 seconds

Manufacturers are turning towards artificial intelligence (AI) to fill in the gaps of an industry on the cusp of collapse. All eyes are on the supply chain industry during the pandemic as they struggle to find enough employees to produce, assemble, and deliver finished products.  The answer may lie in AI as they can pick up the slack in industries where workers are few and far between.

“Even before the pandemic became an issue, warehouses and distribution centers found it difficult to find human labor,” Melonee Wise, CEO of Fetch Robotics told Forbes. If finding human labor was hard before Covid-19 began to spread across the globe – finding it now poses a significant problem.

Many factories such as meat processing plants have had to temporarily shut their doors due to Covid-19. With little to no room for social distancing – infection rates have sky-rocketed. According to the MidWest Center for Investigative Reporting, over 15,000 people that work in meat processing facilities around the country have tested posted for Covid-19 – 63 who have died. As a result of closures – meat has been hard to come by in supermarkets and grocery stores across the country leading to increase demand and cost. Many supply chain industries are hoping to mitigate this by employing warehouse robots where possible to make up for sick workers.

“The coronavirus outbreak has thrust automation into the spotlight like no other time in history and this interest will only continue to accelerate,” predicts John Santagate, VP-Robotics for Körber Supply Chain.

But are artificial intelligence equipped to keep up with the growing demand? The idea of using machine labor in factories and warehouses are nothing new – but it appears that the pandemic has fast track the need. “Based on inquiries, we’re about to see robot deployment go through the roof – especially in warehouses,” Santagate pointed out.

Prior to the pandemic, using machine robots in warehouses and distribution centers was nothing new. Walmart used RightHand Robotics to manage their online orders. Since the pandemic has forced factories around the country to work at limited capacity – these machines have helped Walmart keep up with demand without putting employees lives at risk. RightHand’s head of product and marketing spoke generally to Reuters stating, “If you’re going to have limited people in the building, the last thing you want them to do is a simple task that can be automated.”

Another company that is upping their demand for manufacturing robots is U.S. apparel company Gap. Before the pandemic they had struck a deal with Kindred AI to triple the amount of robots used in their warehouses. The deliverables were originally scheduled for the autumn, but as the pandemic continues to rage on – Kindred AI is attempting to expediate the order. “We could not get as many people in our distribution centers safely,” explained Kevin Kuntz, Gap’s senior vice president of global logistics fulfillment.

Artificial intelligence in the supply chain industry isn’t new but, the Covid-19 pandemic has shown the heavy strain on the supply chain industry. As employees get taken off the production line or cannot deliver goods due to the sickness – the virus has shown the need for AI isn’t in the future but right now.  

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 Danielle Loughnane

Danielle Loughnane earned her B.F.A. in Creative Writing from Emerson College and has currently been working in the data science field since 2015. She is the author of a comic book entitled, “The Superhighs” and wrote a blog from 2011-2015 about working in the restaurant industry called, "Sir I Think You've Had Too Much.” In her spare time she likes reading graphic novels and snuggling with her dogs.

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