COVID-19: Industrial Automation Has Become an “Essential” Business Process

K. Weldon
K. Weldon

Summary Bullets:

• The definition of an essential business during the pandemic is an evolving one and includes more than just grocery stores, drug stores, and financial services. As the food supply may be in danger, the definition has expanded.

• To keep industries running that affect the national food supply, companies that provide industrial automation solutions that help ensure that manufacturing lines of food and beverage companies keep going are now considered essential.

After I got over my horror that my son was still expected to go into his company office three times a week, I learned that his business was considered an essential one, according to state COVID-19 definitions. This is because his company keeps manufacturing companies, which include food and beverage manufacturers, up and running, through industrial automation, robotics, and machine vision technology. I interviewed my son to find out how this works.

1. Q. Why is your company considered “essential”?

A. A portion of the business my company is involved with is to design, install, and maintain automated inspection systems for food and beverage plants, and to ensure food products are being made and packaged correctly. As the majority of these systems are highly integrated and cannot be detached from the lines, an issue that takes the system off-line might take the entire food and beverage line down for some period of time, or at least until a bypass method is put in place. As such, our support and maintenance activities are essential in making sure that these food and beverage lines are kept running. We also make it safer for our manufacturing customers during the COVID-19 crisis, as they need fewer employees on-site due to the automation we provide for quality assurance and inspection.

2. Q. How is your company providing safety for on-site work?

A. My company is setting weekly schedules where employees who need to work on-site are rotated between on-site and remote work, ensuring that no more than four employees are on-site for a given work day. When in the office, all employees are wearing masks and using additional personal protective equipment (PPE), such as nitrile/latex gloves when using shared equipment and tools.

3. Q. What do you do in the office when on-site?

A. One of the projects I’m working on involves the design and build of a robot arm that is involved in a process that is essential for food companies’ production lines and interfaces with vision systems, cameras, lighting systems, and analytics programs. I do the programming and testing of the robot arm, and this work cannot be done remotely. The robot will also be connected to wireline (Ethernet) in the factory as well as wireless networks outside in order to provide remote support, predictive maintenance and feedback to and from other systems – in other words it uses a number of Internet of Things (IoT) technologies. The company is also working on projects that help find anomalies on fast moving production lines using machine vision systems.

Q. What do you do for work at home?

A. The kinds of work that I do remotely from my home include offline machine vision programming and sales engineering work, such as providing pricing and proposals for prospective systems.

So while I am still horrified that my son is exposed to potential danger on the job, I am delighted he still has a job, that his company is doing well, and that he remains productive. I am proud that his job is considered essential and helps ensure that people have enough to eat and drink as they stay at home.


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