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The pandemic is accelerating industrial automation efforts and ushering in long-term adoption


Canadian industrial robotics company Clearpath Robotics completed a Series C funding round in which it raised $29 million, according to BetaKit. 

Matt Rendall, Ryan Gariepy, and Bryan Webb, Co-founders of Clearpath Robotics

The funding will be used to expand the company's industrial automation efforts through its Otto Motors business unit, which produces autonomous vehicles used to handle and transport materials in warehouses and factories. Otto Motors has reported a surge in demand in recent months due to essential businesses — such as those in the food, beverage, and medical-device manufacturing industries — turning to automation to better comply with pandemic-related health and safety measures.

The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated industrial automation efforts, prompting companies like Clearpath Robotics to expand capacity. Clearpath Robotics' CEO and cofounder Matthew Rendall told BetaKit that Otto Motors customers had condensed 5-year automation roadmaps into 6- to 12-month time frames. 

Here are two examples of how automation efforts have accelerated in response to the pandemic: 

  • Automated robots are being used by cities to continue recycling programs that would otherwise be suspended due to workforce limitations, according to The New York Times. Recycling typically requires workers to be in close proximity while sorting through the submitted materials, but this puts those employees at risk of contracting the coronavirus. Some cities have suspended recycling programs altogether, but Colorado-based robotics company AMP Robotics reported a "significant" increase in orders for its robots that use AI to identify and remove unrecyclable materials.
  • AT&T and Brain Corp accelerated deployments of IoT-enabled autonomous cleaning robots for retail locations. The autonomous robots clean floors and deliver goods in grocery stores, big-box stores, and malls. Brain Corp's robots can help ensure these environments remain clean while lessening workers' potential exposure to the virus. Chris Penrose, SVP Advanced Solutions at AT&T, told us, "we're definitely seeing [a demand] uptick for [Brain Corp's] solutions because of what's going on, but we see this as being something that is needed now and will continue to be in more demand as we go forward." 

Industrial automation implemented now will persist post-pandemic, which will allow companies to reduce long-term operating costs, but limit an economic recovery. Once companies make the upfront investment in automation equipment, they are positioned to realize long-term operational cost savings. But those cost savings come from not having to hire human employees, which means any forthcoming economic recovery could leave large swaths of the US workforce behind, particularly low-income workers who have already experienced an outsized share of the pandemic-related job losses.

While automation presents a near-term business opportunity for telecoms and robotics companies alike, the initiatives may actually suppress long-term consumption by ushering in structural unemployment that won't easily be fixed by "reskilling" initiatives.

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