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One of the most heated topics in the world of retail used to be, “should you use the automated checkout line?” Many people were adamantly against the use of them as they felt they were putting cashiers out of work. However, I am not sure that this is as much the case anymore.

On my last trip to the grocery store, I noticed that more people (much to my dismay) were using the self-checkout and not going to the cashier to pay for their items. Not surprisingly, the cashier did not seem to mind this as well. It appears that COVID may have introduced a new normal, and that includes the higher use of automation than ever before ... I think this is a trend that may continue or even accelerate.

Here are a few reasons why:

People want to limit face-to-face interaction.

Like the checkout experience, I noticed the same when I went to the bank. There were several seniors in line for the bank machine, and I could hear them talking about how they never use this “thing,” which was apparent by the awkwardness that they showed while using it. The same has been noticed by banks that are seeing an increase in online-based activity in some groups that traditionally had never used it.

I don’t see this as a trend that will slow down anytime soon. Expect things like self-serve terminal as fast-food chains, kiosks where you can renew your driver’s license and automated dispensers for items like refilling of propane tanks to start to become more commonplace. 

This change is occurring as people want to limit their close contact with employees and will just become part of the norm going forward.

Better disaster planning

As a vegetarian, I don’t have to worry about the shortage of meat caused by virus spreads at meat plants affecting my daily diet- I mean, I can’t see there being a run on tofu anytime soon. However, I did take notice of these outages for a different reason; they show a significant gap in disaster planning in the meat processing sector. Without workers, these plants come to a screeching halt.

Automation is one way for vital industries like meat processing, food preparation and food retailing to have a plan in place to prevent widespread shortages. 

Much of the decision to automate before was likely driven by financial reasons (did it make business sense to replace workers with machines and software). Now, many companies will do so to ensure continuity of their operations. 

Reducing out of country outsourcing

Ok, stay with me on this one. One of the reasons why many roles in manufacturing and support were outsourced was it was cheaper to do so. However, one flaw that was exposed in this current pandemic is that when the “chips are down,” you may not be able to rely on foreign suppliers to deliver critical goods, as they will often think about their own needs first.

However, going back to the primary reason for outsourcing, many North American factories cannot compete with ones overseas due to the higher wages paid to North American workers, as well as the cost of higher safety standards. This would mean that a company making masks, as an example, would not be cost-competitive, making them in the US when compared to Vietnam ... unless there were no workers involved. In theory, a factory based on automation may be cost-competitive and be able to compete.

Sure, this is not great for North American workers, who would not see any new roles at these factories, but they were not seeing them anyways. Does it make sense to have a fully automated plant as opposed to outsourcing? I think it does for critical industries, at the very least.

Robots doing high-risk jobs

If you ask the average person what this title means, they may point to the example of a bomb squad robot. Like it happens in the movies, a robot is the one who gets close to the bomb for the first inspection, reducing the chance of a loss of human life. No one ever says, “Hey, why is that robot doing the work of a human?” I think we all accept that it makes sense for this work to be done by machines.

I think this mentality will transfer over to other roles now. I can see your first contact at a hospital ER being done by a robot who takes your temperature. I can also see a robot bringing contagious patients food and medicine in ICU units. In this current environment, I don’t think that many people would complain.

Over time, this will expand as machines become smarter, and the latency of networks drops down to “real-time” ... look for things like remote surgery at disaster sites and drones delivering essential medication to patients at home under quarantine.

The Bottom line

COVID has changed life in ways that most of us could never have imagined. As an example, I was overly excited to finally receive hair clippers from Amazon to cut my hair, something I have not done since I was 5 (and my mom yelled at me for that). I think it is natural that we will accelerate our acceptance of automation in exchange for keeping us safe; however, are we also going to accelerate our move towards training displaced workers?