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Global need for 880,000 ventilators – robots can help us out

Ventilators are crucial in the fight against COVID-19, but an analysis by GlobalData shows that there is a global shortage of 880,000 ventilators. Collaborative robots – also known as cobots – might help meet the demand, says researchers from SDU and University of Cambridge.

“The manufacturing facilities we have today are not able to adapt to major changes in supply and demand – and certainly not to a complete reconfiguration to produce new products. We have seen that clearly during this pandemic, where companies who usually deal in other industries have had to produce PPE or ventilators. Cobots and flexible automation solutions can handle these challenges.”

These are the words of SDU researcher Ali Ahmad Malik. In cooperation with Tariq Masood and Rehana Kousar from University of Cambridge, he has just published an article in the reputable Science Robotics journal. The article answers the question “Can cobots further the manufacturing of ventilators?”

The short answer is “Yes!”

Behind the question lies the massive global need for ventilators to treat the more than 8 million COVID-19 patients. The order books are full, and manufacturers cannot keep up with the demand. That is why the researchers from SDU and University of Cambridge suggest utilising cobots to do more of the work. 

Global shortage of ventilators

GlobalData estimate that there is a global shortage of 880,000 ventilators. The shortage is felt particularly on the African continent, as 10 countries do not have ventilators at all. The WHO estimates that 41 African countries are to share less than 2,000 functioning ventilators.

Race against time

It is clear that the production of ventilators needs a boost. Governments all over the world have urged companies to change their production lines, which has made manufacturers such as Rolls Royce and a hoover manufacturer join the fight to meet the rising demand for ventilators. But as the number of COVID-19 patients is on the rise, the fight is a race against time.

Problematic to change production lines

In the scientific article in Science Robotics, the researchers from SDU and University of Cambridge point out that it is not an easy transition from manufacturing e.g. hoovers to ventilators.

“There are many steps involved, such as sourcing design, product information, upgrading production lines and training workers, so they are able to not just assemble but also test the ventilators. This can take months. At the same time, it is difficult to meet the rising demand, because production lines are made for mass production and thus lack flexibility,” Ali Ahmad Malik says.

The fact is that very few manufacturers are currently equipped with the technical and human resources to meet the demands of the pandemic. The manufacturers also lack the expertise required to produce ventilators.

Robots are our friends

The researchers point to collaborative robots – so-called cobots – as a possible solution. Cobots are robots that work with the employees and lend a helping hand. These robots do not require a safety guard, and they are easy to programme. They combine the flexibility of a human with the strength of a robot.

With cobots, manufacturers can move away from Henry Ford’s idea of the assembly line and instead focus on cell-based production, where humans and robots work alongside each other.

“COVID-19 is still raging, and we are 880,000 ventilators short. Cobots can handle half of the assembly work of a ventilator, so they can be very important. It will also be easy to change the production line from e.g. jet engines, cars or hoovers. As a bonus, cobots will make it easier to maintain the required social distance on the factory floor during the pandemic,” the researchers write.

Cobots are flexible

To reorganise a manufacturing facility requires a great ability to adapt to new tasks and standards. A human-robot collaboration system (HRC system) can do exactly that. The system also has the advantage of being very scalable, so capacity and functionality can be added as the demand for products increases. This means that an HRC system has all the flexibility that a traditional assembly line is lacking.

If the demand for a product changes, ready-to-deploy hardware modules can be added to the existing system – a strategy that is used in the military and healthcare service but is rare in the manufacturing industry where production lines are designed to last for 20 years. The HRC system can be compared to LEGO, as blocks are simply added as the need arises.

Digital twin

It is also possible to implement a digital twin with the flexible HRC system. The digital twin can be a useful tool in times of crises, e.g. the current pandemic, where modules, ready-to-deploy hardware and software need to be implemented quickly. Production systems with human-robot collaboration can be complex, but digital twins can make the integration faster, reduce the programming need and distribute tasks between humans and robots dynamically.

Challenges remain

The researchers conclude that cobots and digital twins can solve a lot of the problems that manufactures face in times of crises such as the current pandemic, which requires both production lines and employees to be flexible and adaptable.

However, there are still challenges. A major concern is to ensure the safety of humans working right next to robots. That is why it is important for manufacturers and universities to collaborate on integrating robots as co-workers.

Historically, manufacturers have proven able to adjust their production in times of crises – and even change the direction and produce new products. In turmoil, the companies find new ways to operate to stay afloat. And in the toughest of times, we tend to see unusual results from using unconventional methods which leads to a new normal.

By using cobots during the corona crisis, we can gain experience that can potentially be a big leap towards implementing human-robot teams in future factories – factories which will be more resilient and better equipped to face a pandemic.



Collaborative robots (cobots)

A collaborative robot is capable of handling different tasks and collaborating with humans. The more common autonomous robots are programmed to do only one task, and they are often independent and stationary production cells. In contrast, a cobot working alongside humans is able to quickly acquire new skills.

Digital twins

A digital twin is a digital mirror image of a physical product, e.g. your car. A digital twin of your car would be able to tell you exactly when your brakes are worn down or your shock absorber needs adjustment. In other words, a digital twin makes it easy to keep tabs on the actual physical product.

When combined with an HRC system, a digital twin can provide insights into the operational behaviour and thus enables the manufacturer to optimise processes before implementing them on the actual cobot. It is usually a costly affair to change a production line, but with a preceding simulation, manufacturers can make the correct change in the first attempt and avoid expensive adjustments afterwards.

Global shortage of ventilators

For critically ill COVID-19 patients, a ventilator can be a matter of life and death. The machine pushes oxygen into the patient’s lungs and removes carbon dioxide from the body when the patient is too ill to breathe on their own.

When the pandemic broke out, the US had 62,188 ventilators, but a report from GlobalData suggest that the country needs an additional 75,000 ventilators. The EU has an average of 11.5 ventilators per 100,000 population, but if we look at India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, comprising ¼ of the world’s population combined, the average is 3.7 for India, 3.6 for Bangladesh and just 2.5 for Pakistan.

Editing was completed: 09.07.2020