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Do robots hold the key to trading under social distancing? Not if Ocado’s experience is anything to go by

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It’s becoming clear that social distancing measures are here to stay for some time yet, with some sources suggesting that we may be expected to practice social distancing until 2022. Could robots hold the key to getting things moving?

With shops set to reopen, but with social distancing in place, the use of cobots – collaborative robots – could be the answer to to increase productivity without breaking the two-metre rule.

Cobots can work alongside staff to ensure that staffing levels remain relatively normal, while social distancing measures are still being followed. Cobots can be utilised to work alongside staff in all kinds of industries, including factories, restaurants, and even coffee shops.

A cobot is a robot, which means it cannot catch nor transmit the coronavirus, and is safe to work near people without risking transmission. Businesses can hire cobots to complete certain tasks, including working on manufacturing lines and even serving coffees and sandwiches.

This means, for example, that restaurants can reopen without concerns over transmission when servers approach customers to serve food; cobots can take on this role instead. Cobots are also a cost-effective and efficient solution to staffing issues, which makes them the perfect choice for companies still recovering from the financial hit of lockdown.

Tim Warrington, of, explains: “We have seen a huge upturn in our free consultation service for all types of sectors. If industry coffee shops, restaurants, and cafés can cure the social distancing measures that are here to stay for at least 12 months then they can, in effect, open fully.”

However, the employment implications are a worry to anyone who works in retail. With jobs already under threat, do retailers really want to replace people with machines?

The answer may well be no. The experience of Ocado – which has an extensive level of robotic automation at its warehouses – at the start of the coronavirus crisis could well give pause for thought.

The lockdown resulted in a period of record grocery sales for most food retailers, but while supermarkets expanded online services after a surge in demand for home delivery, Ocado’s automated warehouses quickly reached capacity, forcing the retailer to turn away custom.

The Shore Black analyst Clive Black told The Guardian this week that Ocado had suffered a “meltdown” in the early weeks of the crisis, with both the app and website crashing.

“I don’t think Ocado has had a good campaign,” he says. “It has taken 23 years to get from zero to 7% of grocery sales online – and it has taken 23 days to get to 10%. Ocado will benefit from that but others will benefit more.”

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