COVID’s social distancing needs have industrial center owners turning to tech, adding amenities, even reconfiguring sites

Technology at industrial facilities, including warehouse and distribution centers, has come a long way. During the spread of a highly contagious illness, it may have farther to go still.

Businesses now have to go the extra mile to keep workers in these facilities at a distance from one another and safe in an enclosed environment. There’s still a lot to learn about what the best investment may be to accomplish that, but some local industry watchers have a pretty good idea of where to start.

Lori Zuck, managing director in the industrial group at Transwestern, said any industrial facility with high ratios of employees is having to learn how to adapt and reconfigure operations accordingly.

Zuck, who works in her commercial real estate firm’s New Jersey office, said that, when that has not been possible, the need for adjustment has left some tenants in sudden need of additional space to accommodate tightly packed workers.

Mike McGuinness, CEO of the New Jersey chapter of trade association NAIOP, said the density of the workforce at local industrial centers serving crucial supply chains has been changing during the pandemic. Work schedules are looking a lot more like they do around holiday seasons due to demand.

Mike McGuinness of NAIOP New Jersey. (File photo)

What has eased some of the tension that would otherwise exist between that and the need to centralize less people in one area during a pandemic is the industry’s more recent adoption of collaborative robots.

“These ‘cobots,’ as they are called for short, are designed to work alongside of a worker,” he said. “In some facilities, they’re really starting to incorporate them fully. And I think that probably helps keep people spaced out.”

In addition to automation providing more space for employees, these operations are now looking to add more outdoor amenities, high-end air conditioning equipment, touchless fixtures and special UV sanitation lighting that can reduce the level of viruses and bacteria in the air.

Then, there’s the obvious constraining factor: It’s all expensive.

That’s why McGuinness is trying to drum up governmental support for these investments.

“We’re actually currently working with members of the Legislature to advance a proposal to help invest in these workforce wellness technologies with some sort of incentive, possibly tax credits,” he said.

Given the costs, or how soon the drivers of today’s supply chain might make these investments outside of that sort of incentive structure — or whether they will at all if the pandemic concerns start to fade — is an unknown at this point.

“I think we’re still in real time when it comes to these decisions,” Zuck said. “So, it’s hard to know what the long-term thinking is for sure yet.”