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Effects of COVID-19 Pandemic on the Seafood Industry

Photo of Taskin Padir

ECE Associate Professor Taskin Padir was awarded a $200k NSF RAPID grant for “Accelerating the Future of Work? Understanding Future Shifts in Technology Adoption in the Seafood Industry in Response to the COVID19 Pandemic.”


Abstract Source: NSF

This Rapid Response Research (RAPID) grant will collect ephemeral data to investigate the accelerated adoption of new technologies in the seafood industry in response to both worker and food safety concerns arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. As supply chains continue to face disruption due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the ability of the U.S. to provide safe, fast, and domestically sourced food, including seafood, has become of paramount importance. Seafood processing still relies primarily on humans working in close proximity to one another in plants that are known for dirty, cold, and dangerous conditions. The ephemeral data collected by the research team during this period of unprecedented economic disruption will be provide new knowledge regarding the future of work in seafood processing plants, including the demand for, and feasibility of, adopting human-collaborative autonomous systems to process and package food more safely and efficiently at all stages of production. The result of this new knowledge will be used to inform both seafood processing as well as other systems in agriculture and healthcare that are potentially undergoing rapid technological change in response to the pandemic. The ephemeral data collected through this research can also inform a new set of design requirements for next generation systems at the FW-HTF. The research activities undertaken to collect the data will also help train a new generation of engineers and social scientists to address interdisciplinary challenges at the convergence of robotics, human-robot collaboration, and labor economics through the participation of graduate student researchers who will learn to incorporate elements of different domains into their thinking. Multi-generational teams that include students from Northeastern University?s nationally recognized cooperative education program will enhance the pipeline for STEM education through innovative hands-on research experience specifically geared towards undergraduates. The U.S. imported $22 billion of seafood in 2018?more than at any point in history due to an inability to meet domestic consumer demand. This project will advance US leadership in a globally competitive and domestically underserved industry, while simultaneously advancing understanding of key scientific, engineering, and societal challenges associated with the rapid acceleration of technology adoption.

Motivated by the urgency to collect data that can inform how firms are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, this project will adopt a disrupted socio-technical systems (STS) framework to study how firms are re-evaluating the human and technology components of their systems, their relationships, and the values and design principles that are used to shape and reshape those system. The contributions of this research stem from the following interconnected goals: (1) Collect ephemeral data on how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the human interaction dynamics in the seafood processing industry, (2) Develop new knowledge to advance our understanding of the degree to which STS will change as technology adoption is accelerated in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in both the seafood industry and other similarly situated systems, including agriculture and healthcare. (3) Assess the feasibility of alternative uses of integrated robot co-workers to address both the current pandemic in the near-term as well as the future-of-work in the longer-term. This ephemeral data will capture the reassessment of this overall system through a survey of roughly 100 firms in the seafood industry along with 5-7 follow-up interviews and three case studies. Specifically, this project will measure how firms valued the human and technology elements of the system before the pandemic, and how their views have changed with the associated economic disruption. This new data will help develop technologies to facilitate social distancing in seafood processing plants over the next 18-24 months while also ensuring that these solutions are aligned with designs to advance the future of work in the seafood industry beyond the current pandemic. Collection of this data before firms adopt any new technology will enable the study of processes by which firms revise their STS frameworks in response to such disruptions. Doing so will allow the new knowledge created by this research to inform extrapolations to systems in other industries that will also be reshaped by accelerated adoption of new technologies in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This award reflects NSF’s statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation’s intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

Related Departments:Electrical & Computer Engineering