Robots in Manufacturing
Published on : Saturday 01-08-2020
Globally, AI powered robots with autonomous learning capabilities are transforming the manufacturing landscape.
The word robot has a Slavic root, the meaning associated with labour, and that is how it has come to be relevant, the most common justification for the use of a robot being it takes the drudgery out of monotonous, repetitive tasks, often also difficult or dangerous for human workers. The first modern robot was patented by George Devol, an American inventor in 1954, but it was put in use by General Motors only in the early 60s, so the history of the modern robot is just about 6 decades. But there are examples of such efforts having been made even centuries before the Common Era to reduce human effort with the help of such contraptions, and the quest continues to this day. Today robots have revolutionised manufacturing and the countries leading the manufacturing sweepstakes – Japan, Germany, Korea, China and USA among others – are also the ones leading the number of robot installations. Presently, India ranks 11th among the countries in terms of robot installations.
So what are the factors contributing to the low robot density in India in general?
“Considering the factors influencing robot density, cost of the robots is a major factor. Lack of skilled labourers to operate the robots also turns out to be a reason. Upskilling and reskilling of employees are required to make them capable of operating robots and this will help in the long run,” says Rashmi Ranjan Mohapatra, Managing Director South East Asia & India, Kemppi. “But India is emerging in the Robotics segment. Most of the industries are equipping their production lines with robots. The current statistics are showing that automation is in huge demand. Post Lockdown, industries are trying to install more robots to ensure seamless production,” he adds. To read full response click here
“Unfortunately, I am not an expert on the Indian market, but I can try to give some reasons from a global perspective,” says Matteo Dariol, Lead Innovation Strategist at Bosch Rexroth, who is in broad agreement with what Mohapatra says. “I do not have to convince anyone about the performance increase that robots can bring; what I would like to mention are the side-effects of the usage of robots: large initial capital expense, robots do not come for free, depending on the application they can be quite expensive; if the performance increase is low, let’s say only a few per cent points, then it might take longer to see your RoI; and programming and maintaining robots require very specific skills: from a software standpoint, robot vendors have proprietary languages which require certified people on staff in the plant (or in a nearby engineering services company).” To read full response click here
“I think the Indian industry is inherently driven by 2 philosophies – ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’ – ‘Jugaad’ to solve real-life problems; and ‘Money matters’ – Continuous cost- benefit analysis,” asserts Mihir Punjabi, Director – AI/EI Solutions Architect. Mihir too attributes the same reasons: accessibility at affordable costs, ecosystem support and skilled operators or the lack of them as the reasons for the low number of robots in India, but adds a fourth reason to that – Digital Engineering. “Industries have been talking about going digital for a while, but adoption has been slow like any other disruptive change,” points out Mihir. To read full response click here
The automotive industry in India – globally competitive – leads in the deployment of robots accounting for nearly half the installation. So what are the segments besides automotive that can use more robots? “Robots are meant to assist humans and replicate their actions. They can be used in manufacturing industry, research, aerospace, hospitals, geological explorations, security and inspection, mass production of goods and what not! Their accuracy, efficiency, safety tool and ability to reach inaccessible places would bring a revolution in the years to come,” says John Livingstone, Founder CEO & Product Architect, Johnnette Technologies Pvt Ltd. To read full response click here
According to Rashmi Ranjan Mohapatra, robotics and artificial intelligence are the new age technologies used by industries to improve the quality of production. “Apart from automotive sector, robots are equipped in industries such as electrical and electronics, chemical, machinery, biomedical, defence research, food and beverage and others,” he states.
“Potentially every manual assembly operation could be automated using robots/cobots. I see the main segments being: Semi-conductors, Precision assembly, CNC, and Additive manufacturing,” emphasises Matteo Dariol. “If we extend the concept of ‘robot’ (static) into ‘AGV’ (mobile robots) then another important segment with great potential is intralogistics. Warehouses have a great potential for being robotics playgrounds: one example above all is Amazon,” he adds.
According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), as far as robots are concerned, in the last three years, the strongest growth driver in 2018 was the general industry, increasing by 28%, consisting of the rubber and plastics industry, the metal industry and the electrical/electronics industry. With the urgency now felt to boost domestic manufacturing capabilities for a self-reliant India, it is imperative to opt for more automation. Will the rapidly changing geopolitical scenario help India scale up manufacturing and lead to greater use of robots?
“The current scenario has suddenly raised the demand of not only ‘scaling up’ (scale within one factory) but also ‘scaling out’ (scaling across various factories) the manufacturing capabilities. I believe high productivity with quality will be the key decision factor in the current scenario,” says Mihir Punjabi, who also is of the opinion that India should capitalise the current opportunity by incorporating 2 key aspects – digital and intelligent automation. “For sure,” agrees John Livingstone, and adds: “India has a growing international influence and has a prominent voice in global affairs. It is an emerging superpower and with such enhancing relations and globalisation, we could be the biggest manufacturing and export country in the world.”
Rashmi Ranjan Mohapatra too supports this assessment. “The Indian economy is going through a phase of rapid industrialisation. Make in India movement is supporting the growth of new industries and production facilities in India. This is creating a huge demand for automation and robotics. These rapid industrial changes will be reflected in the robotics segment as well,” he opines.
What is also most likely to change the equation in India is the introduction of collaborative robots in the market during the last few years with all their attendant benefits. So are cobots with their greater appeal bridging the gap? “When we think of cobots we typically indicate a smaller robot that can lift a small payload, have a reduced work area and have safety mechanisms integrated in its control unit. From an operational standpoint this translates in the fact that manufacturer can start ‘dipping their feet’ into robotics easier and cheaper. Cobots will certainly bridge the gap, not only because if their lower costs, but also because the vendors making cobots have a different mind-set, offering open software platforms, embracing open programming and communication standards to a new software-savvy workforce,” Matteo Dariol explains.
Mihir Punjabi feels the success of cobots will highly depend upon how seamless this collaboration can be and the value that it brings. “To facilitate this, attempts are being made to impart human-like senses to cobots so that they can interact in the most natural form of human communication – voice, vision and text,” he says. On the other hand, John Livingstone opines that cobots may be a new term for people but is not a new concept. “Their conjunction with in close proximity to humans and interaction with them makes them unique,” he says and explains that cobots offer a number of benefits compared with traditional robots, if used mindfully. “They definitely are bridging the gap between fully manual assemblies and fully automated manufacturing lines. But the human machine interface (HMI) needs to be both user-friendly and safe,” says John.
In the aftermath of Covid-19, many startups have drafted robots as frontline warriors, especially service robots. How can this trend be channelised more effectively? “This is a positive change happening in the industry. Organisations are adopting new age technologies to ensure seamless production in this pandemic situation. The statistics show that industries are installing more robotic solutions to improve the productivity. Robotic integrators play a pivotal role in providing comprehensive solutions to end users,” observes Rashmi Ranjan Mohapatra.
“Machines are more reliable, do not get sick and can perform boring/dangerous operations with no risk of errors. I think the pandemic was a great wakeup call for those manufacturers that had not already thought of an Industry4.0 plan. It also showed how the global networks are interconnected: a manufacturing stop in the other side of the world could result in a shutdown of your own supply chain, putting at risk your business. Robots, in the broader meaning of the term, as well as digitalisation are tools that can guarantee business continuity and allow your operation to become more resilient,” says Matteo Dariol.
According to Mihir Punjabi, robots should be positioned carefully for use cases where they can effectively assist humans and provide value by solving real-life problems. They should not be oversold as a single remedy for all problems. “Success of this proposition depends primarily on 3 factors. Effectiveness – Robots provide value and solve ground problems efficiently; Economics – They are affordable with a clear and quick break-even plan; and Ecosystem – They are available easily including spare parts and servicing,” Mihir elaborates.
Will the growing use of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning provide the much needed boost for wider use of robots? “Well, these are important role players in the robotic industry. With the usage of AI and ML, they help the robot to understand the physical and logistical data to be proactive and respond accordingly,” says, John Livingstone. “The ability of robots to avoid obstacles and interact dynamically is only because of ML and AI plays the right role in recognising objects with greater details. They tend to make robots to reach the levels of humans in terms of task recognition and problem solving hence bridging the gap to form fully autonomous, he adds.
Rashmi Ranjan Mohapatra also mains that artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotics combined together open up a new dimension of automation techniques. “With the welding segment moving towards automation, KEMPPI has a vision of upgrading the welding technology with Artificial Intelligence. We will be continuing to introduce the Power sources that every robot falls in love with,” he says about experience at his own enterprise.
Absolutely, agrees Matteo Dariol. “AI has been compared to the ‘new electricity’ but we are still lacking to understand the full scope of it. This technology will be much more pervasive and will allow faster adoption of new robotics solutions,” he says. “Edge Intelligence is something that I have been evangelising for almost 3+ years now, and, I strongly believe that the future is all about collaborative edge intelligence, where intelligent entities – humans and robots – would actively collaborate with each other to solve complicated real-world problems,” is how Mihir Punjabi sees it.
“The ability of robots to avoid obstacles and interact dynamically is only because of ML and AI play the right role in recognising objects with greater details. They tend to make robots to reach the levels of humans in terms of task recognition and problem solving hence bridging the gap to form fully autonomous. AI and ML are still in their infancy in regards to robotic applications, but they’re already having an important impact,” John Livingstone sums up the discussion.
(Note: The responses of various experts featured in this story are their personal views and not necessarily of the companies or organisations they represent. The full interviews are hosted online at https://www.iedcommunications.com/interviews)