Frugal Innovations – Scalable Automation
Published by : Industrial Automation
How frugal innovations and scalable solutions are helping build a self-reliant India.
The Prime Minister’s call for a self-reliant India has inevitably brought into focus several issues faced by the domestic manufacturing sector, and its reliance on imports for critical technologies. Poor spend on R&D has long been a weak link in India’s manufacturing chain. It is against this backdrop that Industrial Automation invited a panel of technocrats to offer their views on how frugal innovations and scalable automation can help the industry overcome some of the challenges.
Frugal innovation has spawned many success stories in India, with even MNCs developing products suited to the Indian market and later exporting these to other developing countries. So is it time to devote more effort and resources in this direction? “Frugal innovations are about delivering more value at the right costs, without sacrificing the quality of the user experience These are not merely cost-cutting measures or a response to financial constraint or a tepid economy. Rather, across the developed world, companies are beginning to use frugal innovation as a growth strategy,” says Anil Bhatia, VP & MD, Emerson Automation Solutions, India. Bhatia draws attention to the fact that Emerson has six engineering research and development centres in India, many working across multiple industrial spaces to provide high quality engineering services to Emerson businesses worldwide. To read full response click here
“Some areas are highly complex, high capital costs and safety aspects are of prime importance like Refinery and Chemical plants or aviation industry; I think for these areas structured innovation approach with specialised teams is a must,” opines Dharmender Singhal, Global Head, E&I, Haldor Topsoe India Pvt Ltd. “While talking about frugal innovation, it is important to understand the meaning of frugal innovation – what the literature is defining and the innovation community also tries to explain it. In my opinion, it is a low cost or good enough innovation. Frugal innovation is a way that organisations can create good enough quality products with limited resources. Emerging economies can greatly benefit by investing efforts and funding in this direction, training to nurture innovators and access to the market can produce desired results,” he adds. To read full response click here
Taking a slightly different view, PV Sivaram, Non-Executive Chairman, B&R Automation India, maintains that the concept of frugal innovation is inevitably linked to low cost manufacturing, but says these are two independent concepts, and one does not necessarily lead to the other. “Frugality is a strategy to do the best with as less resources as feasible. But then, the plant or factory has to achieve set goals, and realise the set vision. The plant does not exist in isolation, it has to deliver to a competitive market. The product features are, as always, dictated by the King – the customer,” he asserts.
“Frugal techniques are now being envisaged in almost every sphere of life. From developing energy efficient robots that use optimal energy routing and ordering techniques, using simple web cameras for image-processing based monitoring of traffic to time-slicing based computing models for low-resource mobile devices, it is heartening that the list of low-cost, energy-efficient products is growing each day,” states Sunil Mehta, General Manager – Factory Automation And Industrial Division, Mitsubishi Electric India Pvt Ltd. “Developing nations like India and other Asian countries are important markets with sizeable populations but here cost-consciousness is an important trait,” he adds. “Yes, of course. In my thinking, anything that serves the purpose and costing optimally in its life cycle is a must for any situation and time. The trouble is Frugal Innovation is often quoted in a different context. Considered as cheap,” says Ravi Ramarao, Chief Architect – Industrie 4.0/IIoT/Smart Mfg Platform Solutions. To read full response click here
No frills hardware
An important point here is whether there can be ‘no frills’ version of industrial hardware much like computers and smartphones where the fully loaded versions are quiet expensive. “An ideal may be a simple design and may have the opportunity of meeting the agenda and cost constraints. It is less complicated to enforce, preserve and enhance and affordable. This can save us from over engineering and can be purpose built rather than built for the purpose. Industrial hardware can be designed specifically and custom built considering the applications and use cases,” says Ravindra Barlingay, Industry Expert – Automotive & Energy Management. To read full response click here
“The answer is yes. No doubt. Having said that, if you carefully evaluate, mobiles and computers are not over engineered. These were designed with a purpose and for a particular target audience at that point of time. Computers were basically meant for programmers and developers,” explains Ravi Ramarao. “In the redefined context of needs, industrial hardware has to necessarily undergo revamp on product definition. Still old templates are mostly followed. Paradigm shift in the fundamentals should happen. Perhaps, that suggests why start-ups are able to come out with radical changes and not the established product companies,” he adds. To read full response click here
According to Sudhanshu Mittal, Head CoE & Director – Technical Solutions, NASSCOM Centre of Excellence, Gurugram, if a category of products is over-engineered, it means that the sector for which the products are being considered cannot use the capabilities being engineered. “The computer industry has had astronomical growth in terms of amount of memory, processing capacity and storage. Today a mobile phone costing Rs 5000/- has more memory, processing power and the storage than most of the high end servers being used about 15 years back which used to cost easily in lacs at that time. The reason for this astronomical growth is that these products have found usage beyond the basic functionality with which they started, which led to heavy research in R&D, thereby pushing the capability growth. As far as industrial hardware is concerned, the fundamental logic would remain the same. Any product, which is able to find strong traction in the market will also be able to attract high level of investment to make it more cost efficient and capable,” he elaborates. To read full response click here
“Most industrial hardware is indeed designed for ‘no-frills’. By applying ideas similar to mobiles and computers the same hardware can be adopted through innovation to provide outputs that make it user friendly. So outputs from completely different process locations can make the industrial hardware user friendly and much more attractive,” opines Ramani Iyer, Serial Entrepreneur, Instrumentation & Automation. To read full response click here
Since frugal engineering and no frills technologies are already around and when India is trying hard to scale up manufacturing, can there be more organised efforts in this direction? “In the last decade, India has come a long way in promoting manufacturing in India. Industries are pivoting towards innovation – and our Honourable Prime Minister’s Make in India and the Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan initiatives are its building blocks. These are important steps in the right direction towards scaling-up the country’s manufacturing capabilities and towards the vision of becoming a US$5 trillion economy,” says Anil Bhatia. “It is India’s manufacturing prowess and local ingenuity to Make in India for India that has helped Emerson find a strong engineering and innovation footing in this region. Nearly 70% of Emerson products for India are made in India,” he adds.
“India needs to manufacture at low cost but not low quality – it should be good enough quality. Understanding the consumer segment is a necessity for Indian manufacturers. Governments also need to allocate funds to support individuals or organisations that bring key innovation from prototype version to commercial product. Better financing terms, faster approval processes, relaxed taxation, exposure to higher education, access to international market can act as accelerators in this direction,” elaborates Dharmender Singhal.
Not everything is related to technology or its easy availability or the lack of it. There are several other factors that play an important part when it comes to manufacturing. “In the context of our nation, scaling up requires increased supply of the essentials for manufacture – money, machines, methods and (wo)man power. The item which takes maximum time and effort to stock up is trained man power. This needs a long-term strategy starting from early school. But caution, the strategy should be a pull strategy – create demand first rather than creating supply-capability too early in the cycle,” says PV Sivaram, taking a macro perspective. To read full response click here
“Indian manufacturing units rely heavily on the MSMEs somewhere in their supply chain. Contract outsourcing also have made the large conglomerates to push their inefficiencies into the smaller players. As an overall supply chain, the manufacturing inefficiencies still remain. This pulls down the entire eco system because dynamic response, flexible supply chain, which are a must for large scale manufacturing are lacking and we struggle,” says Ravi Ramarao. “China could establish mega factories and huge infrastructure for goods movement at least 3 decades back, which has given them phenomenal advantage in meeting large demands of the supply chain. Having said that, this is a definite opportunity for India to utilise,” he adds.
Sudhanshu Mittal is of the opinion that technologies around machine connectivity, robotics, AR/VR, analytics/AI, Robotics Process Automation, quality inspection, 3D printing, etc., have the potential to significantly improve the manufacturing productivity and give boost to Indian manufacturing by making it globally competitive. However the adoption by users is still lacking. “The Government of India is making all efforts to promote the technology adoption through centres like NASSCOM Centre of Excellence – IoT & AI. However there is a large role to be played by various manufacturing associations to educate their members in the benefits of technology adoption and the need to make the required investment. For technical aspects they can work with entities like NASSCOM CoE – IoT & AI, but it is imperative for manufacturing associations to push their members to proceed with technology adoption. There is no other way,” he emphasises.
Automation is strongly linked to productivity and for India to compete globally in manufacturing the answer is more automation. But given the fact that SMEs play such an important role in manufacturing and are very much lagging when it comes to automation, can the concept of Scalable Automation work for them? The answer is yes, according to Sunil Mehta. “From e-F@ctory Solutions for Smart Manufacturing, the automation solutions are scalable and can be implemented in a step by step manner. If the end customer or manufacturer is focussed upon specific area for improvement, these solutions can be deployed in small ways and after successful implementations and results these solutions can be extended to the complete shop to plant levels. Integrations of manufacturing facilities, testing and quality controls, utilities can be done in phase manner. We at Mitsubishi Electric India have implemented e-F@ctory at our manufacturing plant at Pune. Prior to this e-F@ctory has already been implemented at our various manufacturing facilities in Japan and across the world” he explains.
To Ravindra Barlingay, it is possible if one follows the modular concept. “The degrees of automation of a line are often gradually adjusted from manual to completely automatic through the exchange of standardised modules. An assembly system is often scaled up by scaling the degree of automation of the modules of every station. Therefore, modularity as a change enabler can be regarded as a prerequisite of the change enabler scalability in the context of scalable automation. Moreover, the other change enablers can be regarded as prerequisites for modularity.
Compatibility is required so as to possess modules with a special degree of automation that are interchangeable. Universality means that identical modules can be applied at different stations to perform processes with different parameters,” he says. “When you start automation implementation in one end of the process, it connects/depends on inputs from other parts of the system to keep abreast. That pushes for automation in other parts and that leads to scalable automation. Then the whole process, not just the basic process, but other arms like utilities, packaging, warehousing also get into the automation loop. Scalable automation may also involve upgradation of automation technology tools when an enterprise makes investments to scale up production,” expresses Ramani Iyer.
In recent years, some automation companies are also propagating hybrid systems with manual workstations rather than full automation. Does this make better sense? “Surely there are some areas of the industrial ecosystem where hybrid systems will still be used, but I feel strongly that this will continue to advance at a very rapid pace and more and more components of the ecosystem will fully rely on automation. Beyond full automation, we are seeing that Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning technologies are being utilised to predict equipment and process disturbances in advance of issues,” says Anil Bhatia.
“Hybrid systems can be a compromising solution and sometimes acceptable where one needs to achieve productivity at minimum investment. In my opinion industry can get full potential of technology and exponential gains by full automation. It's not a one fit solution for all, it is very important to understand the present resource situation including human factors. ‘No automation’ to ‘full automation’ is a journey and hybrid can be an intermediate step of this journey but industry needs to be wise, I mean hybrid should not become a huge burden once industry owners are ready for full-automation,” asserts Dharmender Singhal.
“There is in recent times a general rush to fully automate factories. In the context of frugal setup for factories, one could think of a layout where some machines are automated and some operations are manual. This definitely saves cost than to have a fully automated factory,” says PV Sivaram, while agreeing that there is merit in this proposition of hybrid system. But according to him, there are many precautions to be observed as to which processes are going to be automated and which are manual or semi-automatic. “One criterion which jumps up is balancing the line speed. Line speed is determined by the slowest process in the sequence. The choice of automation faces a dilemma – some processes are easy to automate, but some are difficult to handle manually with desired speed and accuracy. Temptation would be to go for standard machines obtained over-the-counter and handle specialist tasks for manual handling. However, this may result in slowing down the entire plant output. Where process is subject to stringent regulatory compliance, it may be advantageous to automate the process with self-documentation in paperless form,” he elaborates.
“Hybrid systems will continue to exist in Indian manufacturing scenario. If you observe the statistical facts regarding implementation of Robotic Products, the demand will definitely be increasing for Indian industries; at the same time robotics are mainly used for operations in hazardous areas and where speeds of productions are very high. Although it may be difficult to understand now but these trend will continue for some more period,” agrees Sunil Mehta.
“In any automation, the cost of solution increases exponentially after a point. Depending upon the complexity of the product and size of company, there are many scenarios where partial automation would deliver higher RoI compared to full automation. When we talk of Industry4.0, users have to define how much technology is right for them. For small to mid-sized companies, hybrid approach definitely makes more sense than full automation, both commercially and societally, by keeping the jobs. They have to identify the high impact repeated work item areas and proceed with automation there, leaving non-repetitive items to be handled manually,” Sudhanshu Mittal elaborates.
There have been several policies for the manufacturing sector in India. Apart from policy changes, what are the essential requisites for a self-reliant economy? “I am a strong advocate of solving problems that challenges the society at large. India provides ample opportunities and for many more years as there is a potential to address the problems. Why, then, it is not happening,” asks Ravi Ramarao, before attempting to find some answers. “Primarily, entrepreneur mind-set as part of education is lacking. Secondly, risk averse mentality of investor community is another stumbling block. Thirdly, the ‘salary’ driven mind-set of the fresh talent is another big drag,” he says by way of explanation. Ramarao feels the New Education Policy is a good beginning and should address these issues in the mid to longer run. “However, the teaching community should be incentivised to draw top talents in to education. R&D efforts should be increased in corporate spending, innovative thinking should be supported with patent sharing, profit sharing schemes,” he sums up.
“A long-term structural shift making the economy more ‘self-reliant’ and fewer hooked into the planet economy. A step up in public spending and investment, aimed at promoting the welfare and raising the investment rate requires commitment of political leadership. Boosting demand and generating employment in the short term and adding to infrastructure capacity in the medium term. Policy reforms, including changes in land, labour and other policies, could yield positive results,” opines Ravindra Barlingay.
“Continuous improvement is critical part for any self-reliant economy. There will always be the pressure to import rather than make locally and if local industry cannot effectively meet the requirements, the self-reliance would not work. In the globalised world, you cannot be an island unto yourself. Making the industry competitive is the only long term approach for success,” says Sudhanshu Mittal.
“Automation technology has always addressed the needs for increasing the process throughput, with efficiency, optimised raw material use, consistent product quality, energy and water efficiency, etc. But with increased pressure on environmental concerns and regulatory implications, automation technology is the only tool for protecting the health of the enterprise,” states Ramani Iyer.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has created huge uncertainty across the global economies, including India. At the same time, it also presents us with opportunities to create innovative disruptions across the economic ecosystem. Deploying new technologies at a rapid pace will be an important
pre-requisite, and India will have to leverage its existing skill and innovation base in Healthcare, Agriculture, Education, and Infrastructure to help fast-track the creation of a resilient and self- sufficient economy,” concludes Anil Bhatia.
(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)