Robots in Manufacturing
Published on : Thursday 01-04-2021
Industrial robots are changing the face of manufacturing, taking over more and more roles from their human counterparts
Robots and manufacturing – it is a partnership facilitated by technology and is the logical culmination of what started with the first industrial revolution in the latter half of 18th century England with the invention of steam power and machines that propelled manufacturing activity. Manufacturing activity that depended on manual labour and skills until then received a dramatic boost causing much social and political upheaval, but also expanded trade and commerce.
The quest for more and more efficiency in productivity is today taken over by robots that are today playing a significant role in the manufacturing sector. As is oft repeated, robots basically automate repetitive tasks, are highly accurate which minimise errors and can work nonstop, round the clock. According to the World Robotics 2020 Industrial Robots report released by the International Federation of Robotics in September 2020, a record of 2.7 million industrial robots are today operating in factories around the world and a total of 373,000 units were shipped globally in 2019. Statistics also indicate that thanks to smart production and automation there is a worldwide increase in robot consumption of about 85% in the five-year period spanning 2014-2019.
Globally the automotive industry is a major user of industrial robots and in fact helps develop robots for various applications. India is no different with over 50% of robots used in the automotive sector. What are the factors inhibiting growth in other sectors?
“The automotive process lends itself to many repetitive tasks having to be performed with high precision in an assembly line – any impact or delay in a station has an immediate impact on the entire production. Hence, RoIs for not just the cost of robots but also the implementation are easier to recover in the automotive industry,” says Sameer Gandhi, Managing Director, OMRON Automation India, specialising in automation products and customised expert solutions for all industries. “Another good example is the mobile phone industry which is also an adopter of a large number of robots. However, with robots and cobots becoming easier to program as well as more affordable, RoIs are now becoming easier to realise in other industries as well. These are global trends that are also playing out in India,” he adds.
“I think that this is a universally applicable topic, not one that India is experiencing alone. Robotic history in automotive dates all the way back to the first industrial robot ever made by Unimation in 1959 which went into a General Motors die-casting plant. This explains their deployment density in the sector,” opines Allan Gibson, Director of Advanced Robotics & Automation, The Estée Lauder Companies. Estée Lauder is an American multinational manufacturer and marketer of prestige skincare, makeup, fragrance and hair care products. “One reason many companies are struggling to adopt robotics is that their applications require a lot of agility. Most sectors are deploying robots into processes that aren’t part of a dedicated single product assembly line. These robots are being deployed onto lines that run multiple different products. The reason for the robot in these applications is to handle a changeover through reprogramming,” he elaborates. In fact Allan Gibson illustrates the point giving the example of the collaborative robot or cobot and the reason for its popularity being the programming environment. “Their ease-of-use software enabled manufacturing engineers who didn’t know how to write software to deploy robots on their own. Many of these applications required agility and reprogramming was no longer as big a concern. This same change is finally beginning to appear in industrial robot software. When this transition happens the robotics industry overall is going to skyrocket,” he explains.
Darshana Thakkar, MSME Transformation Specialist and Founder, Transformation – The Strategy Hub, put the matter in context by stating that overall, automobile export reached 4.77 million vehicles in FY20, growing at a CAGR of 6.94% during FY16-FY20. Two-wheelers made up 73.9% of the vehicles exported, followed by passenger vehicles at 14.2%, three-wheelers at 10.5%, and commercial vehicles at 1.3%. “So increasing demand, price competition and large players in the sector that too with FDI support are capable to make a huge investment in industrial robotics and having shorter RoI,” she says about the extensive use of robots in the automotive sector. On the other hand, the MSME sector which is the backbone of the Indian industry contributes 30 to 35% in the GDP of India and contributes 45 to 50% in Exports. Out of approximately 6.33 crore MSME, only 1.5 % of companies fall in the medium enterprise. “The major hindrance in the growth of industrial robots is the higher initial cost and longer payback period. In the long-term, the robots add significant value by providing several advantages over manual labour in terms of operating costs and productivity, but the RoI generally lies in the period of 4 to 6 years, which deters the market significantly” she adds.
“The basic factors which are inhibiting growth of Robotics in other sectors are abundance of labour, higher initial cost. Along with this there any many aspects which inhibit the growth in other sectors,” says Kapil Boraste, Technical Consultant – Robotics & IoT. According to him, the Indian Industrial Robotics market is primarily dominated by application segments such as welding, dispensing, and material handling. India is a major automotive exporter and has strong export growth expectations for the near future. Advancement in technology combined with an increasing need for robotic automation driven by fast, low cost and error-free operation are the major drivers for the automotive market. Another fact is that articulated robots are the highest robot type being used in India. Articulated robots account for more than 50% of the units being sold annually. These robots allow a high level of functionality and are the most commonly used robots in next-generation robotics. These robots are used in applications like pick and place tasks, handling jobs, thread fastening, soldering, and other similar tasks requiring fast and precise automation. “So other sectors need more special purpose solutions instead of specific solutions only. Lack of cost-effective special purpose solution providers is also one of the important reasons to inhibit growth in another sector,” he opines.
Globally, robots are a good index of automation of the economy. If one considers the world’s top 5 most automated countries, these are (in descending order) Singapore, South Korea, Japan, Germany and Sweden and their robot density is 918, 868, 364, 346 and 274 respectively. Robot density is measured in the number of robots per 10,000 population. India has a robot density of 4, which perhaps explains why India is now making efforts to boost its manufacturing sector. Can India scale up manufacturing with such a low robot density?
“I would like to answer this question from the perspective of overall industrial automation as Robotics form a key part of it,” says Sameer Gandhi. The target of the Government of India to make the manufacturing sector contribute 25% of the GDP by 2020 and reach USD 1 trillion, is expected to create more demand for productivity, efficiency, reliability, perfection, uniformity, flexibility, customised solutions and above all to match with global standards. The makers have to make a transition from ‘matching Indian standards’ to a quality that ‘matches the global standards’ if they really wish to achieve this ambitious target. This has gained more significance, of late, as we all can see how vocal for local sentiment is building up in the post Covid times. “All this needs a strong harmony between people and machines which can only be achieved through the right level of industrial automation. Automation is one of the important keys to the growth of the manufacturing sector and the way to scale up the value chain in a progressive manner. So it does need a faster penetration in order to live up to these ambitious targets and objectives,” he adds.
Allan Gibson believes that with an advanced engineering workforce accompanied by a large blue-collar workforce, India’s future will continue to be very bright in manufacturing. “Scaling manufacturing is historically easier to do when done by humans. The western world’s issue is that there aren’t enough humans in manufacturing to fuel a human based scale up, so we turn to robotics. China has had great success scaling up manufacturing with manual labour. It wasn’t until the 2000s when China’s labour rates began to increase by roughly 15% year over year that they started to deploy robots into their manufacturing facilities,” he rationalises, and adds, “In India low robot density isn’t a sign of an inability to scale up, it is more of a sign that automation cannot be financially justified. It isn’t until you have a shortness of labour, rising labour rates, or a process that cannot be completed consistently enough by humans that you begin to see the mass adoption of robotics.”
“The higher initial investment is the major challenge for the adoption of robots in business operations. However, challenges faced by our manufacturers due to pandemic in terms of migrant labour, social distance and other norms of new normal will be proved a game changer in the coming years,” says Darshana Thakkar, who believes the low levels of automation in the Indian manufacturing industry itself will be the key driver for growth in the industrial robot space in India, and we can expect this growth trajectory to continue in the coming years once the Covid-19 pandemic slows down its effects.
“India is rising as an exporter of many goods along with the ‘Aatmanirbhar Bharat’ initiative. To fulfil this need and scale up manufacturing, India needs to increase the robot density. In India now many companies are working on robotics design and development, and as these companies succeed in providing low-cost efficient solutions, the robot density shall certainly increase in the near future,” says Kapil Boraste.
A new emerging trend for robots in manufacturing is the evolution of autonomous mobile robots. Are these cost effective?
“Like all other automation, ‘cost effectiveness’ is a function of application – what is the application and what value is the AMR adding? AMRs are typically suited to move material across shop floors on a ‘on demand’ basis and where the requirements can be discontinuous or where the shop floor layout may itself be flexible. For many such applications, AMRs are proving their worth,” expresses Sameer Gandhi.
“Yes, autonomous mobile robots are absolutely cost effective,” agrees Allan Gibson. “In many applications that I’ve studied and deployed mobile robots, the human material handler was walking over 8km per shift. What mobile robots do is reframe the material handling tasks that human workers have. By focusing human material handlers on the more complex and mentally stimulating tasks of replenishing material, while mobile robots do the monotonous material movement tasks, everyone wins,” he emphasises.
“Autonomous mobile robots are currently seen as a critical component of ‘Industry 4.0' and their adoption rate is expected to increase in the next few years. As the initial investment is higher in AMR, but the result it provides is gaining popularity in mid to large size organisations and specific to warehouse management,” says Darshana Thakkar.
But Kapil Boraste feels imported autonomous robots are definitely not cost effective. “If this robot gets developed and manufactured in India then definitely it will be cost effective. Because if we look at the hardware of the autonomous mobile robots then we will find that its hardware is not that much costly. As these robots are new into the market so industries are paying for its technology,” he explains.
With increasing payload capacities, can Cobots replace the lighter industrial robots?
“A cobot is not an alternative for an industrial-bot and vice versa and payload is certainly not the only criteria to be considered. The choice should be made on the basis of the kind of applications the manufacturer wishes them to handle as well as the work environment,” says Sameer Gandhi. “For example, a simple project which requires a small footprint and where the layout or workflow with human operator prevents incorporation of a fenced robot is an ideal situation for utilising a cobot. Typical examples would be palletisation, machine tending, glue dispensing, etc.”
“I don’t think that collaborative robots will ever truly replace industrial robots, even lighter ones. The reason is due to speed. Unless collaborative robots improve to the point that they can run at a comparable rate to traditional industrial robots their use will remain restricted. Companies are focused on production and in most applications a faster robot equals more production. Collaborative robots are great for applications where the process is slow and having a slow robot doesn’t negatively affect the throughput of the system,” says Allan Gibson.
Darshana Thakkar concurs. “Cobots are designed to work alongside human employees, while industrial robots do work in place of those employees. A cobot can assist employees with work that may be too dangerous, strenuous, or tedious for them to accomplish on their own, creating a safer, more efficient workplace. By contrast, industrial robots are used to automate the manufacturing process almost entirely without human help. As cobots are working near humans, they are not designed for heavy manufacturing. But it will take over lighter load applications in manufacturing,” she maintains.
Summing up, Kapil Boraste also is of the opinion that payload capacity is one of the limitations of cobots, and even if they get increased payload capacity, they will replace industrial robots only where they are able to add more value to the process. “Cobots will be preferred mostly where there is shared work/workspace opportunity. The areas where shared workspace, space limitation is not there, in that case industrial robots will be preferred. Also in sufficient, closed spaces industrial robots will remain, as the cost of cobots in comparison to the same payload of industrial robots, is much higher, he concludes.
(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)