Robots in Manufacturing
Published on : Monday 04-04-2022
Experts debate the slow but sure penetration of industrial robots in India’s growing manufacturing industry.
According to a recent report published by the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), the operational stock of industrial robots hit a new record of about 3 million units worldwide – increasing by 13% on average each year (2015-2020). The report also mentions 5 key trends that are shaping robotics and automation around the globe, and the top trend is that segments that are relatively new to automation are rapidly adopting robots. One of the common arguments heard against the use of industrial robots in a country like India is related to the impact it will have on employment in what is a traditional labour surplus market with abundant skills. While it is true that the robot revolution in Japan was started by its peculiar demographics of ageing population and declining birth rates, China today is the fastest growing market for robots and is a labour surplus country. The fact of the matter is, in a globalised world where nations are competing in exports of manufactured goods and trade surpluses, robots are playing an important role in productivity and economies of scale.
So what exactly is the status of robots in the Indian industry and the extent of penetration? Which industry segments are the major users?
“I work in the industrial robotics and automation area. The industrial robotics market in India has grown as a result of industrial expansion, digital revolution, and adoption of automation at a large scale. According to VDMA, in terms of annual installation, the industrial robotics market in India is around 5,000 units in 2020 and is estimated to reach around 12,000 units by 2025,” says Sunil Raibagi, Managing Director – Asia, and Vice President Strategy and Business development, Zimmer GmbH. Sunil is a strategic leader with over 30 years of experience in manufacturing and automation industry, including robotics. The Zimmer-Group has been providing very innovative solutions in the handling technology which has enabled customers to think of using robots in newer areas which has furthermore increased the penetration of robots in the Indian industry. “In India, the automotive, plastic, electronics, logistics and consumer goods industry is using robots for several applications. Recently an upward trend is also seen in the medical, pharma and military and defence sector,” he adds.
“Automotive has traditionally been the biggest user of robots in applications like welding, cutting, painting, and handling jobs. In recent years, robots have penetrated into other industries such as mobile robots such as AMRs in warehousing, high-speed picking delta robots in food, beverage, and pharmaceuticals industries, collaborative robots in application areas where humans and robots work together,” says Hari Nidamarthy, Founder and CEO of APEXIZ. He has 15 years of experience in 3D plant simulation, virtual manufacturing, and robot offline programming.
According to Sameer Gandhi, Managing Director, OMRON Automation, India, robots started manifesting, effectively, in the manufacturing world around five decades ago and have been steadily gaining attention globally. Bigger manufacturers like automotive, secondary packaging, FMCG, and consumer electronics have made considerable progress in adopting both robots and cobots. OMRON offers an innovative range of industrial, collaborative and mobile robotics that address factory automation challenges. “As per the International Federation of Robotics, while the global average robot density in manufacturing industries stands at 74 robot units per 10,000 employees, adoption in India has been slow. The data from IFR (2021) states that the number of robot installations in India grew at a CAGR of 20% between 2013-2018, and India’s current robot density (number of robots deployed per 10,000 employees) is only around 4 (Source: IFR). In fact, installations in India dropped by 25% to 3,215 units in 2020,” Sameer Gandhi points out.
Jagannath Raju, Founder & CTO, Systemantics India Pvt Ltd, has a different perspective on robot density. “The metric to indicate the adoption of robotics in manufacturing has traditionally been the number of robots installed per number of workers but this does not take into account wide variation in labour costs across the globe. Studies looking at adoption on a wage-adjusted basis show that Southeast Asian countries have adopted robotics at much higher than expected levels, surprisingly, the US and Europe at lower than expected levels, and India at extremely lower than expected levels,” he says. According to him, though this approach of measuring adoption normalises labour costs, it still uses the same capital cost of the robot across all geographies indicating that India could be lagging behind due to factors of affordability, access to and cost of capital and lack of policies that would promote skill sets useful for the adoption of robotics. “Since all robotic arms installed in Indian industry are imported, concerns about support, services and spares could also be deterrent factors for MSMEs.”
Dr Paul Rivers, CEO, Guidance Automation, UK, also shares this perspective. “Initially, the penetration of robots in India had not advanced because of higher costs and the abundance of labour. But as technology advances, the use of robots in the industrial sector has grown multifold in the past few years. Traditionally, robots were mostly used in the automotive segment only, but today, they are widely being used across pharma, warehouse, F&B, hospitals, supply chains and many more industries,” he observes, adding that India is a major automotive exporter and the future looks promising. “That being said, the country has to continue advancing in technology, and with the use of robots, it would help businesses to have error-free operations, while reducing costs and increasing output.”
“The Indian robotic sector is an emerging revolution that is going to soon surprise the global market. With utmost potential for growth and application, robotics has a major industrial, personal and commercial market, which has been tapped in the past 2-3 years, with more than 40.6% installations of industrial robots for automation in the manufacturing industries,” says Allashyam Charan, Founder and CEO, Quantum Robotics, an Indian startup which aspires to lift the world with bots technology. “The major users are currently limited to automotive, pharmaceutical, plastic, metal, aerospace, healthcare and electronic sectors of the country to manufacture various goods. On the commercial side, robotics is widely used in the healthcare sector for surgeries, automated cleaning robots, serving and sanitising robots due to the pandemic, manipulators for pick and load, etc.,” he opines.
Pandemic boost to robotics
What lessons are learnt out of the pandemic situation for the deployment of robots? Do you foresee a rush to deploy robots post-Covid?
“Due to Covid and its effects, many of the manufacturers are planning to use more automation especially to reduce dependability over labour availability. At the moment the industry is investing with caution due to the volatile situation but definitely instead of the fully automated factory ‘robot-based autonomous function cells’ will be a reality in the various production processes in the Indian industry. We at Zimmer believe that the manufacturing sector is moving more towards automation and the usage of robots will see an upward trend in the post-Covid era,” says Sunil Raibagi.
“The post pandemic times have been witnessing an increase in inclination towards robotics adoption in manufacturing, concurs Sameer Gandhi, and attributes it primarily due to the following reasons:
1. Motivation: to achieve enhanced productivity
2. Aspiration: to secure consistency and resilience in production & supply chains
3. Confidence: to produce high-quality goods. The emotion is no longer ‘Make in India’ only. The Indian makers want to ‘Make in India for the world’.
However, Hari Nidamarthy believes deploying robots because of the pandemic is just an ad-hoc solution. “Though we all agree that the dependency on manual labour needs to be reduced, this long-term planning. The industry should be supported by skilled workers. To train the people who can work with robots, the initiative should start from the education sector, i.e., college/university/skill development centres,” he elaborates.
More clarity on the subject comes from Jagannath Raju, who is of the view that the pandemic highlighted two pain points for industry – the dependence on migrant labour for low and semi-skilled jobs, and for MSMEs lack of a financial safety net for weathering a severe storm. Fixed automation for extremely high scale production, typically FMCG sector, and not deployment of robots, which is a flexible automation approach for lower scale production, would have shielded some industries from a debilitating impact of the pandemic, he emphasises. “The interest that peaked during the pandemic and has now subsided was the interest in mobile robotics for remote nursing, autonomous sanitisation, etc. There was a rush to deploy such robots both in healthcare, transportation and facility management, but has now taken a backseat with the decline of the severity of the pandemic. In short, the pandemic highlighted the necessity of robotics out of the traditional manufacturing domain,” he explains.
Allashyam Charan also believes the pandemic opened certain opportunities and visibility for robots in the country. “From serving robots to avoid touching to UV screening robots to help disinfect humans, robotics has been able to help people understand its requirements. Manufacturing units which were entirely automated functioned smoothly during the pandemic. While sectors such as consumer stores, D2C markets and local restaurants are yet to extend their reach within robotics, the vigilance sector (such as drones for monitoring, automation, carrier robots, and surgical and healthcare robotic systems) is booming,” he states.
“During the pandemic, we saw a lot of interest from companies wanting to implement robots in their businesses. Articulated robots are the largest types of robot used in India. In the pandemic, because of the scarcity of labour, automated guided vehicle robots were in demand to meet end-to-end intra logistics requirements,” says Dr Paul Rivers, whose company specialises in autonomous mobile robot technology and has business interests in India. “New start-ups in India provided these solutions to hospitals for the transportation of food and medicines to Covid-19 patients, and this was widely acknowledged, giving some relief to medical staff,” he adds.
Policy support for robotic automation
Do recent policy initiatives like the PLI scheme for the electronics industry, semiconductor manufacturing, large 2-wheeler EV plants, etc., augur well for robotic automation?
Sunil Raibagi certainly feels this is indeed the case. “The policy initiative will bring investments and hence manufacturing infrastructure will see growth. In the EV and electronics sector, robot technology is a must. Robots will be pivotal in helping the industry incorporate the flexibility and agility into production routines necessary for future success,” he asserts.
Sameer Gandhi too is optimistic about the success of the Production Linked Incentive (PLI) schemes, introduced by the government first in March 2020, and later in November 2020, covering 13 important sectors ranging from automotive components, white goods, and aviation to renewable energy. “These expected to show very positive results in making domestic manufacturing more competitive via creation of national manufacturing champions with localised production bases and supply chains. This is going to translate into a significant rise in needs of enhancing technology and export capabilities leading to more business opportunities for robotic automation providers. Minimum production in India as a result of this scheme is expected to be over US$ 500 billion in 5 years,” he predicts.
“It will be very difficult to scale production to the levels envisaged under the PLI scheme without robotic automation. But there need to be complementary schemes supporting PLI which support robotic automation. Re-skilling for the ability to integrate robotics into manufacturing is essential and programs to promote this have been initiated,” says Jagannath Raju, matter of factly. The missing component, according to him, is promotion of indigenous design and development of the products related to robotic automation that would be candidates for manufacturing under PLI schemes. “PLI schemes will support large organisations whereas innovation in design happens more in MSMEs which focus on technology development,” he emphasises.
System integrators & support
Are the capabilities of system integrators to design and deploy robots strong enough? What initiatives from industry bodies and government are needed?
“System integrators do play a pivotal role in providing robotic solutions which are beneficial to the end customer. They have to provide robots at a lower cost, but also fulfil the commitment of giving a better performance output,” says Dr Paul Rivers, and adds that to get in the market faster and having a technological advantage, system integrators should partner with foreign companies. “Certain industry bodies like AICRA (All India Council for Robotics and Automation) should invest in new startups who are trying to solve daily industry problems through robotics. They should also have more R&D collaboration with foreign institutes. An ecosystem should be created where people are educated and trained to make robotic products or to serve the robotics industry to continuously solve problems in the manufacturing world,” he says, about the initiatives required.
“There are many system integrators in the Indian market who are extensively working on deploying in various traditional and non-traditional sectors. I would say it's not about the capabilities, but it’s about the opportunities,” says Allashyam Charan. “Even though the Indian market can use robotics to an exhaustive extent to increase production and provide better results, with not enough public opportunities, financial dependency and overshoot of other factors, I do not see a major impact on the same,” he adds, realistically.
Sunil Raibagi is of the opinion that the use of robots is growing due to technological advances that support an increase in the number of applications. “There are now robots for most applications from material handling to assembly. In addition, there has been an improvement in sensors, such as tactile and vision systems which increases the set of applications for robots and makes them simpler to implement. There has also been an increase in computing power, giving robots AI capabilities. Against this backdrop and at this stage of development, OEMs and system integrators should investigate how they can facilitate more adoption, more value, and further growth by bringing additional simplicity,” he suggests.
Robots in non traditional sectors
Globally, the use of robotics in non-traditional sectors – food & beverages, hospitals & hospitality, sewage & waste segregation – is rising. What is the Indian scenario?
“For India, the growth in non-traditional sectors is slow. They have been mainly used in sectors led by consumer demand and high volume industries such as automotive, FMCG and digital,” says Sameer Gandhi. According to him, the key applications where robots are used in India are:
1. Pick & Place: Simple activities like picking and placing in a matrix or palletizing, but also complex ones like identifying randomly oriented objects and placing in precise matrices.
2. Goods Movement: Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) and Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) will surely have an important and greater role to play in the Indian industry.
3. Quality Inspection & Precision: especially for the tasks which require a very high level of precision where makers do not wish to depend on manual intervention. Handling naked food like chocolates, cookies, sea food, etc., also fall under this category.
"There have been discussions about possibilities of reducing the dependency on manual labour. We can expect an immediate effect in robot usage in industry verticals such as FMCG, warehousing and packaging. In the food and beverage industry also, mobile robots are being used in the transfer of material,” says Hari Nidamarthy.
Logistics & warehousing
Is the Logistics & Warehousing industry spurring the demand for robots in this segment? Are there Indian players who are focusing on this segment?
“The logistics and warehousing sector has grown exponentially in the last decade. All e-commerce players in India including Flipkart and Jio have great interest in reducing costs to become profitable in the long run and will need to make similar investments in robotics. Reliance has taken the first step with a strategic investment in Adverb Technologies based in Noida. GreyOrange Robotics was the first Indian startup in this space and now has a large customer base in the US. I expect we will see many more players in this space in the near future,” opines Jagannath Raju.
Dr Paul Rivers believes mobile robots are shaping the emerging logistics industry. The mobile robot industry has grown rapidly in recent years, spurred on by autonomous navigation technologies and Artificial Intelligence. In logistics, material transporting using automated guided vehicles (AGV) is already a mature industry and attracting a lot of money, whereas fully autonomous drone delivery is still an emerging market, and will take quite a few years to be a large scale industry. “E-commerce has changed the way business is done in India. The rising number of warehouses across the country and increased investments in warehouse automation, along with labour availability issues and growing technological solutions, are a driving force for the use of mobile robots in warehouses,” he explains.
“Logistics and warehousing are the main linkage points of every supply chain. Warehouse robotics improves safety of workers, faster loading and unloading of items and carrying heavy payloads. While logistics is mostly about the functionality and management of goods, robots here are used for their assembly line, bin movement, arranging and sorting capabilities. With more than 15 players, new age Indian start-ups are currently functioning in this field, providing optimal solutions to warehousing and logistics. We can certainly say India is getting roboticised,” concludes Allashyam Charan, on an optimistic note.
(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)