Adding a robot ends up helping a business grow
Published by : Industrial Automation
Allan Gibson, Director of Advanced Robotics & Automation, The Estée Lauder Companies.
Over 50% of industrial robots in India are used in the automotive sector. What are the factors inhibiting growth in other sectors?
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. 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. When most people think of collaborative robots, they only think of the physical attributes because they are the easiest to visualise. They commonly miss what really caused the rise of collaborative robots and why robotic growth has begun to accelerate in the non-automotive sectors. The reason collaborative robots took off was because of their 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. This growth will largely occur in the sectors that have been more challenging to deploy automation in. I think our fascination with collaborative robots will dwindle as the ease of use software philosophy migrates to high speed industrial arms.
Robots boost productivity. Can India scale up manufacturing with such a low robot density (4 robots per 10,000 employees)?
Due to India’s advanced engineering workforce accompanied by the country's large blue-collar workforce I think that 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. 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.
One major reason for the low penetration of robots in India is the abundance of labour. How valid is this reason?
India’s abundance of labour is a very valid reason for the low penetration of robots. The abundance and cost of labour in India makes it very difficult to financially justify the use of robotics. In the western world robots are required for a business to grow rapidly because there isn’t a large enough pool of people to fuel that growth manually. India can do this without the use of robots. I think the important thing to note is that it is very rare that robotics causes job losses. In the western world businesses are growing at a fast rate while there is a labour shortage in manufacturing. This creates an environment that requires automation. It is the only way to grow. On the surface people assume adding a robot removes a person from that task. What is really happening in the industry is that adding a robot ends up helping a business grow. This in turn causes the business to hire more human workers.
Covid-19 has boosted the applications for service robots in general. Will this now become the new trend?
I certainly see this trend continuing but service robots will be adopted at different rates based on the local culture’s view of robotics overall. Japan has been using service robots for over a decade. The Japanese culture’s love and fascination with robotics has caused the adoption of robots into customer facing applications to be easy. The rhetoric in the western world beginning with movies in the 2nd half of the 20th century almost always depicted robots as evil. If you juxtapose this with the way they’ve historically been portrayed in Japan as heroic, you’ll begin to see the reason for slow adoption in some countries vs others. I think this negative perception will continue to change as robots become more common in our everyday lives.
A new emerging trend for robots in manufacturing is the evolution of autonomous mobile robots. Are these cost effective to deploy?
Yes, autonomous mobile robots are absolutely cost effective. 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.
With increasing payload capacities, can collaborative robots replace lighter industrial robots?
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. In machine tending applications the rate of the throughput is driven by the time it takes to machine a part and not the time it takes to quickly swap out the finished part with the next part to be machined. If you look at videos celebrating the use of collaborative robots many are being used in this way.
How relevant is RPA in manufacturing? Globally, several companies are now increasingly using RPA for back office activities related. Is this gaining traction?
Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is very applicable to manufacturing. Many people would lump RPA under Industry 4.0 when talking about it in the scope of manufacturing. RPA and Industry 4.0 are helping to shine a light on the areas of manufacturing that struggle the most. Industry 4.0 should really be looked at as a moment of enlightenment for manufacturing. Industry 4.0 is allowing manufacturers to make more informed data-based decisions. This allows businesses to improve in areas that they may not have even known they were failing in. It also lets businesses pivot in a new direction when market trends shift.
In his current role as the Director of Advanced Robotics & Automation, Allan Gibson is responsible for The Estee Lauder Companies’ global automation & robotics strategy. Allan has focused on launching and leading some of corporation’s most transformative programs in both the packaging and distribution segments of the global value chain.
Prior to joining The Estée Lauder Companies, Allan was most recently the Global Automation & Robotics Manager at Stanley Black & Decker where he led the company’s strategy for automation with a focus on developing internal technical capabilities to reduce cost, create agility, and control IP. Allan also focused on standards and ensuring that all equipment deployed into the organisation's 115+ facilities was standardised, and Industry 4.0 enabled.
Allan also has experience in the Oil & Gas industry where he served as a project manager for multi-million-dollar SCADA/MES system deployments. Allan holds a Bachelor of Science in Industrial Engineering from Texas Tech University and a Master of Business Administration from the University of Texas.