Mumbai: Till even six years back, R.S. Thakur, who was then the managing director and chief executive of Tata AutoComp Systems Ltd, harboured one niggling grouse. Despite having 18,000 employees, he was finding it increasingly difficult to get “employees to man certain positions that were slightly on the dangerous side”.
To address the issue, he “did bounce the idea of making an industrial robot at a couple of board meetings”.
The concept, Thakur explained, was to take away “dull, dangerous and monotonous work like welding, etc., from workers who could then concentrate on higher levels of productivity”.
However, nothing firm materialized from those meetings.
A couple of years passed by and, in 2013, Thakur retired from Tata AutoComp and became non-executive director and chairman of TAL Manufacturing Solutions Ltd, a subsidiary of Tata Motors Ltd.
Yet, the thought of making an industrial robot lingered. “After all, it was a subject close to my heart,” Thakur said.
In 2014, Amit Bhingurde joined TAL as its chief operations officer (COO). An industrial engineer who also served as president and CEO of Kuka Robotics India before joining TAL, Bhingurde gave shape to Thakur’s dream of manufacturing ‘BRABO’—the first “Made in India” industrial robot.
“It was when Bhingurde joined that the actual development work on Brabo began,” Thakur acknowledged.
BRABO—short for “Bravo Robot”—has been priced between Rs5 lakh and Rs7 lakh and can even be bought on equated monthly instalments, or EMIs. BRABO comes in two variants that can handle payloads of 2kg and 10kg, respectively.
“As per ILO (International Labour Organization) standards, a human should not lift more than 10kg, hence the (maximum) payload for the robot was fixed at 10kg,” Thakur noted, adding that an industrial robot, which can handle a 10kg payload can replace 1-2 operators per shift with a payback of less than two years for a customer.
Manufactured at the TAL’s Pune factory, the design of Brabo has been done in house at TAL, styling at Tata Elxsi, and manufacturing of some parts at Tata AutoComp, while Tata Capital provides the finance.
Other than the motors and drives for the robo arm, which are sourced from Italy, “all the other parts of BRABO are manufactured in India”, according to Thakur who acknowledges that this “is a challenge we face right now because we don’t have enough good motor and drive manufacturers in India currently”.
TAL currently has a strategic collaboration with RTA-Motion Control Systems of Italy to source the motors and drives.
BRABO, insisted Thakur, isn’t just an industrial robot—it is the first Indian “conceptualized, designed and manufactured articulated industrial robot”, and is a “unique product” suited to Indian conditions.
Articulated robots are those that are fitted with rotary joints, which allow a full range of precise movements and, thus, increase the capabilities of the robot.
An articulated robot can have one or more rotary joints, depending on the design of the robot and its intended function.
First showcased at the Make in India week in 2016, Brabo was developed by a team of six engineers “whose average age was 24 years”.
Today, TAL has around 800 employees. “More than 20% of our team has students with an engineering background who came for a two-month training but have stayed back because of their passion and commitment. We plan to retain them,” Bhingurde said, adding that over the last three years, the development cost “has been very small for us, which is Rs10 crore as we had a small team of extremely passionate people”.
BRABO, according to Thakur, is a result of “focused innovation”, and targeted primarily at micro, small- and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs), “while also remaining relevant to large manufacturing industries, who have appreciated the positive difference that these robots have made”. “We have 55 happy customers who have already begun using BRABO and have achieved some really great results,” Thakur said.
BRABO, which according to Thakur is “30-40% cheaper than any international industrial robot with similar applications”, can be used for varied applications for tasks like pick and placement of materials, assembly of parts, machine and press tending, as a sealing application, and camera and vision-based jobs.
“We have made BRABO so user-friendly that anyone without any previous robotics experience can effectively operate it. A majority of Indian MSMEs are yet to realize the advantages of using industrial robots. Our effort is to change the manufacturing ecosystem, where not only large but micro industries can upgrade their operations by deploying robots which would complement the people workforce. We are also committed to offering the most comprehensive on-site customer service at a very reasonable cost,” Thakur said.
In a bid to provide the best “customer experience”, TAL plans to have a wide network of service engineers, supported by systems integrators “in practically every major industrial hub in India, to ensure service call response within a few hours”.
Five to six months before the actual launch, TAL identified customers and started putting its robots in industries for testing.
“Initially, we got an order for 25 robots and later, an order for 30 robots was made. In total, we have supplied around 55 till date—25 were sold and 30 were given on a six-month trial,” Thakur pointed out.
TAL’s current customers include Tata Motors Ltd, Mahindra and Mahindra Ltd, Larsen and Toubro Ltd, Diebold, CPG Industries, Hydromatik, SGK Industries and BITS Dubai Campus.
It takes two days to train the supervisors and workers for programming, running and using it regularly.
“Orders received will depend on how fast we deliver solutions to the customers and we are continuously increasing our engineering strength. We are looking at an order size of 500 robots for this year,” said Thakur, adding that the Pune factory has a production capacity of 3,000 units annually.
It currently takes TAL about a month to deliver BRABO on the shop floor: about three weeks to manufacture the robot and 3-7 days to deliver it to the site. TAL says it is trying to cut this time to about 15 days.
Training programmes for engineers are under way. TAL is also signing more system integrators who manufacture grippers and other parts of the robot. The next focus will be to have a longer arm for the robot. Currently, it is a five-axis, and TAL soon plans to introduce the robot with a six-axis. The firm is also looking at making robots for specific purposes such as welding, as the workforce available for this specific task is reducing given that welding is “dangerous and tiring”. “We should be able to launch robots for welding application by the end of this year,” Thakur said.
TAL, according to Thakur, also plans to make significant investments in research and development (R&D) to regularly launch new products (higher payloads and longer reach) and address applications like welding, “for which we are on the lookout for a new partner”.
TAL has also applied for an intellectual property (IP) certification for BRABO, “which will represent a degree of protection provided against the entry of foreign objects, especially water in the machine”.
BRABO already has four patents in its name and a recently-acquired CE certification that will enable TAL to export BRABO to Europe and the US.
However, according to Thakur, “India is a virgin market. Our aim is to populate it first.”
The company has also set up a live demonstration centre for its customers at its Pune facility, where the robots perform multiple applications such as sorting with a vision system, press tending, gluing, sealing, machine tending and pick and place. BRABO’s primary focus is on sectors such as automotive, electronics, logistics, food, packaging and pharma.
Thakur, of course, has no plans to make humanoids—robots seen in sci-fi movies that think, walk and behave like humans. “For now, our focus is to manufacture industrial robots.”
He did admit, though, that in “one of my weaker moments”, he did give in to the temptation of catering to the request of one of our customers who owns a pub in Bandra, a Mumbai suburb.
“The customer wanted a prototype for a robot that can pour liquor too. We submitted a plan for the same and the slogan at the pub will be: ‘Your drink untouched by human hands’.”
Thakur, though, now has a problem on his hands: this customer now wants the same robot to play music at times when liquor is not being served.
Thakur promises not to succumb to the temptation easily.
“We have not worked on that as yet,” he says with a laugh. In the interim, as Thakur grapples with these temptations, he believes that BRABO will usher in a ‘Robolution’, similar to an Industrial Revolution 2.0—one that will potentially change the manufacturing scenario of our country.
Industrial robots market to hit $79.58 bn in five years
The use of industrial robots, according to MarketsandMarkets Research Pvt. Ltd, is expected to grow exponentially in the future as they help cost reduction, improved quality, increased production, and improved workplace health and safety. The global industrial robotics market is expected to reach $79.58 billion by 2022, growing at a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of 11.92% between 2016 and 2022. The main growth drivers, according to the research firm, are the adoption of automation to ensure quality production and meet market demand, and the rising demand from small- and medium-scale enterprises in developing nations.
Articulated robots held the major share of the market in 2015, and this market is expected to grow at the highest CAGR between 2016 and 2022. Owing to the structure and operational capabilities of articulated arm robots, they are widely used by various industrial applications in the automotive and electrical and electronics industry among others.
The Asia Pacific market (APAC) is expected to grow at the highest CAGR between 2016 and 2022. The main drivers for this growth are the demand for collaborative industrial robots from small- and medium-scale enterprises in China, Japan, South Korea, and India as well as the growing investments in countries such as India to boost manufacturing under projects such as Make in India, according to the research firm.
The major firms in this sector are ABB Ltd (Switzerland), KUKA AG (Germany), FANUC Corp. (Japan), Yaskawa Electric Corp. (Japan), and Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd (Japan), the research firm says.