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Photo: Shutterstock

Automate and skill up to make manufacturing world class

Creating the right harmony between people and machines can help companies move up the value chain, match global standards, ensure zero-defect manufacturing, and manage the current fear of unemployment

Photo: Shutterstock
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Photo: Shutterstock

Ever since it was launched four years ago, the Make in India initiative has been building confidence in India’s capabilities as a global design and manufacturing hub. By 2020, it aims to raise the contribution of the manufacturing sector to the country’s GDP from 17%to 25%.

The premise of honing the country’s ‘capabilities as a manufacturing hub’ indicates a strong linkage of the manufacturing sector with the industrial automation sector. Factory automation, in varied levels and capacities, is vital for manufacturers to build efficient value chains and gain global competitiveness. And it is essential for the Indian manufacturing sector to achieve global benchmarks for productivity, quality, and efficiency if the dream of Make in India has to be realised. This assumes more significance for the focus sectors (identified in the realm of Make in India- automotive, pharmaceuticals, food processing, electronic system design, renewable energy, and roads and highways ) as they are the role models and the early adopters of advanced automation technologies, such as Industry 4.0.

The bedrock of a smart factory is ‘harmony’ between automation solutions and human beings. If some activities are taken care by a robot or an automation solution, then machines and human beings need to work in harmony to deliver the best results. This is commonly misinterpreted as ‘competition’, because the perception delves more on the reducing number of jobs rather than on the changing form of the jobs fuelled by automation. The crux is that automation automates ‘activities’ and not ‘jobs’.

The auto industry, identified as the ‘sunrise’ sector under Make in India, aims to make the country one of the top three automobile manufacturing centres in the world, with a gross revenue of US $ 300 billion by 2026. It is one of the sectors where there is a strong need to automate, to scale up the value chain, to match global standards, and to ensure zero-defect manufacturing.

The reasons are aplenty. A typical shops floor here deals with scores of variants that need constant quality checks across multiple points. One defective product can bring financial loss, setbacks to credibility, and risk to the safety of individuals. In such kind of scenarios, a complete one-stop / single-source automation solution based on say vision, robotics, PLC, and safety applications can easily help inspect the quality. Also, with automation, it becomes much easier to address quality issues including ‘recalls’ – by being able to trace back all key steps in the production chain.

Photo: Omron
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Photo: Omron

Another example is of the tyre industry, where mobile robots are being increasingly used to move ‘green’ tyres from one machine to another. The harmony between human and robots is visible on daily basis on these shop floors. Omron also has these in its portfolio, and they are recognised as one of the world’s smartest and most productive autonomous intelligent vehicles that signify collaboration between human beings and machines to increase productivity in manufacturing. These robots are replacing fixed conveyors (making the shop floor layout more flexible) and not always people while bringing in efficiency to manufacturing.

Any kind of productivity improvement invariably leads to an increase in demand, leading to more investments and employment. One has to only look at history for evidence to support this. Henry Ford’s innovation of assembly line manufacturing for cars was a game-changer that reduced costs, and helped improve quality of automobiles. Closer home, it was the computerization of the banking industry; massive job losses were feared if computerization was taken up in the banking sector. Instead, the opposite happened! This principle of (productivity improvement) applies to any manufacturing setup.

Automation not only drives key performance indicators, but also brings in ingenuity to the shop floors. Robots deployed for repetitive manual labor activities allow employees to focus on tasks that are complex or demand creativity. However, at the same time, it cannot be denied that automation does lead to ‘job displacement’ and ‘upwards skill shift’, where low-skilled job profiles get replaced by higher skilled ones. But, as already stated, it improves profitability, which means there will be more money for investments in another manufacturing unit or improving or automating another system in the same facility.

Looking at the bigger picture, automation is one of the reasons why countries like the US can now ‘reshore’ manufacturing. They are leveraging automation to improve productivity of their manufacturing sector, thus creating jobs.

Creating skilled workers

As the Indian manufacturing sector becomes more and more automated, it is likely to be confronted with the twin challenges of an incumbent low-skilled workforce and the non-availability of skilled workers. Thus a two-pronged strategy focusing on re-skilling the current generation and upskilling the forthcoming generation of workers at a massive scale is the need of the hour. This falls in line with the long-term vision of the government of linking skills development, employability, productivity, and entrepreneurship cohesively, so as to contribute towards the inclusive growth of the country. And the pertinent, not-to-be-overlooked fact is—it’s a shared responsibility of all—government, industry, and academia.

The potential for mass unemployment has always been in the air with every transformation. But the society, with its unparalleled ingenuity, continues to take advantage of machines for producing remarkable goods and services, and creating a competitive edge. “To the machine, the work of the machine, to man the thrill of further creation" – this statement of Omron’s founder Kazuma Tateisi, made by him in 1970, resonates appropriately even after so many decades. In short, creating a symbiotic association between humans and machines is the key to achieving desirable results in the long run.

By Sameer Gandhi, Managing Director, Omron Automation, India

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