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Business News/ Technology / News/  Robots are coming for India’s shop floors

Robots are coming for India’s shop floors

A mix of robotics, AI and IoT is making the Indian factory smarter. How will the shop floor look 10 years from now?
  • While India may have missed the manufacturing bus of the 1980s and 1990s, the bus has now become more advanced. And the edge lies in industrial IoT, robotics, AI and 3D printing
  • A file photo of Honda’s production line in Greater Noida, Uttar Pradesh. India’s automotive sector is the main customer for industrial robots, accounting for as much as 62% of the total supply. (Photo: Bloomberg)Premium
    A file photo of Honda’s production line in Greater Noida, Uttar Pradesh. India’s automotive sector is the main customer for industrial robots, accounting for as much as 62% of the total supply. (Photo: Bloomberg)

    Bengaluru: Three years ago, TAL Manufacturing Solutions Ltd, a unit of Tata Motors Ltd, showcased a robot called BRABO at the “Make in India" week in Mumbai. Short for “Bravo Robot", BRABO was touted by the company as the first “Made in India" industrial robot, and is designed to lift loads of up to 10 kilograms.

    Mahindra and Mahindra LTd already has a “robotic weld line" at its factory in Nashik, which now caters to many of its products including the Marazzo and the XUV300. Tata Motors, too, uses robots in its Pune factory, while Godrej and Welspun run their shop floors with the help of an Intelligent Plant Framework, which enables tracking of machinery and productivity on the floor in real time.

    Maruti Suzuki India Ltd has numerous robots employed at its Manesar and Gurugram car factories, with more than 2,000 robots working at the weld shop in its Manesar facility alone. Manjushree Technopack Ltd’s Bidadi (in Bengaluru) manufacturing plant also has more than a dozen of its packaging machines connected to a network, providing monthly updates on maintenance issues.

    Automation, of course, is no stranger to shop floors. Many factories all over the world and India have been using computer numerical control (CNC) machines for years. These machines allow operators to feed a program of instructions directly into a mini-computer via a small board, similar to a traditional keyboard. After loading the required tools in the machine, the rest is done automatically by the CNC machines, which use these instructions to control machinery such as the grinder, milling machine, and lathe. But next-gen automation is likely to be vastly different on one score: it will either make humans redundant or vastly alter the necessary skill set that is required to hold on to one’s spot on the shop floor. A human-machine interface, or HMI, may eventually make the good old CNC machine voice-activated, for example, allowing an operator to just speak instructions.

    These oncoming changes will leave long-lasting impacts on India’s labour force, particularly in some sectors—automotive, textile, and banking and financial services, apart from information technology—which have become far more attuned to global shifts due to the nature of modern supply chains. The “smart factory" will, in all likelihood, change the popular conception of what a shop floor looks like.

    An army of robots

    The number of robots in use worldwide multiplied threefold over the past two decades to 2.25 million, according to a June 2019 report by Oxford Economics. Trends suggest the global stock of robots will multiply even faster in the next 20 years, reaching as many as 20 million by 2030—with 14 million in China alone, the report adds.

    India is way behind at the moment. But things can change very quickly. The automotive industry, which is currently racked by a slowdown, is a great example. In the face of stagnation, firms that had begun to ramp up their robot density (robots per 10,000 workers) in the mid-2000s have now merely chosen not to rehire a bulk of the short-term, rotational, low-skilled contract workforce. According to a 22 January 2019 report by the International Federation of Robotics, India’s automotive sector was the main customer for industrial robots, accounting for as much as 62% of the total supply.

    “On average, each newly installed robot displaces 1.6 manufacturing workers," the report says. Despite these rapid changes, industry players like Harshvendra Soin, chief people officer at Tech Mahindra, say: “We believe the future will be more human than we think." However, some factories are now beginning to acquire the capability for “lights out" production—meaning, they can operate without the presence of human workers. In fact, Japanese robotics firm FANUC, which is considered to be the poster boy for such factories, has been operating a “lights out" factory with robots since 2001.

    Unique quandary

    India is in a unique quandary. While the country needs to find jobs for its booming population, the globally competitive opportunities are almost entirely in smart manufacturing, most of which require less human hands per unit of output. “The conventional ways of doing incremental business will no longer suffice. India needs to push its people to adopt disruptive ways of doing business," said Ashutosh Sharma, secretary, Department of Science and Technology at the 4th Confederation of Indian Industries Smart Manufacturing Summit, held on 26 October 2018 in Delhi.

    While India may have missed the manufacturing bus of the 1980s and 90s, which powered China’s growth, the bus has now become more advanced. And the competitive edge lies in artificial intelligence (AI), industrial Internet of Things (IoT), wearables, robotics and additive manufacturing (better known as 3D printing), which are all set to fundamentally transform global production.

    In any case, automation on the shop floor is now being taken to new levels. Machines develop faults like parts getting worn out or equipment not getting calibrated properly. An operator could, thus, waste a lot of time trying to locate the origin of the problem. It’s here that automation is being combined with AI and IoT on the shop floor to resolve such issues.

    AI, for instance, can be integrated with CNC machines to enable self-diagnosis. Thus, when a fault develops, it will be detected and the software will try and solve the problem. Apart from using the data that is collected thus for diagnostics, a more advanced AI system could analyze that data and alter the settings of the machine to optimize a prototype being manufactured.

    According to a 10 May blog by Craig Lyjak, EY Global Smart Factory leader, the smart factory is no longer a futuristic vision. It is the heart of the broader Industry 4.0, or the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which refers to the gradual combination of traditional manufacturing and industrial practices with digital technologies. The most prominent of these technologies, according to Lyjak, include computer-aided design (CAD) and computer-aided engineering (CAE) software, cloud computing, IoT, advanced sensor technologies, 3D printing, industrial robotics, data analytics, AI and machine learning (ML), and enhanced machine-to-machine (M2M) communications.

    These technologies are already showing impressive results both globally and in India. In 2016, The Times of India reported that the country’s first “self-aware" factory was being set up in Bengaluru at the Indian Institute of Science’s Centre for Product Design and Manufacturing with seed funding from the Boeing Co. The factory is enabling data to be continuously collected and monitored, from both sensor-fitted machines and digitally connected wearables in order to provide real-time insights about every movement and process taking place on the factory floor. The factory remains a “work in progress".

    On its part, German auto-component maker Bosch’s Bidadi plant has cobots, or collaborative robots, working alongside humans. GE’s Chakan (in Pune) factory’s enterprise resource planning (ERP) system is linked to the manufacturing execution system (MES). Equipment efficiency is monitored in real time to decide production schedules like availability of forks or lifts, raw material trucks, workers and machines while sensors (read IoT) send warnings on possible breakdowns.

    Digital factories

    While the Indian automobile industry is unquestionably at the vanguard of the oncoming change, other companies are not entirely untouched. Mondelez India describes its Sri City (in Andhra Pradesh) unit as an “integrated digital factory", one which can pack 6,300 chocolate bars a minute, while Jaipur Watch Co. has added a new collection of stainless steel watches that were 3D printed.

    Lyjak cites the example of Microsoft Dynamics’ integration with smart factory processes and technologies as a case in point. Microsoft Dynamics’ Remote Assist application, for instance, combines Microsoft HoloLens (a self-contained, holographic computer) with mixed reality, video calling, annotations, and file sharing to enable experts to remotely troubleshoot complex problems and help technicians. This saves time, reduces travel costs and improves operational efficiency on the shop floor.

    Further, AI is used to optimize the multi-robot fulfilment system in Amazon warehouses. The average cost for a spot welding robot, according to the report, is projected to decrease by 22% by 2025, and robots-as-a-service models are beginning to appear.

    Although bringing AI onto the shop floor would require a massive capital investment, the return on investment (ROI) is higher, according to SaaSnic Technologies. AI and ML, for instance, can test numerous demand forecasting models with precision, while automatically adjusting to different variables such as new product introductions, supply chain disruptions or sudden changes in demand. Using AI systems, every single part of a product can be tracked from when it’s first manufactured to when it is assembled and shipped to the customer.

    Walmart, for instance, cut its physical inventory from one month to 24 hours by using drones that fly through the warehouse, scan products, and check for misplaced items. Using algorithms that learn from experience to optimize logistics, BMW tracks a part from the point it was manufactured to when the vehicle is sold—from all of its assembly facilities across the world. In finance operations, AI can close operations and automate monthly, quarterly and year-end processes. Using ML, bots can learn from human inputs to make better judgments and adapt to the behaviour patterns of accounting professionals.

    The future office

    Smart robots also assist shop floor operations indirectly by increasing employee satisfaction and appealing to a millennial mindset. A couple of months ago, for instance, Indian IT services provider Tech Mahindra introduced a Human Resource (HR) humanoid at its Noida Special Economic Zone Campus in Uttar Pradesh. Christened K2, this was the second HR humanoid (a robot that resembles a human) from the Mahindra Group company—the first was launched at its Hyderabad campus in May.

    K2 can address HR-related employee queries and even handle personal requests for actions like providing payslips, tax forms, etc. With the help of AI, K2 can start a conversation without any need for wake-up commands. It can even converse with differently-abled employees by responding to queries with a text display along with speech. Tech Mahindra now plans to deploy the next humanoid at its Pune campus.

    Despite the immense potential benefits of enhancing ERP systems with AI, there are risks with regard to sharing of sensitive data and regulations that need to be considered, such as the European Union general data protection regulation (GDPR), besides the loss of jobs to automation and robots. That said, the benefits may outweigh the risks if governments devise sensible privacy regulations, and revamp labour policies to factor in the impact of these new technologies on the workforce.

    As an example, Tech Mahindra, which has already implemented an AI-based facial recognition (which typically raises privacy invasion concerns) system to register the attendance of employees, claims it has “drastically reduced the time spent by an associate in updating the timesheet". The company also has Talex—an AI-driven marketplace of talent that maps skills of the existing talent pool.

    But the increasingly common use of AI and robotics in the Indian context may lie inside the e-commerce package. Gurugram-based AI-powered robotics firm GreyOrange’s Butler, for example, is an autonomous robot that uses goods-to-person technology for inventory storage and order picking. It populates the many warehouses that have come up across the country in order to fuel the e-commerce boom. Butler runs on a software platform that uses AI algorithms and ML, which optimize path planning, maximize storage, and accelerate order fulfilment.

    The final piece of the puzzle is the ability to hire these intelligent machines on contract, like workers. As a precursor for what may become commonplace soon, US-based Hirebotics allows firms to hire cloud-connected robots. The hourly wage starts at $15 per hour and they can work a minimum of 80 hours a week—and, they neither tire nor need bathroom breaks. Of course, companies have to give Hirebotics a 30-day written notice if they fire any robot. What these robot work contracts show is this: the future is already here.

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    Leslie D'Monte
    Leslie D'Monte has been a journalist for almost three decades. He specialises in technology and science writing, having worked with leading media groups--both as a reporter and an editor. He is passionate about digital transformation and deep-tech topics including artificial intelligence (AI), big data analytics, the Internet of Things (IoT), blockchain, crypto, metaverses, quantum computing, genetics, fintech, electric vehicles, solar power and autonomous vehicles. Leslie is a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Knight Science Journalism Fellow (2010-11). In his other avatar, he curates tech events and moderates panels.
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    Published: 10 Sep 2019, 10:49 PM IST
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