In early 2018, Thiruvananthapuram-based startup Genrobotics joined hands with the Kerala government to deploy a spider-shaped robot named Bandicoot to clean sewers and manholes in the city. The robot’s mechanical arms reached inside the manhole and reportedly cleaned out the sludge in a few minutes, a task that earlier required three people and several hours of hard labour.
Bandicoot is just a case in point. Governments and enterprises are increasingly turning to robots to save time, manpower and cost. Around 3,412 new industrial robots were installed in India in 2017— an increase of 30% over the 2,626 units that were installed in 2016, claims the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) report published in January, 2019. While the automotive industry has seen the highest adoption, the demand for robots is growing in general industry as well.
However, India still lags Japan, the US and Germany when it comes to robotics adoption. When it comes to density of robots, the US roughly uses 189 robots for every 10,000 workers. In China, the number is 68 while in India we have hardly 3 robots for every 10,000 workers, according to IFR. There is still long way to go, but the awareness is increasing and the market is slowly opening up in India as well, points out P. Satyanarayana, director of LFP, visual products and robots, Epson India.
“The adoption of robots has been slow in India because Indian companies prefer to have more stable and tested tools. Also, many processes in Indian market are not very standardized and many business still run in an unstructured way with lower levels of digitization compared to other developed markets," points out Vijay S. Bhaskaran, partner, robotics and intelligent automation, Ernst & Young. However, with more companies investing in digitization, the adoption levels are set to increase, he adds.
Besides automotive, robots are used in electronics, food and packaging, education and banking sector for routine jobs.
For instance, in the electronics and packaging industry, they are used to sort, pick and place objects, while in automotive sector, their role is limited to assembling and screw tightening.
Among electronics companies, Samsung is using around 80 Epson robots in its new manufacturing plant in Noida. In the banking sector, ICICI Bank has also deployed their robots in 14-15 locations across India where currency notes are sorted, said Epson’s Satyanarayana.
Bangalore-based SME Suparna Plastics Ltd. which makes plastic ball valves is using SCARA (Selective Compliance Assembly Robot Arm) robots in its assembly operations for the high speed and accuracy it brings to the table. “Instead of taking the conventional way and hire more skilled workers we went for automation using robots. Labour cost is one of the main contributing factors to the cost price of the end product. Robots have helped us bring down the labour cost," says Arun Bhat, director, Suparna Plastics Ltd.
In the case of ICICI Bank, currencies collected from various branches are brought to locations where they are grouped, inspected, counted and redistributed to ATM machines or other branches, based on their condition. If the notes are soiled or very old, the ATM machine will have trouble identifying them and will have to be sent to the bank. Once the machines used by the bank have determined the condition of the notes and where they are supposed to go, robots pick up the notes, put them in the counter for counting followed by strapping and then place them in the appropriate slot.
“Deploying a robot can cost as low ₹5 lakh for entry-level robots, and can go up to ₹30- ₹40 lakh depending on the application, nature of job and the payload involved," says Epson’s Satyanarayna.
Robots are also being introduced in healthcare for operations that require greater precision. According to reports, Ahmedabad-based Apex hospital used Corpath technology of US-based Corindus Vascular Robotics to remotely control a robot to perform a telerobotic heart surgery on patient who was located 32km away in Gandhinagar in December 2018.
In another instance, this February, doctors at PGIMER Chandigarh used robots for a precision surgery on a two-year-old baby born with esophageal atresia, a condition where food pipe is not developed. Bhaskaran points out that India has one of the lowest doctor to patient ratio. Bringing healthcare to large set of population can only be done through technology and industrial robotics will play a big role in that.