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Editorial Articles


Issue no 39, 24-30 December 2022

Robotic Applications in Manufacturing Fuelling India's Growth

 

Dr. Neeraj Sinha, Naman Agarwal & Manurag Khullar

Robotics in Flexible Manufacturing Technologies: like big data analytics, augmented reality, 5G communications, and artificial intelligence are advancing individually. When these technologies combine and converge, they achieve exponential technological growth, known as the 'law of accelerating returns.' Today, we are at a tipping point where such technologies, that have been undergoing advancement for the past few decades, have started to produce breakthrough innovations and paradigm shifts. One such paradigm shift is being witnessed in the manufacturing industry, where labourintensive manufacturing is shifting to robot-intensive manufacturing. As per the Boston Consulting Group report, the global robotics industry grew at a CAGR (compound annual growth rate) of 17% over 2020-23 and is expected to continue growing at 22-31% CAGR over 2023-30. This is due to the rising demand for industrial robots in the manufacturing industry. With the growing costeffectiveness and efficiency of robots, robotics is seen as a game changer in achieving economies of scale and quick cost reduction. Manufacturing firms in both developed and emerging economies have been automating their production lines to boost productivity and competitiveness. Eventually, the rise of robots, over the past decade, enabled by convergences in technologies like Machine Learning (ML), energy systems, the Internet of Things (IoT), additive engineering, etc., is fast changing the face of global manufacturing.

Problem of Ageing Population and the Rise of Robotics: This rise in industrial robots in the manufacturing industry started as many developed countries and the global manufacturing hub, China, started recognising the rampant labour shortages due to the ageing population and declining fertility rate with the median age in the United States, Japan, China and South Korea being 38.5 years, 48.6 years, 38.4 years, and 43.2 years, respectively. With a rapidly ageing population, countries are increasingly exploring ways in which older populations can continue contributing to the economy. This led to increased Research & Development in robotics, especially, for their industrial applications. Robotics is increasingly evolving to enhance worker safety and perform more tedious tasks such as sorting, lifting weights, etc., rendering the human workforce for more intellectual tasks. In this regard, robots are not necessarily trying to replace the human force but augment their work. For example, 'cobots' or collaborative robots, such as robotic arms, work along with the human workforce and perform tasks such as painting, welding, sorting, quality control, and packaging, among others while being operated by humans. This makes them useful, especially, in handling harmful materials, which can cause serious health hazards for workers. We are already witnessing this trend on a scale in emerging industries such as lithium batteries, drones and electric vehicle manufacturing. Industrial robots, therefore, are being adopted in both developed economies and emerging economies where the human workforce is abundant. Humans have been the primary cause of quality errors in performing monotonous and repetitive tasks for years. These errors can have varied adverse consequences, from directly damaging the product line to lowering efficiency. On the contrary, industrial robots can do repetitive tasks with greater precision and minimal errors, such as robotic bolt tightening automation can fasten screws consistently with precise torque, which can be an onerous task otherwise. Further, in economies with adequate human workforce, many industries face challenges in retaining the workforce, especially when work is too specialised and specific to the industry. This adds to the burden of recruiting a new human workforce and training them with that technical skill, leading to significant delays in the production pipelines. These issues can especially promulgate in large-scale industries where efficiency loss due to quality errors and workforce retention are frequent occurrences. This makes robots necessary in building large-scale manufacturing capacities such as Tesla's Gigafactory for battery manufacturing, or Amazon's innovative warehouse management. However, the future goal of manufacturing is not merely achieving scale but manufacturing customised products at scale, in other words, 'flexibility in scale'. This is where robots checkmark all boxes, making their adoption inevitable.

From Smart Manufacturing to Smart Factories: With the emergence of opensource robotics libraries such as Robot Operating System (ROS), building customised robot software has become more accessible and cost-effective. These computer programs can be used to change the functioning of the robots as per requirement. 3D printing too has revolutionised composite manufracturing, especially with the breakthrough innovation of printing with continuous fibre, making composite manufacturing cheaper with shorter lead times. Adidas pioneered this technology through its speed factories, combining advanced robotics and 3D printing to create an automated, decentralised and flexible manufacturing process. Now with the emergence of 5G communications, the manufacturing industry is taking another leap forward from smart manufacturing to smart factories. A smart factory is the convergence of the physical and digital manufacturing world, where all different production parts can be connected via the IoT (Internet of Things) and managed using advanced machine learning techniques. For example, manufacturers can use sensors to monitor equipment in real-time and customise the output.

Robot Manufacturing in Asian Countries: The United States and Germany have led the robot manufacturing industry. Most industrial robots in Asian countries such as South Korea, Japan and China have been imported from the West. As the robot density in the manufacturing industries has increased at the fastest pace for South Korea, Japan and China, with 932, 390 and 246 robots per 10,000 employees, Asian countries have started innovating domestically to develop competitive and costeffective robotics technology. However, the adoption of robotics in India remains significantly low than the global average of 126 robots per 10,000 employees in the manufacturing industry. As per World Robotics Report, 2021, robot density in China increased by 53% over 2019/20, while robot density in India increased by 12% over the same period. In China, robots were barely prioritised in the 12th Five-Year Plan, scarcely noticeable, mainly appearing as a small initiative within the automated factory machinery. However, including industrial robots as a key priority in the 13th Five-Year Plan and 'Made in China 2025' initiative, China has made significant achievements by shifting its focus towards high-end and intelligent development. China follows the policy of 'Dual Circulation', in which the country has a lower import tax to foster domestic consumption while also investing in R&D to promote the development of industrial robots domestically. China plans to establish 3-5 industry zones for robotics and expand indigenous robot manufacturing, reducing reliance on imports. Also expanding the market for robots, China will develop robots to work on tasks across 52 nominated industries, ranging from traditional fields such as automotive construction to new areas such as health and medicine. South Korea's dominance in the robotics industry is the direct result of the reforms in the begining of 2000. South Korea included the robotic industry under its "Top Ten Future Growth Power Industries" list in 2003. This was followed by Smart Robot Development and Popularisation Promotion Act 2008, which involved five years plans for robotics and included substantial R&D investments. Through R&D investments, South Korea followed a 'topdown' innovation system that fostered close collaboration between government, industry, and the academic community in nation-building.

Status of Robotics Industry in India: The adoption of robots in the manufacturing industry in India has been slow, with robots predominantly used by domestic subsidiaries of foreign multinational companies such as intelligent warehouses of Amazon and Walmart or assembly lines of automotive vehicles. However, the Indian manufacturing industry has witnessed an increased uptake in industrial robots owing to the labour shortage amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Immigrant labourers migrated back to their home town, leading to an acute shortage of labour, especially those who had perfected these tasks after spending many years in that industry. This disruption in the production line awakened interest in industrial robots. Further, many emerging industries, such as battery manufacturing, smart warehousing and EV (Electric Vehicle) manufacturing will require industrial robots. A critical factor that has prevented robotic adoption in India is the high costs associated with industrial robots. While India has built expertise in robotics software, with many Indian firms now also outsourcing these services to the West, Indian companies have to rely on expensive imported robots due to a lack of indigenously developed robots. Indian robotic firms have to import core and peripheral components, which significantly increase the cost of the robot. A typical robot can undergo thousands of hours of trials with various iterations of different prototypes. Though these prototypes can be designed digitally using software, Indian robotic companies have to rely on China to get these prototypes materialised and shipped to them. The delivery of such prototypes can take a few days to months, delaying the trial phase of robots. Even if firms can afford imported robots, they struggle to customise them for specific requirements and get prompt post-purchase maintenance services from foreign companies. With National Mission on Semiconductor in place, the Indian robotics industry is seeing growth as essential raw materials are expected to be available locally to manufacture robots. Indian robot manufacturers have also been focusing on sourcing alternate raw materials available locally and piloting various payment models, from offering credit to nominal rental services, making robotics services more affordable for Indian companies.

Robotics: Not Threat but Opportunity for Emerging Economies: This is evident from the closure of Adidas' speed factories in Germany, high-tech automated factories aimed at bringing manufacturing back to the West. Adidas Speed factories revolutionised manufacturing using 3D printing to eliminate manual work such as stitching and gluing. Using Adidas's sport science data, speed factories could customise shoes quickly. However, these factories could churn out much fewer shoes than Asian factories would. This led Adidas to shut down the speed factories in the West and move the same technology to Asia. Despite advancements in robotic technology, countries with economical labour will remain a favourable destination for manufacturing companies. It is also a testament to the fact that building technological prowess alone cannot help factories become efficient. Human workforce, ease of doing business and infrastructure will remain essential. While robotics may obsolete some jobs, it will also create a new era of jobs, demanding new skills and reiterating that the human work force remains a key advantage. This is where India can leverage its advantage as an economic force and build prowess in Industry 4.0 technologies. In such a scenario, Industry 4.0 technologies, combined with our young population, can give us a crucial advantage over other economies

Way Forward for Robotics in India: For India to achieve its USD 5 Trillion economy goal, the focus must be on bringing in the size and scale of manufacturing. The focus should not be just on making India self-reliant by meeting domestic demand but also on making India a significant exporter of various products to other countries. Industry 4.0 capabilities can help us achieve this dream with efficiency and sustainability. We have built remarkable software capabilities, and it's time now we do the same for hardware capabilities. The Government of India has become active in developing the robotics industry in the past few years. In 2020, the Government of India extended the outlay of Digital India to USD 447 Million to boost robotics, machine learning, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, and big data. Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), through its premier research centre, the Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Robotics, has helped in technology transfer to the Indian industries. Recently, the Department of Science, Government of India, provided a seed grant of USD 22 Million for an ‘Artificial Intelligence and Robotics Technology Park'. This research park is built in a publicprivate collaborative manner and is a joint initiative by the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore and AI Foundry to create societal impact by bringing futuristic technology to traditional sectors such as agriculture, healthcare, education, etc.

While we have many ambitious programs in place to promote robotics, we need to form a National Mission on Robotics, on the likes of South Korea and China, that can unify the robotics industry of India, articulate the challenges of the sector as a whole, formulate policies, build strategic publicprivate synergies to foster robotintensive manufacturing and promote indigenous robots. The academic scholarship on robotics research in India is currently somewhat cluttered and disparate from industry needs. This Mission should focus on bridging the gap between academia and industry to build technology that can be commercialised. Further, this Mission can also play a crucial role in the cross-sectoral applications of robotics technology, where technology developed by one industry or research institute could be smoothly transferred to other sectors. This is likely to induce the market demand for robotics in India, serving as a growth incentive for domestic robot manufacturers. In addition, tax benefits and incentive schemes such as 'product link incentives' should include conditions for technological upgradation for the industries to disburse benefits. Lastly, robots should not be seen as a threat to the human workforce. They can help us make workplaces safer while also bringing more enriching jobs to our youth who face professional stagnation on the pretext of performing repetitive tasks.

(The authors are Senior Adviser, Specialist and Young Professional, NITI Aayog respectively. They can be reached at naman.agrawal@nic.in) Views expressed are personal.