A case for cobots

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A case for cobots

Sunday, 12 July 2020 | Pradeep David

A case for cobots

Automation will become the key driver of “Vocal for Local” narrative for the manufacturing industry in India, writes Pradeep David, as he explains how Collaborative Robots will be significant in proliferating businesses in the post Covid-19 era

The world has come to a standstill and the global economy has taken the worst hit in history. Right from the negative pricing of crude oils to the worldwide lockdown, it has brought the global economy to its knees, looking for the road to recovery. With the global cases mounting up to 8 million, the impact of the grave pandemic can be witnessed across geographies. This has resulted in a major shift of leading lives and the whole world is coming to terms with the new normal. As the famous saying goes, ‘Every crisis brings an opportunity’ and this pandemic has provided an opportunity for businesses to be creative and adapt an innovative approach to sustaining the tide. Most of the countries — whether developed or developing — are actively pursuing opportunities to become completely self-reliant to battle the situation and also prepare for any future disruptions.

The Indian Scenario

The labour-intensive manufacturing sector has been one of the hardest-hit due to the coronavirus. According to a business publication, the seasonally adjusted IHS Markit India Manufacturing Purchasing Managers Index (PMI), a reflection of the health of the manufacturing economy, fell to 27.4 in April, from 51.8 in March this year.

Like the rest of the world, India, too, is experiencing a major outbreak of the Covid-19 virus and has slowly reached the second phase of the pandemic. According to the World Bank, India was the world’s sixth-largest manufacturer at the end of 2018. However, having a labour-intensive manufacturing sector has resulted in the sharpest deterioration in business conditions in the last 15 years, with the seasonally adjusted IHS Markit India Manufacturing Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) — a reflection of the health of the manufacturing economy — falling from 51.8 in March 2020 to just 27.4 in April.

As the current unlocking phase across the nation takes place, social distancing, stringent hygiene measures, and remote working have all become a part of the new normal. The manufacturing sector, however, is one of the few places where online meetings can only do so much. After all, the majority of the nature of the work is on-site, physical, and time-sensitive, so work-from-home is not always an option.

Opportunity for India

The ground reality is that Covid-19 is not expected to abate anytime soon, so our daily lives must instead incorporate the right measures to prevent the risk of contagion. According to Forrester analytics, we are stepping in the second stage of the pandemic, which steers us to ‘Adapt and Overcome’ the situation. To stay afloat, the industry needs to adjust to the new normal and strategise how to accelerate recovery from the losses incurred so far, optimising efficiency and encouraging self-dependency.

The New Approach: Collaborative Robots, or “Cobots’’

While the government’s Aatma Nirbhar Bharat Abhiyaan initiative is a significant step towards restart the operations and encouraging various sectors to stabilise themselves, it is vital that manufacturers recognise the need to join hands with technology and embrace automation. In fact, a study by EY found that 41% of employers across the world are fast-tracking automation plans in an endeavour to make up for lost productivity and also prepare for the post-crisis world. Normalising the allegiance of employees and technology will pave a path that will lead the sector to growth, stabilising Indian business and enabling self-sufficiency.

Rewiring an industry and making it tech-friendly comes with its own challenges. Some of the obstacles faced by the manufacturing industry include an abundance of unskilled labour, a lack of space on the shop floor, and the lack of technical expertise to operate complex new technology. Collaborative robots, or “cobots,’’ are a niche robot technology that present the perfect solution by addressing all these challenges, offering an easy automation solution for Indian manufacturers.

Empowering Manufacturing through Human Robot Collaboration

While industrial robots have been around for years, collaborative robots are a much newer technology. Cobots are an advanced robotic arm that — unlike their industrial robot predecessors — were created to share the same workspace as humans, without the need for any cumbersome caging or fencing (subject to application risk assessment). This is thanks to their advanced safety features, backed up by 65 patents, including a protective stop that is enabled when an obstacle blocks a cobot’s path of motion, ensuring that a person that may come in contact with a cobot is not harmed. By simply changing the end-of-arm-tooling on a cobot, it can be used for a variety of tasks, ranging from the tending of CNC and other machines, dispensing, quality inspection, pick and place, screwdriving, and much more. This makes them versatile to use in a multitude of applications across virtually every industry.

Cobots can handle tasks that require high repeatability, precision, and quality, as well as jobs that pose ergonomic risks. Humans are then free to cater to tasks that require mental efforts and human ingenuity, often leading to the upskilling of labor. In a crucial time like this, it has become a priority for industry leaders to not just utilise their workforce wisely to handle tasks that need human intervention, while cobot can handle work that could cause physical and mental stress to people.

Human Robot Collaboration is one of the key drivers of Industry 4.0 and, in fact, a study on a BMW assembly plant, conducted and published in MIT Technology Review found that there is a whopping 85% reduction in the idle time of workers when they collaborate with robots. Cobots, thus, can empower domestic production and facilitating the Make in India mission. In the Covid-19 era, when manufacturers are facing issues of labor uncertainty and recognising the need to automate but unsure how to start, cobots are one of the quickest solutions on the market, addressing many common barriers to automation faced by Indian manufacturers.

How Cobots boost Manufacturing

Social Distancing: By allowing humans and cobots to work side-by-side, cobots reduce the need for contact between human workers, ensuring that they maintain safe social distancing standards. This is especially vital in crowded assembly lines and worker-dense factory floors, which will have to take measures to ensure that distance is maintained between individuals but no efficiency is lost. In essence, this enables businesses to optimise productivity while also helping flatten the curve of Covid-19 contagion.

Partial Automation: Complex automation with heavy machinery is expensive, space-consuming, and difficult for most manufacturers to carry out. Cobots, however, enable the automation of specific applications instead of an entire plant, thereby reducing capital expenditure significantly. This partial automation means that manufacturers can start small and identify applications that involve high precision, monotony, or potential ergonomic risk for humans, and use cobots to handle these instead. For example, at Baxter Lab, one can see that the cobots are placing bottles in boxes, while the man is manually holding the boxes open for the cobot to do so. Both are thus, working together and the process is only partially automated to optimise efficiency.

Quick Deployment and Flexible Redeployment: Their ease of use and setup means that cobots are one of the fastest automation solutions currently in the market. While traditional automation solutions can take months to deploy, a cobot can be set up for a simple application within a single day, even by first-time robot users. Plus, a cobot can be programmed time and again for different tasks, functioning like a lightweight “tool’’ with many uses. In this uncertain environment, many manufacturers need to repurpose their assembly lines to focus on different products based on the urgency of requirements and changing consumer demands. Cobots are flexible and easy to re-station as needed, enabling high mix/low volume production.

Democratised Automation

As you can see from the USPs highlighted above, collaborative robots are easy and quick to set up, have a low footprint, and enable flexible redeployment. This, combined with the Human Robot Collaboration facilitated by cobot, make it possible for manufacturers of all sizes to deploy this Industry 4.0 technology with ease. Cobots lower the barriers for automation faced by Indian manufacturers, allowing them to use robotic technology without having to make drastic changes to their existing shop floors. As SMEs are the building blocks of the Indian economy, it is vital that they are able to automate to meet global standards of quality to achieve their Make in India dreams.

To sum it up, the Covid-19 virus has caught the world unprepared, taking businesses by storm and showing no sign of abating anytime soon. If anything, the pandemic has shown us all the unpredictability of life and the need to invest in smart decisions to prepare for the possibility of any future disruptions.

With the spotlight on India as the new destination for global manufacturing, industries need to prepare for a prolonged recovery period where it has become of paramount importance to learn how to manage human capital and production capabilities. Cobots allow manufacturers of all sizes to automate areas previously considered too small or too expensive to automate, lowering the barriers to automation through USPs that traditional robots and automation solutions simply cannot provide. They enable manufacturers to increase agility to cater to rapidly changing demands.

The writer is General Manager, South Asia, Universal Robots

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