What humans do, cobots can too

Collaborative bots not only complement human effort, but also help when labour is hard to come by

November 12, 2017 09:57 pm | Updated 09:57 pm IST - MUMBAI

Evil. Anti-worker. Job thieves. These are popular epithets to robots in a populous and labour-surplus country such as India.

But if robots complement human effort and help free up labour for deployment elsewhere, then the conversation takes a different turn. Small, collaborative robots, or cobots, are gaining currency across the world, as also in India. Several firms, be it Bajaj Auto or Aurolab, have benefited from the adoption of cobots and are planning to add more to their shop floors. And, no one is complaining.

Aurolab’s is a case in point. The Madurai-based company makes intraocular lenses. Earlier. the lenses were made by women staff, above the age of 18. They helped make 150 lenses a day but today, using cobots, the firm makes 10,000 lenses a day. Now, the company exports to 150 countries. Headcount has also risen from 15 to 700.

“The pricing, quality and productivity of the lenses are so good that the others are importing it and I think this kind of story can be replicated with many other industries,” said Jurgen von Hollen, president, Universal Robots, the world’s largest manufacturer of cobots.

What is a cobot?

A cobot is intended to work hand-in-hand with humans in a shared workspace. This is in contrast with full-fledged robots that are designed to operate autonomously or with limited guidance. They support and relieve the human operator of his excess work.

In an auto factory, while the the cobot tightens the bolts, the human worker places the tools in front of the cobot. In a biscuit factory, the cobot would package the biscuits while the worker segregates burnt ones not fit for consumption. In a small-scale industry, the cobot is placed on the drilling job while the worker performs a quality check.

“It’s a phenomenal success story in India where cobots are creating jobs and making small businesses competitive,” Mr. Hollen said. Universal Robots of Denmark was the first to develop cobots commercially, and the first units were sold in 2008. Collaborative robots are ‘completely’ different from traditional robots, he said. “Cobots are easy to use, flexible and safe.” Unlike industrial robots, cobots don’t need fencing for the protection of workers in the shop floor, Mr. Hollen said.

“The ease of use and flexibility are what drives us. Our vision is to change the world of automation,” he said. “Because, right now, automation [seems to be] for the few large companies that have the engineering resources, that have the capital invested. Nobody has figured out how to deal with the small/medium segment and the flexible requirements [in that space],” he added.

The automotive sector is a large adopter of cobots. The global electronics industry is also an adopter. Industry watchers felt that manufacturing cannot be competitive without the extensive use of industrial robots.

“Manufacturing is a capital-intensive sector and the idea that it can be used to create a lot of low- or medium-skilled but well-paid jobs, as it did in past centuries, is obsolete. We need to accept this reality,” said Debashis Guha, professor and director, Machine Learning, SP Jain School of Global Management.

Intelligent use of robots

This meant, he said, that the relevant question was not whether the deployment of robots is advisable, or whether robots will help or hurt the effort to ‘Make in India’. “The question should be: how can we best create a modern, robot-using manufacturing ecosystem in India?

“If we continue to be just importers and end-users, and not designers, developers and builders of robots, then robot deployment will be disastrous for the economy, since we will lose many old-industry jobs, and the new, advanced technology jobs will be created elsewhere.”

“That is why, instead of engaging in sterile debates about the advisability of high technology, we must move to develop capabilities in advanced areas such as robotics, artificial intelligence, machine learning and automation,” he added.

Globally, 110,000 robots worth about $40 billion were shipped last year. The collaborative robot market is about $1 billion-$4 billion.

Universal Robots, which has 50-60% market share in cobots globally, has so far sold 18,500 units, including more than 300 in India.

Vikas Sawhney, general manager, engineering (robotics and automation), Bajaj Auto, which uses 150 cobots, said the key benefits of cobots were compactness, low payback period, flexibility, lightweight nature, cost-effectiveness, accuracy and safety. “Other benefits include zero annual maintenance costs, reduced power consumption and retention of IP within the company.”

Cosmetics firm L’Oreal has also deployed cobots. Aditya Narayanan, senior manager, production, L'Oreal India said , “After incorporating the cobot on one of our automatic, high-speed lines, we eliminated approximately 8,000 kg of load lifted by a human in a shift, thereby protecting his/her health from being impacted.”

A dding a cobot did not add to the maintenance technician’s load, since it is relatively maintenance free, he said.

It is estimated that a little less than 40,000 cobots have been deployed all over the world. Big names that have entered into this field include Epson and ABB. There are about 30-40 players in this market.

The adoption has been low in India compared with China and the developed world. For every cobot sold in India, 30 are sold in China.

Bolstering productivity

With the deployment of cobots, almost 80% of downtime gets eliminated, as per estimates. In other words, productivity gains are significant.

Some SMEs now prefer to place a cobot in key functions and use human labour to feed in information and get the basic work done.

The first cobot arrived in India in 2011 when Bajaj Auto decided to deploy one at its shop floor. Next year the auto firm bought 23 units; it now has a total of 150 cobots. Mahindra & Mahindra has recently bought its first few cobots, it is learnt.

According to Mr. Hollen, packing industries and textile companies too use cobots. Cobots are getting into healthcare as well. They work as chefs in the U.S., making burger patties. In Singapore, cobots have been used to make building tiles. Cobots can be also used to paint the sides of the buildings, Mr. Hollen said.

Cobots are simple to use, he said. One could programme a cobot in 40 minutes. For this, you don’t need to have a technical background, he said. Safety is an important aspect of collaborative work and cobots score high there, he said.

“They are flexible and can be used just as a tool.” In other words, use of cobots helps avoid overplaying the role of a robot which tends to dominate the workflow, relegating human contribution to the background.

A cobot costs ₹14 lakh-₹22 lakh. Typically, in India, the payback period is 1-2 years.

Several governments around the world are encouraging automation to spur economic growth. China, for example, is offering subsidies to make cobots affordable. Several universities are spending significantly on research and development to facilitate human-robot collaboration in next generation manufacturing.

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