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Collaborative robots - India and the future of manufacturing



Through the collaborative robots (Cobots), it is possible for humans and robots to be inter-dependent and focus on what each of them does best, safely says Pradeep David.

Industrial Automation has always been part of manufacturing industry on limited basis. Over the past few decades automation has become a necessity in manufacturing industry due to global competition. This has helped in efficient manufacturing processes and in mass- production of goods.

All industrial processing systems turned to automation that is driven by the need for high accuracy, precision and performance of industrial processes. Thus, automation became an indispensable part of the manufacturing industry. Thus, majority of companies today are looking for lean manufacturing solutions and the industrial manufacturing robots provide many benefits that companies require to stay competitive. The speed, repeatability, and efficiency that cobots provide can increase productivity, profits and reduce costs.

Automation in its broadest sense has expanded from its original industrial manufacturing base to laboratories and businesses. The application of robotics and automation has been successfully achieved in a wide range of industries dealing with well-defined processes and products like the manufacturing industry, FMCG, automotive industry, the healthcare industry, the pharmaceutical industry, to name a few.

With this idea of higher production rate and the need for human interaction with machine automation, the Collaborative robots were first developed in 2008 by Universal Robots. The human-robot collaboration is different from traditional robots. The idea is for humans and robots to be inter-dependent and achieve what each of them does best. There are a few things that must be done manually, whereas the accuracy, precision and mass production at higher efficiency is taken care of by the robots.

For manufacturing companies, collaborative lightweight robots are the new, economic alternative to expensive, traditional industrial robots. They make automation affordable and thus a realistic choice especially for small and medium sized enterprises as cobots are helping them compete more effectively, offering new opportunities for employees, and even improving worker safety. Cobots are specifically designed to work side-by-side with the human workforce, without any costly, space-grabbing protective installations. Therefore, cobots are ideally suited for companies which produce a wide range of products and small lot sizes.

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) at a global level are the backbone of developing economies, and play a dominant role in the Indian manufacturing industry. These are constantly in search of a solution for recession and unemployment. Governments are encouraging entrepreneurship at a great scale for providing multiple benefits, including job opportunity creation, increasing the productivity, increasing industrial output and exports, the development of entrepreneurship, developing rural economy, healthy competitiveness, gradually eradicating poverty and achieving various societal goals. When it comes to automation, SMEs face two major hurdles - initial capital investment and availability of skilled man power to handle automation and new technologies.

This approach is particularly appealing to the Indian manufacturing industry because labour-intensive conditions and the collaborative robots together can help the Indian market achieve the best of both worlds by making precise use of this distinctive technology. ‘Make in India’ and ‘Digital India’ initiatives will give a further boost to manufacturing, employment and productivity along with adaption of newer technologies, bringing the Indian manufacturing industry on a global competitive platform.

SMEW Textile Machinery Pvt. Ltd., an MSME in Ahmedabad collaborated with Universal Robots and deployed their first UR10 robotic arm in January 2017. The UR cobots are used for pick and place application. This was a new addition to the workforce but the simplicity and operator friendly features of the cobots made the completion of tasks easier and faster. After the addition of the cobot to their manufacturing, SMEW realised that their production had increased from 30 pieces per week to 80-90 pieces per week; a 300% boost in production, over a brief period of 8 months.

For employees on the other hand, cobots are the right tool to free them from monotonous and wearisome tasks. As a result, they can dedicate themselves to more creative jobs and work as productively as possible. Due to additional safety functions, it is possible for the cobot to work alongside its human co-workers without or with only minimal safety fencing. But cobots can do much more for their human colleagues than just over burdensome jobs. They can help to create a new, more positive image for their profession by turning assembly-line workers into automation experts in only a few easy steps. Therefore, it is one of the most outstanding characteristics of cobot technology to create additional value for both the company and its employees.

Thus, the incorporation of collaborative robots will be a timely introduction to revolutionise the Indian industries which will bring optimisation of processes, reduce waste, improve yield in production, with higher efficiency and precision. The functions that have already embraced automation will continue to prevail with incremental improvements from the normal cycle of technological innovation.

Taking a step forward from mass – customisation to mass – personalisation, forms the base of Industry 5.0 – returning of the human touch to manufacturing. Industry 5.0 products empower people to realise the basic human urge to express themselves and cobots are exactly the tools manufacturers need to produce the personalised products according to their consumers’ demands. Cobots bring the human touch to the masses.

According to a study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology undertaken by Julie Shah, who studies human-robot collaboration at the BMW plant, has discovered that teams of human and robot collaborators worked with better efficiency and precision with higher productivity, when compared to an all human or an all robot team. This co-operative process reduced the human idle time by 85% and she also observed that humans do not mind robots taking the lead.

By putting human beings back at the center of industrial production – aided by tools such as cobots – Industry 5.0 not only gives consumers the products they want today, but gives workers jobs that are meaningful and take a step ahead in manufacturing.

So far, we have only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to making use of the innumerable opportunities there are, in having people and robots collaborate. Together, they are a formidable team with enormous potential for the manufacturers that choose to take advantage of the opportunities.

Pradeep David is the General Manager at Universal Robots - South Asia, based out of Bangalore. A qualified expert in robotics and industrial automation, Pradeep is a Masters in Mechanical Engineering (Robotics) from Clemson University, South Carolina, USA and has also completed his MBA in International Business from Marquette University, Wisconsin, United States. Pradeep joined Universal Robots India in October 2015 and ever since has been persistent with his effort and sure vision of the ambitious growth strategy for the company. Universal Robots are the leading manufacturers of advanced user-friendly and light industrial robotic arms from Denmark and only recently expanded their presence in the Indian market.

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