Due to fierce competition from Chinese companies, it is a big risk starting a robotics manufacturing facility in India. But Sangeet Kumar, CEO, Addverb Technologies and his four co-founders took calculated risk and believed they could emerge successful. They were backed by Jalaj Dani, co-promoter of the Asian Paints. Excerpts from the conversation with Sangeet Kumar follow below.
Q.What is Addverb all about? What has been the story?
A. The story of Addverb so far has been an eventful one with small elements of luck added at different junctures of time. The whole team at Addverb worked hard to achieve the feat of opening our first robot manufacturing facility in India, Bot-Valley. I consider this facility to be just the start and we are in the process of taking baby steps at the moment. Soon we will shift gears and gallop further towards our vision of ‘touching human lives by pioneering human robot collaboration.’
The idea of setting up a robotics start-up struck me and the other co-founders when we were working with Asian Paints. We used to set up automated factories with cutting-edge technologies, costing upwards of crores (tens of millions) of rupees. I was a part of the project team that was tasked with setting up these factories.
From the time I joined, Asian Paints used to set up at least one such factory every third year. As these factories needed automation to be a key ingredient, we were importing most of the automation requirements from companies located in Europe and the USA. I used to wonder why India does not have a manufacturer of robots and other automation equipment suppliers for factories and warehouses.
That curiosity of not having a robotics factory in India got over in 2016 when we decided to start Addverb. We had gained tremendous insight by working on the latest technologies and had also operated these factories and warehouses. We felt we could create some unique offerings by merging the knowledge of technology and operations and that’s how the push went ahead.
It was in June 2016 that we started Addverb Technologies in a two-room setup located in Tagore Gardens, New Delhi. All of the five co-founders of Addverb are from the Asian Paints team. We moved to Noida Sector 2 in 2018 and now we have inaugurated a brand new facility in Noida itself. From the first year to the closure of the previous financial year, we have covered a journey from 1.5 crore (15 million) rupees in turnover to around 200 crores (2,000 million) rupees in five years.
Q. Why the name Addverb? What does it imply?
A. ‘Add’ stands for addition and ‘verb’ stands for action, which means we are adding to actions in factories and warehouses. The action that we add value to is ‘motion’ or ‘movement’—movement to everything, and we intend to make that movement/motion safe, productive, effective, and less stressful. We give primacy to motion—our operating universe. It is in motion or movement that we think and thrive. It is what we do with motion that defines who we are.
Q. How have the last three years been for Addverb? What is the roadmap for the future?
A. We were able to create unique offerings by merging the experiences we had gained in managing operations of automated facilities with technology. We created some very unique solutions for customers that helped us win their trust at the early stages. Addverb is one of the rare companies in the world which makes conventional and flexible automation solutions. This has opened a host of industries for us; as you can see, our clientele spans across multiple industries like petrochemicals, retail, e-commerce, FMCG, tyres, and pharma, to name a few.
Our first orders were from the likes of Patanjali, Megha Fruits, Reliance Retail, and PAR Pharma, where we automated their factories and warehouses. Then came the orders of automation from the likes of HUL, Flipkart, Coca-Cola, Pepsico, and Amazon. The word of mouth really worked well for us. The word kept spreading and we kept on getting orders from many big and small organisations. Also, Addverb team’s ability to deliver orders in time played a key role in making it a successful venture as we kept on getting repeat orders from our customers.
In the journey, we decided that we are going to invest heavily on an R&D team as it is the core requirement of making any robotics company successful. Robotics, especially mobile robotics, is still an evolving field and many answers still need to be discovered or developed. Investing in R&D is the only way to do it. All the cofounders of Addverb are aware that China leads in terms of robots and even Japan based brands have become distributors of robots and cobots manufactured in China. We, at Addverb, do not want to repeat the mistakes that these Japanese companies have made. The only answer to not do so lies in extensive R&D to solve existing problems in a more innovative way and developing robust and intelligent software.
Q. Speaking of robot companies originating from China, how do you plan to compete against them?
A. The government of China was among the earliest ones to invest heavily in technologies including AI, ML, and robotics. They had a simple vision that if no human is available to do some kind of work, AI, ML, and robotics will be helpful to do that work. China knew back then that robotics will help the nation keep its tag of world’s manufacturing superpower. As I said earlier, if there is any country that can compete against China, it is India. The plan is to compete against China, where some of the best robotics companies in the world are. Companies like GeekPlus, Hikvision, and QuickTron have emerged successfully in the robotics landscape.
When the pandemic hit, we were sure that these Chinese companies would come to set up shop here in India. We were preparing ourselves for the same accordingly. In fact, that is one of the reasons we started our office in Singapore. Instead of waiting for them to come to India, we made plans to compete with them outside India. We are already competing with them in South East Asia and we will definitely compete with them once we open an office in the United States.
Any robotic or automation product comprises two broad components, hardware and software. With our new manufacturing facility, Bot-Valley, we will be able to compete on cost and quality with regard to the hardware; traditionally, India is seen as a global powerhouse for software. For us, we see all robotic and automation products as a software product, and this has helped us to add some very distinct features to our products which are not provided by anyone in the world. Also, it has helped us to make the integration of our products with various customers smooth and easy.
Q. Why do you believe in India as a major market for robotics?
A. Because we have been users of this technology ourselves, we know what it is actually capable of. However, it is also true that companies only invest in technologies when they are sure about the returns they are going to get in the future. What we do is we educate the customer, and this becomes easier for us as we have gone through the process ourselves.
Automation in India will never get justified as something that will replace human beings, which is very normal in countries like China and the USA. What is of prime importance in India is how effectively you can use this space because of the costs involved—increased land cost, and also building a facility in India is costlier than in the USA and it is equivalent to that of Europe. Therefore, if you can save on the land or the building cost, that can fund the automation. That is exactly what we educate our customers about.
Second, at scales that the likes of Asian Paints, Flipkart, Amazon, Haldiram, and Pepsico operate, you cannot operate manually. It is not possible to do so without making mistakes. Automation, on such huge scales, can help these companies and the likes of them to offer reliability to their customers. In short, automation is the answer to the scale of operations. There was a time when big companies used to follow the cartons route, then came the packets route, and now we have also started talking about the pieces route. This is where automation can really help.
Third, we design the solution and show them how effectively it can work and then leave it to their decision makers.
Q. Typically, one believes that robots will take more space than humans, but you are saying that they can reduce the need for land! Can you explain how?
A. Be it e-commerce, food retail, or manufacturing giants, the location of their warehousing facilities is one of the pivotal pillars for their operational excellence and supply chain planning. Ideally, warehouses need to be close to the cities to reduce the transit time for goods. However, close-by land often comes with higher rentals. An optimal solution in such cases of higher rentals is to utilise the height of the warehouse in an efficient manner. We focus on cubic space utilisation of a warehouse. Flying high does make sense if you intend to utilise the space of the warehouse efficiently. For this, it is essential that you equip yourselves with Cruiser (Pallet Shuttle), Quadron (Carton Shuttle), or Multi-Pro (ASRS) which assists in increasing the warehouse space through vertical stacking of the inventory. Addverb is the leading Pallet Shuttle solution provider for cubic feet utilisation via dense racking in a warehouse.
Q. Can you explain a bit more in detail for the advantage of senior business decision makers how the expertise in software makes investment in your robots a smarter decision than the ones you compete with?
A. For any robotic or automation solution to be successful, there are three factors that need to be considered:
Robustness of product. This refers to the product hardware quality and is required to ensure that the product doesn’t fail in its hardware. This is mostly a one-time process and is ensured through a stringent quality control. Once a hardware is installed, it typically runs for a long time with scheduled maintenance.
Ease of integration. Ease of integration with other automation solutions and with existing enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems is important and often determines the timelines of the project. Ability to integrate with different systems and interfaces is a must.
A product in warehouse or factory automation does not act alone, it needs to accommodate the changing nature of demand and SKUs. Tasks like scheduling or prioritising ultimately determine the throughput of any system, which is controlled by the software. Our modular nature of software allows easy customisation and addition of new features as per business requirements, which is not possible with other players.
Q. What types of conventional automation solutions do you offer and what percentage of your revenue comes from these?
A. In the current context, intra-logistics automation predominantly belongs to conventional automation systems, which are generally known as fixed automation systems. It includes automation which is fixed in nature and carries out repetitive, fixed processes to reach high-volume production and storage goals. It can operate at predefined throughput numbers, and enhancing throughput means building new infrastructure. But with our deep technical insights and capabilities, we can provide enhanced efficiency in the existing space. We offer solutions such as shuttle based ASRS for pallet and carton movements, crane based ASRS, smart conveyors, and other semi-automated picking technologies which support the conventional automation system. Today, more than 50% of our revenue comes from solutions focused on conventional or fixed automation.
Q. What types of robots are you manufacturing at Bot-Valley right now? What is your manufacturing capacity?
A. Right now, we are producing mobile robots. These robots can be used to transport different materials from one location to another. There are three different families of mobile robots that we manufacture.
One is Dynamo, which caters to the 50kg to 1,500kg payload. I call them equivalent to self-driving cars as these come featuring the same kind of sensors and software you will find in self-driving cars. These are almost as intelligent as human beings. The second is the Zippy range of robots, which are mostly used in sorting and transportation applications.
These use QR codes pasted on the floor and follow the travel path accordingly. The third is the Veloce range of robots, which are among the most intelligent robots that we have developed at Addverb.
Our manufacturing capability lies in the range of 10,000 to 50,000 robots per year. This varies depending on the kind of robots that we are manufacturing. We will be launching our first range of cobots in the month of June or July this year. The R&D around the same is going on and we have all the joints ready.
Q. What’s the story behind naming the facility Bot-Valley?
A. The name Bot-Valley originates from our customers who visit the facility. Most of these people who visit our new facility in Noida say that the same is not a factory. The team at Addverb also did not want the same to be referred to as a factory and hence came the name Bot-Valley. The fact that we bring robots alive here for the world, and our aim is to put India on the map of robotics manufacturing using this facility, has also contributed to the name. We try to ensure that every article or news about us carries the name Bot-Valley. We are proud of the fact that there exists a Bot-Valley in our own India!