The Robot Revolution Is On Its Way

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industrial robotRobots are slowly but surely taking over all the mundane and repetitive tasks in manufacturing units all over the world. In India, a record 4771 industrial robots were sold in 2018. Businesses that want to stay competitive will need to invest in these machines sooner than later. But that does come with its share of challenges.

By Nijhum Rudra

A robot is a programmable machine that interacts with the world physically and has the potential of performing intricate sets of tasks autonomously or semi-autonomously. For the past couple of years, the demand for robotics has escalated across various industrial and hospitality sectors including hospitals. Robotics has improved a lot, mainly due to falling sensor prices, the rise of open source software, rapid prototyping and convergence of different technologies.

The colossal demand for mobile computing has also proved to be a huge boon for the development of robots and cobots (collaborative robots). This has led to a fall in pricing, and swift advances in the development of sensor technology.

Previously, accelerometers used to cost hundreds of dollars each – but now these are replaced by smartphones that have become minicomputers. These phones can now measure acceleration, record exceptional high-quality video, interface with other devices, and most importantly, transmit across several bands of the spectrum.

The popularity of IoT devices is another key factor for the increase in the acceptance and growth of robotics. According to various experts, there will be approximately 100 billion IoT-connected devices that will help generate a revenue of US$ 10 trillion by the end of 2025.
The falling prices of sensors that collect and send data is also helping the development of robotics. Earlier, for self-guiding robots, infrared and lidar sensors were very expensive, but now their prices have reduced by almost 90 per cent, due to the development of tech for self-driving cars by Google’s Waymo and others. 3D cameras, which also used to be very expensive, are now accessible to everyone.

Figure 1: Annual installations of industrial robots 2013-2018 and 2019*-2022* (Source: World Robotics 2019)

The overall development of robotics has made it popular all across the manufacturing sector. Various statistics reveal that this popularity will rise in the years to come. One of the leading international business research firms, the Freedonia Group, has speculated that the worldwide escalation in robot population will be around 11 per cent each year over the next three years. In the US, robotics has a growth rate of 15 per cent per year, which is just two per cent less than China’s forecasted growth of robotics.

The huge improvement in technology in the past 10 years has helped enhance the growth of robotics, while companies are continuously inventing innovative software, features and so on. While service robots helped the initial growth of this industry, it is predicted that industrial robots will be responsible for the future growth of these machines. Currently, robots are mainly used in material handling, assembling, and welding applications. According to a survey report from McKinsey & Company that was published last year, the industrial robotics market experienced sale of 381,000 units in 2017 and currently has an installed base of about 2.1 million units worldwide. The market for industrial robots has been growing at a record rate of around 19 per cent per annum since 2012-13, and is expected to continue double-digit growth at least through to 2021.

Figure 2: Annual installations of industrial robots—15 largest markets in 2018 (Source: World Robotics 2019)

Highlighting the development, growth and usefulness of robotics, Balaji Viswanathan, the founder CEO of Invento Robotics, says, “Robots as an idea has existed for long, right since the time of Leonardo Da Vinci. They are primarily used to carry out dull, dirty and dangerous jobs. In large auto warehouses, robots now run most operations that don’t need much light, reducing costs. Right now, a virtual assistant enabled chatbot is also a kind of robot that solves various queries online.”

Experts speak about the challenges of using robots

Niels Ole Sinkbæk Sørensen, country manager, South Asia, Southeast Asia & Oceania, OnRobot
Historically, two of the biggest barriers in automation and robotics adoption have been cost and time constraints associated with the production setup. Traditionally, setup is done by a team of robotics experts adept in programming languages and advanced engineering. The rise in collaborative applications has made robots easily deployable without the need for companies to have large and complex engineering departments. They offer a fast, easy and affordable alternative to bulky traditional industrial robots.
Intelligent robotic tooling comes with in-built features that are easily programmable, enabling faster setup. These solutions are making automation more inclusive, enabling collaborative applications to meet modern automation needs.

Sangeet Kumar, CEO and founder, Addverb
The disadvantage is that mobile professional service robotics works on batteries, and power often restricts its accomplishments. Also, running on-the-go machine learning algorithms using traditional chips such as GPUs (that use hundreds or even thousands of watts) leads to a battery capacity limitation.
Maintaining strong and reliable connectivity in professional robotics is often difficult. And using 4G network connectivity or inexpensive Wi-Fi systems in robotics does not guarantee quality of service, and constrains quick reactions. Edge AI chips can improve the robotics performance and power consumption, as these chips are designed to draw much lesser power than GPU chips.
Advanced 5G technology can also help in solving connectivity problems as it gives a reliability rate of 99.99 per cent. Further, network slicing technology also allocates network performance to different tasks based on their priority, with enhanced reliability. 5G delivers sub-millisecond latencies, which allow much faster reaction times.

Phanindra Karody, head-Bengaluru plant, Continental Automotive India
I would say that the benefits outweigh the challenges. The industry – tier 1 and 2, OEMs and suppliers, large and small—realises the fact that this is not yet another passing tech fad. Everyone is working towards technological transformation.
That said, this change is effort- and capital-intensive. The scale, pace, and levels of automation are different across organisations. To top it all, there is the pressure to ensure that your workforce is skilled and fully equipped to manage the change. There are other aspects too to consider, e.g., making sense of the data we generate and converting it into usable information; yet another aspect is cybersecurity.


Usefulness and growth of robotics in global business

Previously, the interaction between men and machines was very limited and monotonous. But now, with the advancement of technology, interactions have become much more interesting.

Nowadays, robots interact verbally, assisting you in various physical activities, while some even have the ability to protect lives, making them more human-like each day. Various organisations around the world have taken important steps to bring them into their various day-to-day operations.

For example, MIT has unleashed a soft robotic fish, known as SoFi, that can help address the problems of the ocean, and NASA is ready to send an army of robots to Mars. Robotics is also playing a huge role in the automobile industry. Take the instance of the BMW facility at Chennai in India, where massive robotic arms pick up material, helping in the smooth operation of the assembly line.

According to a study by Research Dive, the global collaborative robot (cobot) market is forecast to surpass US$ 8,840.5 million by 2026, at a CAGR of 41.2 per cent. Various industries are increasingly adopting collaborative robots due to advantages such as increased productivity, effective employee utilisation, and improved workplace safety.

Phanindra Karody, head of the Bengaluru plant of Continental Automotive India, says, “Cobots are designed to share the workspace with humans. Repetitive tasks apart, they take over burdening, hazardous, or unergonomic duties, such as assembly, carrying heavy components and stacking. Employing cobots to take over such mundane work translates to minimal or no errors while keeping downtime in check. On the other hand, workers can focus on tasks requiring close attention and maintaining precision in production, quality and testing – thus promoting productivity, quality, efficiency, and sustainability (in terms of cost saving, saving resources, and safety) on the shop floor.”

Sangeet Kumar, CEO and founder, Addverb, says, “Robots and cobots have emerged as a highly preferred choice for businesses. With the onset of COVID-19, robotics and increasing automation have become a strategic priority for global businesses. If implemented correctly, robotics can not only contribute to the smooth running of businesses but can also ease scalability. The technology can ensure consistency so that the same level of quality is achieved from companywide operations.”

Flexibility, agility and productivity are the three key drivers accelerating the adoption of collaborative robots. To provide a customer with the best products in the shortest possible time, supply chains have been quick to adopt robots and cobots on the shopfloor to become more agile and flexible, and also to beef up their productivity.

According to Kumar, “These collaborative robots help in relieving staff from repetitive and mundane tasks, and eliminate the inaccuracies caused due to fatigue and manual errors. Businesses can look for the sweet spots by automating the menial tasks and delegating the more adroit and skilful tasks to humans. These sweet spots can ensure highly scalable and accurate operations. With the improvement in technology and IT infrastructure, the application of robots and cobots can lead to a disruptive improvement and far wider adoption by other businesses.”

A report from the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) suggests that a substantial share of this cobot adoption will be driven by more intelligent components such as smart grippers, plug and play interfaces, and ‘programming by demonstrations’. The last allows direct programming through digital sensors and smart software. For instance, workers can now program a robot by taking the robot arm and hand-guiding it through the various movements.

Niels Ole Sinkbæk Sørensen, country manager – South Asia, Southeast Asia & Oceania regions, OnRobot, says, “Robots offer numerous benefits, including making the production process shorter, increasing productivity, reducing the defect rate and supporting employees, making them more efficient and valuable. Automation is crucial, especially for SMEs who have smaller cash reserves and a more limited customer base, making them vulnerable to disruptions. These companies have new options in automation as collaborative applications offer a fast, easy and affordable alternative to bulky traditional industrial robots. Collaborative robots (cobots) – robots that work safely alongside workers – account for 3 per cent of global robot sales and that share is expected to rise to 34 per cent of a US$ 25 billion market by 2025.”

Growth of the robotics market in India and globally
According to IFR, Asia is the largest market for robotics. Back in 2018, robotics installations in South Korea and China came down, while the market for Japan augmented massively. Overall, the market in Asia grew by 1 per cent. In Europe, the market escalated by 14 per cent, and in the US, it grew by 20 per cent – five per cent more than the previous year. Both Europe and the US have touched peak robotics installations for the past six years in a row.
The new World Robotics Report shows an annual global sales value of US$ 16.5 billion in 2018 – a new record. As many as 422,000 units were shipped globally in 2018 – an increase of six per cent compared to the previous year. IFR predicts an average growth of 12 per cent per year from 2020 to 2022. According to Allied Market Research, the global industrial robotics market size was valued at US$ 37,875 million in 2016, and is projected to reach US$ 70,715 million by 2023, growing at a CAGR of 9.4 per cent from 2017 to 2023.

Statista, on the other hand, claims that the global market for robots is expected to grow at a CAGR of around 26 per cent to reach just under US$ 210 billion by 2025. It is predicted that this market will hit the US$ 100 billion mark in 2020.

Sales of industrial robots in India reached a record 4,771 new units installed in 2018, an increase of 39 per cent compared to the previous year (2017: 3,412 units). India now ranks 11th worldwide in terms of annual installations, claims IFR. The Indian industrial robotics market is estimated to grow at 13.3 per cent CAGR from 2019 to 2024.

Challenges of robotics in manufacturing
Robotics has solved several problems faced in manufacturing processes, including reducing the cost of operations. However, manufacturers do face a few challenges when installing robots in their units.

Training: When robots are installed, employees need to be trained on how to operate them. Also, employees who have the necessary qualifications in handling robotics need to be hired.

Safety measurements: Every form of development comes at some cost, and the same can be said about robotics. Industrial robotics does have several safety hazards, and companies must formulate and implement strict safety practices. Manufacturers will have to take all the necessary precautions before installing robots.

Budget: Industrial robots are associated with a huge upfront cost, though the prices are steadily decreasing. The volume of production and sales will have to remain stable during the ROI timeline to compensate for the initial investment.

Apart from manufacturers, robot makers themselves face a host of tough challenges. Robots were once developed only for manufacturing businesses, but today they are a part of many other kinds of workplaces too.

Their ‘processing-intensive’ activities such as advanced cognition, especially involving humanoid robotics, require complex processing. Robot makers have to continually work on improving these processes, in terms of interaction quality and accuracy.

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