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Cobots: Smart, flexible and cost effective solution

Pradeep David, General Manager, South Asia, Universal Robots talks about how cobots are helpful for the SMEs and large companies alike.

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Pradeep David, General Manager, South Asia, Universal Robots, Cobots, Digitalization, Automation, Industry 4.0, Internet of Things, MIT Technology, Bajaj Auto, Mahindra & Mahindra, L'Oréal, Human Robot Collaboration, COVID-19 global pandemic, Electric vehicles

How do you think automation and robotics are helping customers in their efforts of digitalization?
As technology becomes more advanced seemingly every passing day, it has become nearly impossible for enterprises to truly thrive without adopting methods of digitalization. Automation and robotics, in particular, are an integral part of digitalization efforts. More specifically, collaborative robots, or cobots, enable Human Robot Collaboration, which is one of the 26 levers of Industry 4.0 identified by McKinsey & Company. It is a core tenet of enterprises in their march towards the Internet of Things.

As the name implies, the niche technology of collaborative robots enables working alongside the human workforce and sharing a mutual workspace so each may safely handle the tasks they are both suited for. This is a huge shift from traditional industrial robots, which need separate workspaces and are usually fenced off to prevent injury to workers. As devices, cobots are fully compatible with Industry 4.0 design principles. Equipped with powerful onboard computers, they are interoperable and easily able to join the Internet of Things (IoT) in any factory environment. They promote information transparency via their ability to collect data and pass it on to other systems for analysis, modelling and so on. They provide technical assistance, handling tasks that could be physically exhausting or harmful to human workers. They are able to facilitate decentralized decisions – although cobots are normally used more as tools wielded by their operators than as autonomous entities.  In addition, cobots are classic Industry 4.0 products in that they are digital products that continue evolving through software updates and their own programmability.

Cobots are also simple to program, even for first-time robot users, and can be flexibly redeployed across the shopfloor for different applications. Thus, they operate more as tools or as a ‘’third arm’’ to workers, rather than bulky, immovable machinery like their traditional robot predecessors. This makes it easy for manufacturers of all business sizes to use cobots as an easy-to-integrate automation solution. In addition to the above benefits, a study conducted by MIT Technology Review observed a BMW plant in the USA and found that the Human Robot Collaboration enabled by cobots led to an 85% reduction in the idle time of workers when they collaborate with robots.

In India, most major manufacturers across industries are already using cobots. In the automotive industry, Bajaj Auto has over 150 cobots deployed across their assembly lines for applications such as bolt-tightening and machine tending. Mahindra & Mahindra is another avid cobot user in the automotive sector. In the FMCG sector, multinational players such as L'Oréal have completely eradicated ergonomic risks by using cobots for automated palletizing. Indian SMEs and even MSMEs across industries have also been able to adopt cobots for various applications, including packaging, spray-painting, and quality inspection.

Infusing a culture of automation and digitalisation through Human Robot Collaboration, thus, will definitely ensure Indian manufacturers are able to quickly compete on a global scale.

How does better connectivity can help manufacturers to keep up with their global operations?
The rise of Industry 4.0 has led to a major shift across the industries, making them understand the significance and the need to streamline the operations of the manufacturing industry and digitalising the sector while maintaining smart connectivity. Integrating Information Technology (IT) and Operations Technology (OT) to form a network will only make the sector more flexible, allowing manufacturers to keep a constant tab on their operations and adapting as per the customer requirements. The availability of real-time dashboards of performance as an aid to the manufacturing plants and factories will create a two-way information exchange of critical KPI’s, strengthening the connectivity while allowing them to keep up with their global operations.


As an automation solution provider, how do you help SMEs in improving their agility towards bringing new products?
Beyond their innate Industry 4.0 compatibility, cobots have played a major role in enabling companies that might not have been able to afford industrial robots to start automating their processes. Because they are versatile, easy to program, small, lightweight and affordable, cobots are being deployed at SMEs, to retrofit older factories belonging to companies that might not be in a position to build a turnkey Industry 4.0 facility, and at companies of all sizes in developing countries. These same qualities – versatility, user-friendliness, small footprint and affordability – also make cobots eminently suitable for deployment in processes that were not previously automated. By “democratizing” robotic automation in this way, cobots help companies everywhere join the latest wave of automation.

New Engineering Works, a Jamshedpur-based SME, experienced a perpetual increase in demand for hydraulic, pneumatic, and engine components for commercial vehicles and realised the need to automate repetitive production tasks. The company, however, did not have the large amount of space required to deploy traditional caged robots while also ensuring safety on the shop floor. They found their solution in collaborative robots, using six cobots for CNC machine tending, with a seventh cobot used to spray anti-rust oil on components.

New Engineering’s cobots are seen working side-by-side with humans on the shop floor, facilitating safe and efficient production. New Engineering Works has seen a 40% growth in production since the deployment of cobots in the manufacturing plant. The manufacturer is now able to run 24x7, thanks to cobots enabling a third 8-hour shift, thereby increasing the productivity of New Engineering Works. This instance gives hope to many other MSMEs and SMEs that are looking forward to increasing their agility and bringing new products in the market and increasing their productivity.

Cobots are the most flexible tool available to manufacturers to enable them to quickly reconfigure their operations for new products and processes.  The inherent advantages of a low footprint, ease of deployment and re-programmability for small batch production runs are what makes cobots appealing to them.

Start-up is a new game. They come from different mindset and aspirations are high, at the same time, they need cost-effective solutions. How do you join hands with them?
Start-ups are a building block of our country – just take the location of our South Asia headquarters, Bangalore, which is the country’s start-up capital!

As stated earlier, cobots ‘’democratize’’ automation by allowing manufacturers of all sizes to automate applications they may not have been able to originally, thanks to their flexibility, ease of use, and low footprints.

Start-ups are particularly vulnerable to changes in market conditions, and the ability to adapt their operations to these changes quickly is critical.  Cobots are essentially sophisticated tools that enable such changes to be realized. Taking under consideration the fact that cobots require low foot-print and are easily programmed, start-ups can utilise them as the ultimate tool in the toolbox.

More and more companies are introducing cobots as the flexibility they get through Human Robot Collaboration is far more successful than with a single-purpose Industrial robot or human workforce synergy. Cobots are also very popular amongst startups and R&D centres as they allow for a multitude of experiments, thanks to their versatility and flexible redeployment.

Cobots are thus, used by MNCs and startups alike, and has proven to be one of the best investments that an organization can make to skyrocket production, efficiency, and quality –  all while enabling otherwise small players to use a future-forward technology that allows them to stay competitive in a global marketplace.

Earlier automotive was known to be the biggest and earliest adopter of advanced solutions. Since a year or, so auto has been going through challenging times. What impact do you see on your business because of the slump in the auto industry? On the other hands, has electric vehicles opened new avenues?

We might have a different opinion as we did not observe any slump in the sector in past one year or more; rather the automotive industry in India was known to be the fourth largest in the world as stated by a report of December 2019 by India Brand Equity Foundation (IBEF) and was anticipated to grow at a CAGR of 3.05 % from 2016-26. The sector was being immensely encouraged by the government and other professional players contributing to the automotive industry to further make India a leader in the two-wheeler and four-wheeler market in the world by the end of 2020. The upward spiral of the automotive sector was reflecting the purchasing power of the people of the country, which had been steadily growing.

Of course, with the onset of the current COVID-19 global pandemic, the landscape of businesses across the world has rapidly changed, including that of the automotive industry. The current health crisis has definitely shaken people and made them rethink their preferences. Post lockdown, everyone is going to try and opt for wiser steps to prevent themselves from this highly contagious virus. After all, what would one rather use after the lockdown is lifted to stay safe while traveling –  public transport and app-based cabs, or the safety of a personal vehicle? Even though there may be a resurgence in demand for private vehicles despite the current downturn, it'll eventually turn the tide. It is anticipated that electronic vehicles (EVs) will change the equation substantially once the teething issues of ubiquitous charging stations are resolved.

Which other industries are open to investment and adopt new technologies currently?
One of the greatest strengths of cobots is their versatility, which allow virtually every sector to deploy them in an array of uses. While we have always seen high demand from the Automotive sector, we are now seeing increasing demand from Electronics and FMCG. Because of their ability to enable innovative applications, cobots are also increasingly used by R&D and innovation centers. A large number of educational institutes are investing in cobots as well, as the niche technology allows for students to have first-hand insight into robotics and carry out projects on cobots.

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