An IFR report states that a new record high of 381,000 collaborative robot (cobot) units were shipped globally in 2017, which is a 114 percent growth in the period 2013–2017. In sync with this global trend of the rapidly rising use of robotic process automation (RPA), even the small and medium scale enterprises (MSME) sector in India is witnessing a steadily increasing penetration of robotics.
The layperson thinks of a robot as a mechanical humanoid creature which may or may not be intelligent, but from the perspective of process automation, robotics comprise mechanical non-intelligent arms and bots that perform repetitive tasks, and intelligent bots such as chatbots that are powered by artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) and can chat with visitors to regular or e-commerce websites in a conversational manner.
Globally, cobot-enabled automation has become the norm in sectors such as automotive, electrical, rubber and plastic, metal and machinery, and food and beverage. By 2020 almost 67 per cent of all work in factories will be done by cobots globally, according to IDC. Thanks to the increasing simplicity, ease of use and installation, mobility and low-cost, IFR estimates that India will have 6000 industrial robots by 2020, a 128 per cent growth.
A case in point is Changing Precision Technology Company. The cell phone manufacturing company in China has replaced 90 per cent of its human workforce with robots and that resulted in a 250 per cent rise in productivity and 80 per cent drop in manufacturing defects. Currently, the factory has 60 robot arms—which is equal to the number of human employees—that work round the clock on 10 production lines.
The robotic-automation trend reached Indian shores almost a decade ago when Bajaj Auto Ltd. started using cobots to work their assembly lines in 2010. Madurai based Aurolab, an SME which manufactures eye-care products—such as lenses, surgical sutures, and cataract kits—have incorporated cobots in their manufacturing process of intraocular lenses and for material handling, pick-up and placement of instruments, which has resulted in a 15 per cent growth in output and the company now manufactures over 2 million intraocular lenses every year.
Cobots can be used in not just the manufacturing sector but also in people-centric ones such as restaurants and malls. Chennai-based SP Robotic Works has manufactured and deployed a robot, dubbed EA BOT, at Express Avenue Mall at Chennai for handling customer enquiries, informing customers about sales and special offers, and telling them the way to reach the stores they want to visit. The company has also deployed a robot that serves customers at the Toscano’s Pizzeria in Bengaluru.
Whether it is large-, small-, or medium-size enterprises, processes with robotic automation have grabbed the attention of the corporate world. Business owners and CXOs believe that RPA offers small-scale business owners an opportunity to make their businesses more productive and hence, more profitable. According to Murli Mohan, Vice President, India Domestic Business at UiPath, “RPA is essential for a small business to support growth. One of the advantages with a small business is that there is less bureaucracy and therefore the processes are simpler and easier to automate.”
When it comes to automation, SMEs want flexible, lightweight and scalable systems, which RPAs are. One small-size customer of UiPath is an accounting services provider. The company uses RPA to automate a back-office process that processes 50 transactions every day, each transaction takes 10 minutes, on average. The UiPath’s RPA increased the efficiency of the process by reducing manual efforts by 5 per cent and processing time by 85 per cent, with zero errors.
RPA Gives MSMEs the Much-Needed Competitive Edge
Parvinder Baweja, Founder at KeyVendors says that Robotics has brought a tremendous change in the way business is done. He says that “We all know that “Automation” is the most discuss key term these days. You may not believe, but robotics has changed small business completely. You can easily find friendly robots engaged in making pizza, burgers, and coffee.”
The Indian MSME sector is a fast-developing and highly competitive market and in order to gain an edge over competitors, enterprises have started automating in a major way. Chatbots has started handling customer queries in most e-commerce websites and intelligent bots are being used in companies’ recruitment processes where they screen resumes and schedule interviews.
According to Sneha Priya, Co-Founder and CEO at SP Robotic Works, mechanical robots are, currently,only being used mostly by the big players in the manufacturing sector in India mostly because MSMEs find manual labour cheaper than deploying robotics, but, she continues, “The trend, however, is slowly going towards deploying hardware robots in every industry since the output quality is high, management requirement is low and more—which are valued more than just ROI.”
The benefits of implementing RPA into MSME operations include:
- reduced costs;
- better customer experience;
- lower operational risk;
- improved manufacturing processes; and,
- the integrability of cobots into existing systems and processes.
Albeit India still lags behind China, Republic of Korea, the US and Germany in robot density, the installation of cobots in the country rose by 30 per cent to a new peak of about 3,400 units in 2017, fifth year in a row. Industrial robots play a critical role in the progress of the manufacturing sector says Junji Tsuda, President, IFR. According to him, “Robots evolve with many cutting-edge technologies. They are vision recognition, skill learning, failure prediction utilizing AI, new concept of man-machine-collaboration plus easy programming and so on. They will help improve productivity of manufacturing and expand the field of robot application. The IFR outlook shows that in 2021 the annual number of robots supplied to factories around the world will reach about 630,000 units.”
In June 2017, Tata unveiled its indigenous cobot, dubbed TAL Brabo. According to RS Thakur, Non-Executive Director and Chairman at TAL Manufacturing Solutions Ltd, “India is a growing market for technology and innovation with a conducive atmosphere for development of automation. Robotics and Automation can revolutionise the industrial scenario and change the way various functions are performed across industries. This innovative product will automate the tedious welding process. Robotic technology is in the nascent stage in India and we aim to create awareness through such innovative product offerings.” Given the versatility of Brabo, we think that a majority of the 51 million SMEs in India are potential customers of Tata’s cobot.
Denmark based Universal robots is also one of the leading manufacturer of collaborative and industrial robots. Universal robots has sold more than 25,000 collaborative robots which are used in several thousand assembly lines every day around the world making life easy. In India, some of the best brands like Bajaj Auto, Aurolab, Alpha Corporation, Betacom are using its solutions to automate manufacturing processes like assembly, welding, packaging and lot more.
IFR statistics show that 85 cobot units per 10,000 employees is the current global average robot density in the manufacturing industries, up from 75 in 2016. Going by regions, this number is:
- 106 in Europe;
- 91 in the Americas; and,
- 75 in Asia.
For India, this number is a dismal three and it needs to be raised if the manufacturing sector in the country needs to evolve and progress. Priya says that, “Definitely! Robots are known to be relentless in deliveries with quality and forget about time for work. Small businesses need relentless workers to deliver more than their pay grade with the quality of an extreme specialist—robots are the perfect option for these kind of work outputs. Moreover, a place which deploys trendy, and next gen tech to deliver outputs is a better option for a customer—even prices can be on the higher side.”
Are Cobots a Financially Viable option for Indian SMEs
Yes, according to industrial stalwarts. Ved Prakash Nirbhya, CIO at Tech Mahindra, has this to say about the financial viability of cobots in India: “Small businesses today are adopting it really fast as RPA is cost effective and gives higher productivity in less time. Soon there will be more machines working in manufacturing sectors than humans.”
Priya is on the same page with Nirbhya when she says that “With clear visible ROI (even if it’s for a longer period), robots should be considered a worthy investment for any business. Increase in quality, volume of output, and relentless happy working are benefits that will add value to any business.”
Which RPA is the Right One
Mohan says that choosing RPA solutions depends upon the nature of the business. “First, identify the processes that require repetitive steps. They are the best candidates for RPA. You may prioritize whether you should automate customer-facing processes or backend processes first. RPA is perfect for handling the daily, repetitive tasks that keep a business running, such as invoice filing, payroll, and data management,” he advises.
He continues that there is no point in employing armies of workers if one is a small business starting out with RPA. A good starting point is robotic desktop automation (RDA), which replicates human action and mimics the steps a human would take to complete a process. RDA happens with human intervention and is therefore also called “attended automation”. Small businesses are better positioned to make RDA work for a small business.
Will Cobots Negatively Impact India’s Employment Rate?
Research conducted by Professor Sunil Mani at the Centre for Development Studies states that robots deployment in Indian companies has ascended 200 folds and yet the number of industrial robots in 2016 which were 16,026 accounts only for 0.1 per cent of Indian jobs.
Computers entered the scene came up around two decades ago and replaced many jobs, but it also created many new jobs that eventually turned India into a global IT hub.
“This is exactly what Robotics and Automation would also do – though it looks like its replacing many jobs (which are merely repetitive manual labour), it is also creating a whole new set of jobs – Data Analytics, Machine Learning and AI engineers, IOT, VR and more.. It is our responsibility to get skilled in the latest sectors and meet the industry standards – for the betterment of ourselves and the nation,” says Priya.
We are in the midst of a digital transformation and RPA is a great accelerator for digital transformation. RPA is also the gateway to many advanced technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). Most importantly, investing in RPA can make a small business more competitive with larger players in the field by being able to do more with the resources they have.
Just as this article was about to be published, news about the launch of a female robot–dubbed Smart Mitri–broke and we thought it deserved a mention. The robot is a visitor concierge at the newly established coworking facility in Bengaluru called smartworks. Designed and developed by Invento Robotics, the smart Mitri is a fine case of how futuristic workplaces will be. It is built to handle office management along with receiving and assisting guests to the facility. The innovative technology incorporated into the robot illustrates how humans will work collaboratively with robots in the future.