A decade ago, when Universal Robots of Denmark brought in robots that work alongside human beings (collaborative robots or cobots), it was a major step in making manufacturing easy. Typically, robots are big and have to be caged to avoid a worker getting beaned by a moving arm. Cobots, on the other hand, can be just another worker on the shop floor. Cobots became popular in countries with low population, labour shortage and high labour costs. So, designs were not driven by a need for affordability or frugality but more by ease of deployment and use.

However, the costs did matter in the developing markets, where availability of cheap labour was a non-issue. As such, cobots have been a bit beyond the reach of micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs).

Now, there is growing evidence that things are changing. Simple innovations are bringing costs down. Even a couple of years ago, Universal Robots was selling in India for ₹15-20 lakh; now, there are cobots available for around ₹8 lakh. A British start-up, called Automata, has unveiled a small cobot that costs under ₹5 lakh.

What has caused this drop in costs?

The first answer is ‘China’.

The global cobot market is growing at a dizzy rate of around 50 per cent annually; what was $567 million in 2018 and a shade under a billion dollars in 2021 (according to marketwatch.com) is estimated to grow to $15 billion by 2026 — beating the earlier estimates of $5.6 billion by 2027, by Robotics Business Review. This even while cobots are employed mainly in manufacturing alone; but there is evidence that the machines are moving into the service sector, such as restaurants. As such, the market will only grow bigger.

China has moved into this market at a brisk pace; industry insiders say that the Chinese government is subsidising manufacturers to help sell cheaper. With scale, costs come down.

Besides the China factor, the coming together of a number of innovations in cobot technology is breaking the affordability barrier.

In a chat with Quantum, Jagannath Raju, Founder and CTO, Systemantics India Pvt Ltd, a Bengaluru-based cobot manufacturer, points to one factor which is driving down costs — a critical component called ‘harmonic drive speed reducer’ (a gearbox) going out of patent. “It went out of patent in 2020; with a multitude of suppliers, most of them out of China, the cost of this product has dropped dramatically,” says Raju. This gearbox is the highest cost component, used in every joint of the cobot — so, if a cobot has six joints, for example, you’d need six gearboxes.

Raju observes that the previous generation of robots had to use digital signal processors based on high-end proprietary controllers that were quite costly (₹30,000 to ₹1 lakh), but now the market offers “industrial-grade single-board computing modules (such as Raspberry Pi)“, which cost around ₹5,000, and can do as good a job, if not better than the digital signal processors.

Also, the cost of other computing hardware (from companies such as NVIDIA) used in cobots is declining. “Lower cost and robust high-resolution magnetic rotary encoders are replacing costlier and fragile optical encoders of lower resolution,” says Raju. Furthermore, there have been innovations in sub-assemblies that do away with the features in the off-the-shelf modules that are paid for but never used.

Systemantics has also made the operation of cobots easier by letting the user work with an Android tab — against needing a programmer for the job.

Next steps

Aside from lowering costs, efforts are on to bestow higher capabilities on cobots. One effort involves giving them cognitive abilities — to see and recognise objects. Typical cobots do pick-and-place functions. Can a cobot identify and pick a particular item from a clutter of objects? A Bengaluru-based start-up, CynLr, is ready with this technology. It says: “Instead of high volumes of low-dimensionality information [millions of XY-RGB (2D-colour) or XYZ(3D) images] for training, our visual processing system constructs more than 7 dimensions of information, closely mimicking the human visual cortex. This enables cognition of objects.”

Muniyandi Manivannan, Professor, Touch Lab, Biomedical Engineering Group, Department of Applied Mechanics, IIT Madras, has developed robotic arms that a user can deploy for delicate operations, such as surgeries, and get haptic feedback.

Therefore, cobots are set to get cheaper and smarter.

The question is, can India become a manufacturer of cobots. Especially since the Indian market is expected to grow exponentially, with the machines coming within the reach of MSMEs.

Here the picture is not so rosy. India does not produce many of the components used in cobots. Without access and control of the supply chain for these components it is difficult to compete with global companies, says Raju.

However, this can change with government support (such as grants for design and development). After all, cobots enhance productivity, and hence are good for the economy as a whole.