Will robots become the new normal in post-Covid India?

Annapurani V Chennai | Updated on May 22, 2020

Start-ups making them see surge in demand; supply-chain challenges due to lockdown remain

As workplaces slowly reopen amid steps to contain the spread of Covid-19, start-ups that build robots are seeing a surge in demand for robots — for various purposes, ranging from disinfecting office spaces to automating warehouse tasks to engaging with customers.

Balaji Viswanathan, CEO of Invento Robotics, a Bengaluru-based start-up that builds service robots, said the company is building 50 UV-based disinfectant and customer engagement (a conversational robot that understands the context and engages with people) robots currently, for sectors such as retail and hospitality, and also for office spaces. The company is looking at building 250 more of them in the next three months.

Viswanathan also said the company is now getting into a much more standardised process for mass production, so the time taken to build a robot is much less. “The first robot took us like four months to build; the current robot takes about three days,” he said, adding, “Economies of scale are slowly coming into this industry.”

Big increase in order book

Amit Kumar, co-founder, Addverb Technologies, another robotics company that provides automation solutions, said the company is currently building 10 disinfectant robots for corporate spaces. The company sees huge demand in warehouse automation, in airports and in all large factories where there is requirement for a lot of labour.

“We are seeing a 100 per cent increase in our order book,” said Rajesh Manpat, CEO of iFuture Robotics, a start-up that builds robots for logistics. The company has supplied over 10 robots so far, for e-commerce and retail sectors, which are used to pick up and sort packages based on pin codes and help with last-mile delivery. He added that 30 more robots are under production for e-commerce, retail and manufacturing companies to help with storage and retrieval of inventory.

With social distancing becoming the new norm, with businesses slowing down and companies looking at cutting costs, robots might just as well become the most cost-effective solution in the current situation. Given fears that the virus may not go away any time soon, experts said that the demand for these robots will only go up further in the post-Covid world.

Meeting customer expectations

While industries are opening up to technology and to increasing use of robots and automation, managing the supply chain to get them built continues to be a challenge. If a robot needs 250 components and 249 are available, even if one critical component is stuck, it becomes difficult, said Invento’s Viswanathan.

Addverb’s Kumar said that although the situation for raw material availability has improved, it is not back to normal yet. For an industry to open up completely and be fully functional, all vendors need to be available, but right now only a few of them are, he added.

Managing customer expectations is another challenge, said Viswanathan, pointing out that “People cannot expect that a robot is going to be better than a human in all aspects. It can be better in a few aspects.”

The level of expectations some people have with humanoids and robots in India is disconnected from what the state-of-the-art in technology is. In the US, customers are much more used to automation and robotics. Their expectations are more grounded, he said.

Shortage of labour is another common hiccup. iFuture’s Manpat said many employees of the company had headed to their hometowns before the lockdown and are hence not able to report back to work. New employees are not keen to venture out until the government lifts the lockdown and they are confident that it is safe enough to step out for work.

Published on May 20, 2020

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