A dipstick sampling of the mood in the manufacturing industries reveals a bent of mind for increased automation, in the post-Covid-19 world. As industry — particularly the MSME segment — grapples with its absent migrant labour and social-distancing imperatives, every manufacturer is considering options to automate his shop floor, with a marked preference for robots.

“This pandemic has strengthened our resolve to continue to invest not only in robotics, but in a whole lot of automation solutions that will make our manufacturing systems less people-dependent and more intelligent,” says Ram Venkataramani, Director at mid-sized auto components manufacturer, India Pistons Ltd.

Not that robots need a virus crisis to market them. Over the last couple of decades, thanks to their declining prices due to massive scale-up in China, robots have been marching into factories. Data from the International Federation of Robotics, an industry body headquartered in Frankfurt, Germany, illustrates this fact. In a recent publication, IFR notes that between 2005 and 2008, the average annual number of industrial robots sold globally was about 1.15 lakh units, but after the financial-crisis induced dip to 60,000 units in 2009, the demand bounced back to grow steadily to 4.22 lakh units in 2018.

Now, here is the nub: at the end of 2018, the world had a robotic stock of 24.4 lakh units. However, Dr. Andreas Bauer, Chairman IFR Industrial Robot Suppliers Committee, expects another 20 lakh units of new industrial robots to be installed in factories around the world between 2020 and 2022 — nearly doubling the robot stock, a datapoint that underscores the invasion of shop floors by robots. The Covid-19 crisis may temporarily impede their growth, but as Venkataramani notes, the crisis may galvanise robots’ adoption. Observing that the key to automation is the cost related of it, Venkataramani told BusinessLine , “the time to do it is now, when the market demand is low.”

Within the segment of ‘industrial robots’, there is a sub-segment that is growing even faster — the collaborative robots, or cobots. Unlike the heavy giants that you see in, say, large car plants, the cobots are small ones, can stand alongside a worker, can be easily moved from place to place and shop floor workers can program them for simple, repeated tasks. These are not necessarily cheaper (though they are likely to become) than conventional industrial robots, but their size and ease of doing business with them make them the darlings of factory managers.

Covid and cobot

Some see the Covid-19 episode pushing cobot sales. As industries resume production with truncated work force, “manufacturers are looking for solutions to ensure that there is no loss of efficiency,” notes Pradeep David, General Manager in-Charge of South Asia at Danish company, Universal Robots, which is the world’s largest cobot manufacturer. Pointing that the bespoke cobots are within reach of the MSME sector, given the machines’ low demand for space and maintenance, he says they “democratise automation”.

Citing an MIT Technology Review study, David told BusinessLine that there is 85 per cent reduction in idle time when humans and robots work together. Universal Robots “definitely expects increasing demand for cobots in India”, especially in pharma and FMCG sectors.

The demand for cobots is global. According to Maya Xiao, a researcher at market research company, Interact Analysis, which provides market intelligence on automation, the demand for cobots grew 31.3 per cent in volume in 2019, after a big boom in the previous year. In 2018, 19,266 cobots were shipped, for $567 million — these numbers were up 68 per cent and 56.6 per cent respectively, over 2017, according to an Interact Analysis study. Electronics and semiconductors and automotive industries are the biggest users today, but more industries are picking up cobots. “With the further development of new application scenarios and breakthrough technologies,” Xiao writes in Robotics Business Review, “the cobot market is projected to reach $5.6 billion in 2027.”

Jan Zhang, Senior Research Director at Interact Analysis, says that because cobots are more flexible and easy to use, “we expect many small and mid-sized companies that have not previously used automation, to consider cobots as a result of Covid-19.” Zhang said that apart from industries such as automotive, metals and electronics, cobots are also very useful in businesses like cafes and restaurants. “We expect that many companies in industry sectors that do not traditionally use automation will be considering employing cobots after Covid-19,” she said in an emailed response to BusinessLine ’s questions.

Zhang expects the current pandemic to weaken demand for automation in 2020, but to accelerate it in following years.

Manufacturing cobots

India has today less than a thousand cobots in operation. Bajaj Auto was one of the earlier adopters of cobots and has a hundred of them at its Chakan plant, doing a variety of jobs from material handling to bolt tightening to welding. Carl Zeiss, L'Oréal and Aurolabs are among the bigger companies that use cobots, but there are a number of MSMEs too – New Engineering Works, Jamshedpur; Shruti Engineers, Pune; and SMEW, Ahmedabad, to name a few.

If the domestic demand for cobots is set to grow, can India manufacture these machines? Yes and no, says Ash Sharma, Managing Director of Interact Analysis. China is the biggest producer — it accounts for a third of the world’s cobot production — and Taiwan is big too. At India’s level of consumption, it wouldn’t make sense to make the hardware here. However, software is a different story.

“Much of the value of a cobot is added at the software stage,” Sharma told BusinessLine . “India’s leading software clusters in cities like Bengaluru, Chennai and Pune will increasingly enter the global industrial automation markets and this will include designing software for cobots,” he said.

In any case, the cobots story in India is not about their manufacture but use. Since they allow partial and gradual automation of a plant, the machines are to be in demand, especially from the MSME sector, which is now armed with an expansive stimulus package by the government.