Cobots Are Not Designed To Replace The Human Workforce, But To Take Over Strenuous Tasks


Imagine an organisation, devoid of threat from automation, where humans and robots will complement each other in a work floor and take productivity to the next level. The result, an exponentially profitable business! You must already be imagining of such daydreams coming true? Pradeep David, general manager-South Asia, Universal Robots assures that this is no more a dream. Wondering how? Let’s find out in this exclusive interaction of Network with him…

Q. What is the concept behind collaborative robots (cobots)? How it is different from other robots/automation processes?
A cobot is designed to work together with humans in a same shared physical workspace without the need of protective, cumbersome fencing – a feat that is achieved by the inclusion of external sensory technology in the cobot. Cobots stop when they come in contact with anything in their path of motion, unlike industrial robots, which have been known to injure and even kill humans in extreme cases.

Cobots are light, small, mobile and energy-efficient as well as re-deployable to multiple locations without causing any changes to the production layout. Besides, cobots can be put to work within just minutes of reaching the worksite.

They require very little programming to start work and do not require prior programming expertise for deployment from the cobot operators, unlike traditional robots that can take weeks to set up before they are operational.

Q. How these cobots can help in increasing the productivity of an organisation?
Cobots are increasingly becoming the go-to automation tool for manufacturers seeking to boost productivity. Manufacturers, especially small and medium enterprises (SMEs), are eager to adopt this technology because they can work alongside humans in small-spaced assembly lines without the need of any fencing (subject to application risk assessment).

Cobots are one of the most affordable technologies, giving a return on investment (RoI) within the first few years of work. Unlike traditional robots, cobots can be redeployed time and again for different applications and in different locations due to their easy programming that takes only a few hours.

All the enterprises, big or small, that have deployed cobots are seeing their businesses grow significantly. Their footprint is just 190mm diameter and they can be floor mounted, machine mounted or overhead mounted (supporting clutter-free shop floors) with ease.

Q. Do you think cobots are a good place to start for Indian SMEs in their automation journey?
The approach of human-robot collaboration is particularly appealing to the Indian manufacturing industry, especially Indian SMEs because labor-intensive conditions and cobots together can help Indian market achieve the best of both worlds.

The small footprint, low energy consumption, and easy programming allow SMEs to have the flexibility of automating different production lines at different times for customised batch production. With none of the traditional costs associated with expert robotic programming, set-up and fenced off work areas, the average payback of cobots have, in some cases, be less than six months, but on an average about two years. Many SMEs and MSMEs in India are now looking forward to investing in cobots as they are proving to be an affordable automation solution for them.

Q. Cost is a major factor for SMEs. So is it a challenge for you to convince them to move to automation?
Surprisingly, no! Remember SMEs supply to some of the MNCs and the end-user functions no longer accept variability. End-user wants really good quality and consistent productivity. So there is a lot of pressure on the SMEs from their customers to automate and provide better products. I would say it is not a big challenge to convince them as they are already feeling the pressure from their customers.

Q. Specifically speaking, how can cobots help in electronics manufacturing?
Electronics manufacturing involves a lot of assembly work. Example, if you have to just pick up the PCB and insert it to assemble it into the server of a computer and for testing purposes, then cobots can perfectly do that.

Another example is the inspection process. A PCB has thousands of capacitors and tiny electronic components. So cobots can hold a camera and in a quick snapshot, it can be able to quickly tell whether something is missing or not. This can help in checking the quality of the PCB.

Another aspect is the assembly. All phone manufacturers have a tedious task of applying multiple screws in a phone. So these are applications that a human being does not add much value to. For 6 hours a human being might be good at the job of screwing. But after that will get tired and may not perform the job well. Whereas a robot can consistently do that same job for 8 hours straight.

Q. Do you have any successful deployment in the electronics industry specifically in India?
Yes, we do. Though we don’t reveal the name of customers due to NDA. But we have successfully deployed cobots for one of our customers in connectors assembly in India.

Q. Is there any specific training required to handle cobots on the work floor? Do you handhold your customers?
We had a concern that when we have hi-tech equipment then who’s going to handle it? One of the biggest specialties that we have is the fact that we teach the operator how to handle the robots. So when a company buys one of these, we send a person there and within a few hours, we train them on how to operate the cobots themselves, up to the point of even repairing it. All that we show them in a 2-day training how to handle that.

Any person working with a robot generally becomes a robot programmer and is training the cobot. A robot programmer moves the robot by hand and teaches the robot to repeat his/her motion. So, we do not need a very sophisticated person to handle a robot. We can teach them how to install an app and configure it. So, no specialised training is required to handle it.

Q. Is it a problem in the standardisation regarding the implementation of these cobot solutions or is there no need for standardisation?
No. There are very specific standards. The one I have mentioned is the ISO TS 150666is a global standard which is ratified world over where it governs the safety of a human being working with a robot. And we follow all the standards of ISO TS 15066. Our category of robots is called force limited robots meaning the amount of force it can apply on a human being is limited. So it cannot crush or kill him.

Q. How do you find the Indian market for robotic solutions? Is it different from other countries?
Globally, the robotics market is growing at a CAGR of over 60 per cent and expected to surpass US$ 3 billion by 2022. However, India lags in robot adoption with just three robots per 10,000 employees as compared to the global average of 74, so the installed base is small, but the market potential remains huge.

The approach of human-robot collaboration can be particularly appealing to the Indian manufacturing industry, especially to Indian SMEs because labour-intensive conditions and lack of manual labour can be addressed with cobots, in addition to cost-saving associated with the land. The Indian platform is slowly maturing and recognising their significance with the implementation by MSMEs like Shruti Engineers, SMEW Engineering and MNCs like Carl Zeiss. Bajaj Auto Ltd, Pune, remains Universal Robots’ oldest and largest customer, since 2012, having deployed over 100 cobots.

Q. How do you see the growth of cobot technology in the next 4-5 years?
Cobots are not designed to replace the human workforce, but to take over strenuous tasks. As a result, human employees can use their creativity to turn to more complex projects. The fact that the robot can be used as an extension of the human arm, cobots can be used for dangerous applications, where the human workforce might be at risk. So when robots take over minor assembly tasks, employees can move on to more nuanced assignments that require human ingenuity.

Through the employment of cobots, employees are able to incorporate a personalised touch to the products that feature the unambiguous imprint of creative human involvement, for which there is incidentally a growing demand amongst consumers over all industries. With the advance of technology, customers crave to reconnect with the human side of brands – something enterprises are now able to do as human employees are free from repetitive labour, all thanks to cobots.

Q. Are you the only or are there other players who are offering this technology?
Currently, there are more than 50 players in the field. We still are the number one as we are the oldest and founding member of this field. We have deployed 34000 units around the globe over the years. So now it’s a pretty common technology, but we do have 65 patents filed for the safety of this to operate with a human being.

Q. How has your India business faired?
Universal Robots has grown over the last 10 years exponentially, making the cobot technology accessible to all. It has globally deployed over 34,000 cobots and has 300 partners.

In 2018, Universal Robots’ revenue hit an astounding US$ 234 million. The operation in India commenced in 2016 and has been growing rapidly since then with acceptance at both MNCs and SMEs. Although the customers in India have been served since 2011 by Universal Robots A/S, Denmark.

Q. Regarding business strategy, do you just cater to the clients of your company or to partners or to those looking to expand their business in India?
So we only go to the markets through our partners. 85 – 90 per cent of business is through our partners. Globally we have 300 partners. In India, we have 11 distributors and 4 system integrators. We are always looking out for good partners to take this technology to the market.

Q. What is your strategy to expand business in India?
We continue to invest in channel partners that can provide domain-specific solutions to end-users. We have a strong distribution network pan India and Sri Lanka with over 15 distributors with varying capabilities from vision inspection to machine tending to conveyors.

We are looking to expand our network in India through academia. The Universal Robots Academy is a new online self-training program which provides engaging, hands-on experiences, simulations and interactive robot animations that helps acquire skills to program and operate UR cobot without further assistance and is available 24×7. We also conduct monthly hands-on workshops and webinars across the country.

Q. How much do you expect your target growth to be for India as well as for global businesses?
In India, we expect to grow or double our business every year for the next few years, as we have only recently started in India. We are one of the youngest branches of Universal Robots in the world. We are starting from a very low base. The opportunity is massive in India, so we should be doubling our businesses every year in the foreseeable future.

Q. Is there any impact of the government policy on your business in India?
The government policies have not been very supportive in the sense that there are still import duties on robots in India. That is why there are fewer people using robots in India. In many of the other countries such as Singapore, there is zero duty on the import of these machines. The government support needs to extend so that there is wider adoption of robots in India. Also, the proposed support by the Government for Industry 4.0 initiatives (via tax breaks and rebates), will certainly help SME’s.