Science & Technology

Robots are here, almost

The use of industrial robots is growing at an unprecedented rate in India. Are blue-collar jobs under threat?

By Akshit Sangomla
Published: Tuesday 12 March 2019
The sale of industrial robots in India reached a record high of 3,412 units in 2017. Representational Photo: Getty Images

When Ramesh Negi started working as a technician at an automotive parts manufacturing unit in Faridabad in 2014, he had no idea he could lose the job to a machine. Belonging to a poor family in Utta rakhand, he had come to his relatives in the Haryana city in search of a job after completing his class X and almost immediately found one. But in March 2016, the owner of the work- shop bought a computer-numerical-control (CNC) machine for Rs 7 lakh and fired Negi along with three others.

CNC machine is categorised as an industrial robot and the use of such machines is rapidly increasing in India. The International Federation of Robotics (IFR), a Germany-based non-profit with members from over 20 countries, defines industrial robot as “an automatically controlled, reprogrammable, and multipurpose machine”. A January 2019 report of IFR says that the sale of industrial robots in India reached a record high of 3,412 units in 2017, up 30 per cent from 2,627 units sold in 2016. “Even this data could be an underestimation if IFR only took account of the sales of multinational companies that have set units in India, such as ABB and Gudel, and not the sales of local robot manufacturers that are buying spare parts and assembling robots,” says Santosh Hulawale, an independent robot maker based in Mumbai. The sales of Pune-based Mahajan Automation, for instance, have risen significantly, say its officials, but refuse to reveal by how much. So what has triggered this automation and what are the implications?

According to a 2017-18 report of the Union Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises, there are about 4,000 big industries in the country, employing over 4 million people. Traditionally, big industries have been the primary users of industrial robots because only they could afford them. But a gradual fall in prices since 2014-15 has made robots affordable to even micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs)—a government categorisation of units with an annual turnover of under Rs 250 crore. There are over 19.7 million MSMEs in the manufacturing sector in India, employing 36 million people.

The fall in prices took place because companies started assembling robots in India. This became possible after the government waived import duties on electronic parts that can be used to build robots in July 2014. “Local assemblage reduced the cost of an industrial robot that can pick and place payloads of up to 6 kg from Rs 50 lakh in 2014 to Rs 25 lakh today,” says Hulawale. This boosted their sales. “Our smallest customer is a company with a turnover of only Rs 4 crore, which makes it a micro enterprise,” says Naresh Kantoor, managing director of Gurugram-based robot manufacturer Encon Systems International (see ‘If humans, robots work...’).

The use of industrial robots will increase further with improvements in technology. “More warehouse and packaging industries are using robots with six degrees of freedom (robots that can move in six directions—up, down, right, left, forward, backward),” says Akash Gupta, co-founder of Gurugram-based robotics company GreyOrange. “The use of servo motors, a generic motor used to make motions of robots smooth and human-like, is also increasing. Many such motors are used in a single robot,” says Hulawale. “Currently, most servo motors are produced and supplied by companies from developed countries like Japan’s Panasonic, Yaskawa and Mitsubishi, and Lenze and Bosch Rexroth based in Europe. But now two-three companies in India have also started making them which will bring their cost down substantially,” Hulawale adds.

Job loss imminent?

Does this mean that blue-collar jobs are under threat in India? There have been a few cases recently that suggest so. In 2017, a Tata plant in Pune employed 100 robots to cut 20 per cent of its labour force and the move increased the unit’s productivity by 250 per cent, says a paper by Sunil Mani, professor of economics at the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. A study by Oxford Martin School, a research and policy unit based in the Social Sciences Division of the University of Oxford, published in 2017, also estimates that 69 per cent jobs in India are at a risk of automation which includes industrial robots.

However, Mani says its difficult to say that automation will necessarily lead to job loss. “To accurately predict how the manufacturing sector in India will get affected by industrial robots, one needs to look at the tasks within jobs that robots can take over from human beings rather than looking at entire jobs. The Oxford Martin study takes into account entire occupations leading to an overestimation,” he says, but refuses to give a job loss estimate of his own. “What is clear is that when artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies become commonplace and robots become more dextrous, with greater decision making abilities, more human tasks would be performed by industrial robots,” Mani adds.  

Naresh Kantoor, managing director
`If humans, robots work together productivity will be higher'
Naresh Kantoor, managing director of Gurugram-based Encon Systems International, a firm that assembles industrial robots, says these machines do not pose a threat to jobs

What all can industrial robots do?

These robots can perform a variety of functions such as pick-and- place, welding, palletising and machine tending.

What type of industries buy them?

Big industries have been buying them for quite some time. In the last two yers, smaller industries are buying them. Our smallest customer is a company with a turnover of only Rs 4 crore, which makes it a micro enterprise.

Is there a threshold for a company in terms of turnover, capital or type of work, to use industrial robots?

There is no relation between turnover and robots. Micro, small, medium and big industries are all buying them. The main reason industries buy robots is their consistency in quality and higher throughput.

Are industrial robots financially viable for all industries?

Only giving the price of robots isn't enough because each of them requires quite a few accessories, like platform, mounting arrangement, safety enclosure and other control systems. Typically, a robotic project costs between Rs 12 lakh and Rs 30 lakh, depending upon application. And the financial viability depends upon the application and the type of results that they give you in terms of benefits. Generally speaking, they start giving returns from six months to three years.

In which sectors are robots mostly used and in which sectors will they be used in future?

At the moment automotive and automotive components are the major sectors buying industrial robots. But now there is also increased scope in sectors such as food, pharmaceuticals, FMCG and electronics.

What kind of jobs are at risk?

Industrial robots are not a risk to jobs. They are only means to increase production. The only thing that needs to be done is up-skilling of workers. Today, people who are trained to handle conventional machines have to be taught to handle industrial robots and retained in industries. If humans and robots will work alongside, productivity will be higher.

Will industrial robots lead to new kind of jobs for humans?

The new jobs that'll be created are robot operators, robot programmers, robot maintenance engineer and technicians. We have trained conventional machine workers to work with robots in as less as a week. But some applications might take much longer.

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