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ADVANCED AUTOMATION Analysing the approach to advanced technologies during the COVID-19 pandemic

May 11, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has made production operations come to a halt, partly or fully around the world. This ‘first in history of manufacturing’ situation demands for companies to think and act differently and look for new normal best practices. In any case, adjusting operations in real-time needs a new approach to advanced automation and digitalisation. With contributions from Rockwell Automation, NPTC Khargone, Microtek International, Whirlpool India, Avanteum Advisors, Encon Systems, Meenakshi Polymers, SKF India, Sustainable Solutions and DCM Shriram , the Viewpoint seeks to understand the present and future impact of COVID-19 and if advanced automation can help in keeping the productions up and running with distant human monitoring.

COVID-19 has provided strong incentive to move towards smart factory - Ruchi Mathur, Head – Commercial Marketing, Rockwell Automation India

The current situation has a deep impact on key segments of the economy and the manufacturing sector, too, has suffered. The need of the hour is to put in place a comprehensive action plan that addresses the potential impacts, from short-term cash flow concerns to longer term balance sheet adjustments. From the lens of global opportunity, we expect the course of economic recovery in India will be smoother & faster than that of any other advanced countries.

During this time, it is critical that our customers have the support they need, in a way that maximises productivity and minimises risk. Right now, we are helping them with our TechConnect remote support team that remotely coaches and resolves many complex issues via phone. Also, our collaborative remote technologies enable remote engineers to provide guidance to site-based operations staff even when they are not on-site. For companies vulnerable to a viral outbreak within their ranks, a connected enterprise with the ability to scale up the technology adoption across the value chain would be the way forward and should not be delayed any longer by businesses. The after-effects on the industry are impossible to forecast at this point. Although businesses have had reason to embrace digital workflows in the past, COVID-19 has provided another strong incentive to move towards a smart factory. The fastest approach could be to identify immediate use cases and scale up.

Engage in small pilots with in-house talent & build up on it - A K Goswami, Business Unit Head, NTPC Khargone

These are definitely challenging times, and the industry as a whole needs to gear up to be back on track. As far as power sector is concerned, we come under the essential services category and all power engineers are on the job, in service to the nation, in this time of crisis. The best approach to these advanced technologies in the current situation is to engage in small pilots with in-house talent and build up on it. AI, ML and robotics, no doubt, are known to increase productivity and efficiency on the shop floor and can also keep productions on with distant monitoring. However, any distant human operations or monitoring typically undergoes a robust testing process in order to ensure that equipment at the plant or factory end are inherently safe in every situation. Also, it’s a fact that any distant monitoring carries with it a risk of cyber security issues which needs to be addressed to its totality. As far our organisation is concerned, the concept of ‘distant human monitoring’ has already been successfully employed – for example, monitoring of make-up pumps about 45 km from our plant at Omkareshwar. Also, a hydro station has been totally operated from the company headquarters.

Finally, while there’s no denying that Industry 4.0 technologies are promising especially in the manufacturing sector; but it also has potential to bring with it a reduction in workforce in the manufacturing sector, ultimately adding to unemployment. Hence, according to me, it’s a dichotomy. Being socially responsible corporates, we need to adequately find alternate avenues for upskilling and rehabilitate the displaced workforce. But having said this, in power stations and process industries, the focus of digitalisation has been to improve the safety, reliability, efficiency of our maintenance & operations.

Agility and speed are key to transformation - Arun Kapur, President, Business Operations & Strategy, Microtek International

The inherent demand in India is huge and this is triggered by consumers and the whole cycle is interrelated. So, the losses are there, and this situation will take six to seven months to come to a certain level of semblance. There could be capacity losses in some sectors to the tune of 15-20% against annual budget. With the COVID-19 scenario, which has jolted everyone, it is easy to understand that social distancing is manageable if one is automated. It brings in ease to keeping operations up as the machines can run for longer hours as compared to human labour force, and an investment from 20% of the revenue can bring back the ROI in less than two years. There could be more such scenarios in the future, so agility and speed are key to transformation. Now, remote diagnostics, remote data capturing & reporting and agile working, combined with Industry 4.0, dashboarding and IoT systems, can reduce the dependence, enhance the use of vision systems and sensor. This can help reduce the quality defect, bring down the cost and bring more dependable operation. Use of small automation and simple lean techniques, improving layouts that can enhance social distancing and still ensuring improved takt time, will push manufacturing engineers to redraw the layouts that are leaner and more connected. Cobots could come in to be handier during this time. With a VUCA scenario like this, an agile system with Industry 4.0 will give a strong basis to reorganise, reduce the cost and think aggressively on risk management of this magnitude.

Incorporate set-ups where deployment of manpower is optimum - Rajesh K Sharma, Director, Whirlpool India

The COVID-19 pandemic has been unfortunate and at the same time, an eye opener. Businesses do lots of risk analysis & risk predictions, but this event took everyone on the wrong footing. Amidst all the tough time that we are facing, the present situation has given us the belief that we can do things which can be out of the way too; like, who could have imagined automotive plants churning out medical devices? Coming to the point of recovery, I see a quick recovery in the pipeline. Manufacturing leaders, in today’s situation, will have to sharpen their business planning skills to find the right mix of utilisation of their present set-up & plan things best suited for the future. In our case, we will be utilising the concept & leveraging the power of World Class Manufacturing (WCM) to achieve our goals & deliver our results. For AI, ML, robotics, etc, it takes a lot of planning & years to build an environment where one can take advantage of it. The present crisis will result into two things happening in manufacturing set-ups till normalcy returns – optimisation of station density and lots of small measures taken to improve connectivity & visualisation. But for the long-term, strategists will take this learning & incorporate set-ups where deployment of manpower is optimum into their planning. There are industries who have adopted digitalisation in a very good way in their value chain – especially airlines, railways, automotive, medical, etc. One will find most of the process industries highly into it. MSME is one area based on need & affordability, and going forward, they can be taken as a priority by industrial bodies & the government to bring the adoption of Industry 4.0 technologies in a phased manner.

It will be implausible that technology can substitute human - Niju Vijayan, Executive Director, Avanteum Advisors

The present situation is a matter of grave concern for the manufacturing industry as the wheels of operations have come to a standstill. Post May 3, 2020, selective states will continue the lockdown and unfortunately, those with a high economic importance will become a part of this list. This would mean that supply chain disruptions will exact a high price on the manufacturing units in other states. During the next two quarters, CPG, agri, food, pharma and medical device industries are likely to witness a strong recovery. It will be interesting to see how the geographically distributed manufacturers optimise their units to meet the demand. Organisations which were already climbing the technology curve with investments will be the ones that had identified technology infusion areas at least two to three years ago. The shortage of skilled & unskilled manpower will not just accelerate but will also provide the conviction to manufacturers to continue down the technology highway. Theoretically, Industry 4.0 has the potential to run manufacturing units with minimal human intervention. At the same time, we need to be cognizant of the Indian scenario where the I4.0 technologies were being implemented by numerous manufacturers in a phased manner, with key challenges taking precedence. An integrated philosophy covering all functions within the manufacturing enterprise, suppliers and distribution is a long way off. Hence, it will be implausible to consider that technology can substitute human in present day manufacturing in India. Adoption of I4.0 is being done in phases where there is limited advantage to be derived from best practices. Moreover, adjusting operations in real-time calls for many enabling factors and elements, that are currently in a dormant state.

Full recovery will be slow unless companies adopt collaborative automation - Naresh Kantoor, Managing Director, Encon Systems

Now that the lockdown is existing cumulatively for 40 days, recovery and maintaining productions once the factories reopen will be a challenge. The biggest challenge would be maintaining the social distancing norm, which will affect factory floors, as we have a very high density of manual labour placement in the present day factory layouts. These factories were never designed for labour spacing. There will be lots of challenges of space to accommodate automation, and a bigger challenge would be accommodating it in the existing layouts, as the related equipment cannot be relocated easily. Hence, implementing latest technologies to meet existing production rates, if not ramping up, will require 'collaborative automation' so that both, operators and automation can coexist in the same space, which has been vacated by the spacing of labours due to social distancing. Luckily, collaborative systems, which is one of the pillars of Industry 4.0, is easy to implement in such situations and in constrained spaces. Besides, robotics, AI, ML, remote monitoring and IIoT will be of great help. Now, during the lockdown, lots of managers have used remote conferencing, data sharing, etc in a big way as there was no choice. Similarly, Industry 4.0 implementation will give great benefits in remote monitoring of factories. But one has to begin somewhere.

Digitalisation and adoption of Industry 4.0 technologies is not difficult. It is just a matter of reskilling ones existing IT and OT workforce to converge. The start may sound difficult, but it can be done with some external expert help. And simultaneously, reskilling one’s own team can take implementation to higher scales in a cost-effective manner.

A motivated & willing manpower is important along with latest technologies - Saurabh Prakash, Plant Head, Meenakshi Polymers

The present lockdown is effective for almost six weeks now and undoubtedly, has caused a serious loss to the manufacturing industry’s economy. But by the end of this year, things are looking upwards. The manufacturing industry will be recovering faster than the rest of the overall economy. In fact, it will help to pull the overall economy out of the bottom and gradually from the great recession, too. As far as the recovery is concerned, during the initial one-week recovery period, the management and planning department will have to take the following steps – reviewing of the order book, arranging of raw materials, programming for CNC & other M/c jobs, reviewing inspection procedures, reviewing the status of store i.e. consumables like gases and reviewing electric supply & repair work, if required.

The practise of Al, ML, robotics, etc, is good for nations where availability of manpower is less. In our country, there is no shortage of manpower. Industry 4.0 technologies should be adopted for high precision activities like defence, space craft and allied fields. Distance human monitoring practices have been adopted for a long time by Siemens in Germany, where there was shortage of manpower due to wars. Undoubtedly, we are lagging in the field of digitalisation, and the government has started paying attention to our field only recently. As stated earlier, Industry 4.0 technologies have to be deployed for high precision field. Last but not the least, one can bring the hose to the water but can’t compel it to dry out, unless the willingness is there. So, a motivated and willing manpower is one of the most important factors along with the latest technologies.

Resuming work in the old layouts won’t be feasible anymore - Shrikant Savangikar, (Retd) Director, Business Excellence, Quality & Sustainability, SKF India, and MD, Sustainable Solutions

Owing to the unprecedented corona crisis, the world will be divided into pre-COVID and post-COVID periods, and a lot of things will radically change. With the economic activities being stopped almost for six weeks in India, it is difficult to estimate the recovery period for the small and big sectors as of now. With many new procedures on employee health and safety to be adopted in the post-COVID period, it will be a big challenge to follow social distancing, sanitisation and new practices on the shop floor. Hence, resuming work in the old layouts won’t be feasible anymore. A big re-engineering is needed everywhere. My estimate is, it will require two to four quarters to recover from the period of end-of-lockdown and get attuned to new working norms. I am not sure if this is the right time to start new technology pilots and Manufacturing 4.0 projects. ROI for such new technologies will be very challenging to achieve in view of the current losses incurred and the upcoming low demand situations, unless projects are very relevant to the current needs. Opportunities will further exist for technologies which replace physical meetings, physical interactions between supervisors and workmen, remote diagnostics avoiding physical travel, etc. Also, technologies should be made affordable for medium and small industries by innovations. Digitalisation should be an ongoing process, continuing as part of the long-term plan, irrespective of the crisis period coming and going, as this will greatly help in disaster management in public spaces as well as private companies.

Industry 4.0 cannot replace humans fully - Vivek Gupta, Assistant Vice President & Head – Instrumentation, DCM Shriram

It is probably the first time in the history of modern times that the world has come to a standstill. Stopping the manufacturing production was the need of the hour to save mankind. The pace of recovery shall be slow, as restrictions will remain till there is a cure available for COVID-19. Demand of goods will increase slowly but the industries will have to prove that their products are ‘free’ from the virus. This can be through some of the best practices, like picking up employees from their home, providing them with required PPEs, disinfecting work environment/machines/tools, safe packing, safe transportation of goods, maintaining physical distancing on the shop floor and medical check-ups on a regular basis. These will have to be shared through social media, advertisements, etc to gain confidence of the workforce and customers. In the DCM Kota complex, where some of the essential commodities are produced, we are strictly following the norms prescribed, with regular disinfection. Industry 4.0/AI, ML, robotics, etc cannot replace humans fully. Industry 4.0 has still not been picked up by process industries, as one single window which has proven solutions with complete support is missing because sensors & software providers are different.

When normal operations start, it’ll be important to run plants continuously without breakdown. Plant managers can move beyond preventive maintenance practices and embrace predictive maintenance strategies built around continuous condition monitoring systems, powered by advanced sensors. Their return on investment is significant as they experience fewer breakdowns and thereby, deliver major gains in plant uptime and productivity. It is the best time to carry out preventive checks & maintenance for a safe and smooth start.

Image Gallery

  • Ruchi Mathur

    Head – Commercial Marketing

    Rockwell Automation India

  • A K Goswami

    Business Unit Head

    NTPC Khargone

  • Arun Kapur


    Business Operations & Strategy

    Microtek International

  • Rajesh K Sharma


    Whirlpool India

  • Niju Vijayan

    Executive Director

    Avanteum Advisors

  • Naresh Kantoor

    Managing Director

    Encon Systems

  • Saurabh Prakash

    Plant Head

    Meenakshi Polymers

  • Shrikant Savangikar

    (Retd) Director, Business Excellence, Quality & Sustainability

    SKF India


    Sustainable Solutions

  • Vivek Gupta

    Assistant Vice President & Head – Instrumentation

    DCM Shriram

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