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INDUSTRIAL ROBOTS Robotics – A game changer post COVID-19?

Sep 3, 2020

A new report by the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) puts forward that by 2022, an operational stock of almost four million industrial robots could be working in factories globally, which comes with the necessity to speed up the post COVID-19 economy and help it recover to the best. Robotics has already shown its vital role during the coronavirus outbreak and now they are more than welcome to help the industry & economy post-COVID, being a game changer in pandemics. With inputs from Plazma Technologies, DiFACTO Robotics & Automation, International Federation of Robotics, Universal Robots, Griffyn Robotech, the Viewpoint section finds out if robotic deployment will accelerate post-corona recovery, whether with the impact of the pandemic, there's a requirement of more skill development than just technical & digital skills and what must be done so that maximum countries establish mature education policies to deal with the challenges of an automated economy.

For robotisation to succeed the manufacturing processes need to be streamlined - Arundhati T,
Managing Director, Plazma Technologies

It is not only robotics, it is also the automation of processes that will be needed to accelerate the recovery post-corona. For robotisation to succeed, manufacturing processes need to be streamlined, standardised and documented and their data capture needs to become better. With the ‘automation readiness index’, only four countries having already established mature education policies to deal with the challenges of an automated economy, for maximum countries to establish such policies, awareness needs to be generated with a strategy touching base, with all aspect of education, from syllabus to management and administration commitment to government guidelines. College administration needs to invest in improving its science and technology labs with updated technologies. So these labs become a playground for students to experiment and grow in their thinking. It’s a paradigm shift to think and become digital. Such instances will occur in the future. E-learning and e-teaching has to become a core competence of education. Investment in IT infrastructure to ensure theoretical learning from anywhere for every student could be the beginning.

It is true that the pandemic has confronted every entrepreneur. However, it is not about replacing workers. Getting skilled workers is becoming difficult, and in order to sustain and grow, industries have to robotise. It is a wrong notion that robots replace workers; they improve operations and the cycle time of production, with consistent quality.

Robotics is here to stay and grow. This flux that the industry finds itself in will galvanise them to consider manufacturing adaptability & flexibility. An entrepreneur will consider digital manufacturing. Here, the AI-powered and Industry 4.0 enabled robots will play a major role.

We will see an increase in the use of cobots - Ajay Gopalswamy, Chief Executive Officer, DiFACTO Robotics & Automation

Generally speaking, deployment of industrial robots was already on the rise pre-COVID, across industries and across countries. But post-COVID, a number of factors have contributed to higher robot deployment. The three factors that will lead to higher robot deployment post-pandemic are reduction in the risk of production disruptions, need for social distancing in factories to ensure workers’ safety and reduced human-to-product contact to mitigate the risk of spread of the virus. Talking about India (and other middle-income countries), which have started adopting industrial automation relatively recently, it is imperative to focus on certain aspects to improve the ‘automation readiness index’. These include:

  1. Focus on basic education to improve basic skills of the population – the three R’s – Reading, wRiting, aRithemetic. In this context, the New Education Policy (NEP) recently announced by the Government of India is expected to go a long way in meeting this basic requirement. Enhancing the basic skills is a starting step, to not only higher education but also informal, life-long self-learning and continuous skill upgradation.

  2. Policies to encourage development of higher level skills such as machine programming, data analytics, predictive machine maintenance, shop-floor safety, kaizen (continuous improvement), quality assurance, etc will enable low/middle-income countries to climb the value chain.

  3. It is encouraging that many reputed institutes in India now offer programs on robotics and Artificial Intelligence (AI) as well as carry out cutting-edge research in these fields. The next step is to formulate policies to share this know-how with the industry through public-private partnerships as well as international cooperation to enable industries to remain/become competitive.

  4. Enabling an ecosystem of start-up businesses/entrepreneurs to develop ideas into marketable products/services which will benefit the society at large, encourage job creation, increase trade opportunities and increase the wealth of the country.

Post-pandemic, due to reduced face-to-face contact, it is important for workers to develop work planning, writing/presentation/documentation skills and other such ‘soft skills’, in addition to keeping abreast of the latest technological developments in their field. Some companies in the Western world have started businesses that offer leased automation solutions for non-traditional applications. Of course, the key to this business model is financing & risk factorisation and is an exciting opportunity for entrepreneurs & investors to explore.

We will see an increase in the use of cobots as an extension of the physical and sensory capabilities of human operators. Self-Guided Vehicles (SGVs) will increasingly be used on shop floors and warehouses to reduce human contact and improve workplace safety. Machine vision with AI capabilities will enable more objective and faster decision-making.

Robot adoption will likely be a critical determinant of productivity growth for the post-COVID-19 economy - Milton Guerry, President, International Federation of Robotics

Companies around the globe are reassessing their global supply chain business models in reaction to the lessons learnt from the coronavirus. This will likely accelerate the introduction of robots, leading to a renaissance of industrial production in some regions, and bring back jobs. After the crisis, IFR expects a considerable boost for robotics and automation, even if the industry cannot currently decouple itself from the economic downturn.

For maximum countries to establish mature education policies to deal with the challenges of an automated economy, re-training the existing workforce is a suitable short-term measure. But in addition to this, we must start way earlier; curricula for schools and undergraduate education need to match the demand of the industry for the workforce of the future. Demand for technical and digital skills is increasing, but equally important are cognitive skills, like problem-solving and critical thinking. Governments will need to develop policy incentives to encourage corporate investment in training and step up their funding for education. They should continue a trend in many countries of focusing, through dialogue with the private sector, on training for skills for which demand is forecast and in industries in which the country or region demonstrates competitive advantage.

Experience in the US, Europe and Asia proves that robot adoption will likely be a critical determinant of productivity growth for the post-COVID-19 economy. Statistics shows that the global operational stock of industrial robots rose by about 65% to 2.4 million units within five years (2013-2018). For the same period of time, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a positive impact on the job market: Employment in the automotive industry – the largest adopter of robots – increased by 22% from 824,400 to 1,005,000 jobs (2013-2018). The impact of automation on employment will not be, in any respect, different from the previous waves of technology-driven change.

Cobots don’t aim to replace employees but work alongside them - Pradeep David, General Manager – South Asia, Universal Robots

Due to COVID-19, there is a short supply of trained labour in cities. This difficulty in retaining labour, along with increasing production levels, has led to manufacturers optimising their factories without being labour-dependent. The deployment of collaborative robots or cobots can assist manufacturers in increasing production while following social distancing norms, especially in assembly lines, where there is a large requirement for manual labour. Cobots don’t aim to replace employees but work alongside them in a collaborative manner by re-assigning them the 5D jobs – the dull, dirty, difficult, dangerous and distance requiring jobs, allowing humans to harness their skills.

Also, with the impact of the pandemic, there's not necessarily a requirement for more skill development than just technical & digital skills in a country like India, where many employees don’t have access to high levels of education. The technology must adapt to the skill-set of the people. A skilled painter or a doctor can hand guide a cobot instead of programing it, thus teaching the cobots their own skills. Post-corona, more cobots can be deployed in order to increase production levels while maintaining a safe environment. With robots, small machine shops can even continue their production during night shifts when there is a shortage of workers. This technology also plays a role in empowering women, as the more physically taxing jobs can now be assigned to cobots, allowing female employees to work alongside their male counterparts with no difficulty.

For maximum countries to establish mature education policies to deal with the challenges of an automated economy, the government can encourage automation by replacing the associated duties and tariffs with better incentives, allowing SMEs to benefit from this technology as well. Many new adaptations of this new age technology can emerge with a certain amount of government support.

We shall see robots getting into areas which were purely manual domain earlier - Sandeep Dawkhar, COO, Griffyn Robotech

With the severe shortage of skilled manpower to continue across the industry, robotics deployment will definitely accelerate post-corona recovery. The green shoots of robotics requirement are already evident through increased traction in inquiries for robotics solutions. The deployment acceleration will, however, be dependent on front sales & government support in terms of incentives, since customer sentiment is still low. Robotics deployment will definitely increase in the coming days and there will be an impact on labour jobs, which will be substituted by jobs in the areas of robotic solutions implementation & execution. Robots will need to be easier to program and operate in a man-machine environment, so we are talking about cobots here and feature enhancement of articulated robots. In the post-corona recovery phase, we shall also see robots getting into areas & applications which were purely manual domain earlier.

For the specific topic of robotics deployment, apart from technical and digital skills, there is a severe shortage of skills in the area of solutioning. The solution architect is expected to interact with the customer and device the best solution from the perspective, viewpoint and expectation of the customer, so that he/she gets maximum value out of his/her investment. Solutioning skills are however developed over time.

When it comes to a majority of countries establishing mature education policies to deal with the challenges of an automated economy, unless robotics, automation, coding, programing & now Artificial Intelligence (AI) are introduced in the curriculum for secondary grade students, it will be difficult to infuse an active interest in these technologies at a later stage. Hopefully, governments are now recognising this requirement and making due changes in their education curriculum. But it has to be a designed effort and not an unconsidered reaction.

Image Gallery

  • Arundhati T

    Managing Director

    Plazma Technologies

  • Ajay Gopalswamy

    Chief Executive Officer

    DiFACTO Robotics & Automation

  • Milton Guerry

    President

    International Federation of Robotics (IFR)

  • Pradeep David

    General Manager – South Asia

    Universal Robots

  • Sandeep Dawkhar

    COO

    Griffyn Robotech

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