“Cobots are not robots. Robots are there for more than 40 years, but cobots are collaborative robots that works alongside the humans. You can say cobots are a third helping hand or a tool in a toolbox. It requires less space and can easily be mounted on a ceiling,” says Pradeep David, General Manager, Universal Robots, South Asia), while talking to ITJ’s Senior Sub Editor Karthik Muthuveeran during the recently-concluded Automation Expo in Mumbai.Excerpts...
Please give some details about the Cobot concept and also some details of the parent company’s experience globally.
A ‘cobot’ (collaborative robot) is a robot intended to physically interact with humans in a shared workspace, where the repetitive and heavy tasks are taken care by cobots and supervision and quality checks are done by human beings. It is a robotic arm designed to assist human beings in a specific task, as a guide or assistor and as a portable tool. Various researchers have proved that the teams made of humans and robots collaborating efficiently can be around 85 per cent more productive. Cobots can safely work alongside humans, without any danger of injury, they are easy to deploy (just plug and play), flexible to use and inexpensive hence they are triggering the demand in the manufacturing industry comprehensively around the globe.
We, at Universal Robots (UR), have the ‘first mover’ advantage and are the leading cobot manufacturers since the term was invented. More than 80 per cent of the UR cobots are in operation worldwide, working right next to humans with no safety guards to shield them. The safety system of our robots is approved and certified by TuV (The German Technical Inspection Association).
Since the first robot was launched in 2008, the company has experienced considerable growth with the user-friendly robots sold in more than 50 countries worldwide; 16,000 of our collaborative robots are in use worldwide for the industries like automotive and subcontractors, textiles and apparels, food and agriculture, furniture and equipment, electronics and technology, metal and machining, plastic and polymers, pharma and chemistry, scientific and research. Some of key customers on board with us globally are BMW, Volkswagen, Siemens, L’oreal, Bajaj Auto, Aurolabs, to name a few. UR, which has a strong distribution network all across the world, showed double-digit growth in its 2016 annual global result. UR cobots are also being used for some unusual, out-of-the-box applications like healthcare, physiotherapy, photography, cooking, bartending, farming, flying planes, etc. Developmental technologies like driverless autonomous vehicles could also see the use of cobots in the near future.
How UR supports Make in India, Digital India?
There are a lot of manufacturers, particularly SMEs, that benefit from our technology. While robots have been around for 40 years, cobots have been around for just 5-6 years. It represents a leapfrog in technology that anyone can afford, even SMEs in India. We are finding that [with cobots] efficiency and productivity are going up dramatically. Recently, we worked on a new project and witnessed that productivity has gone up by 300 per cent. Quality has gone up too with one of our vendors who are into cataract lenses. Earlier they were shipping only to India, but today they are shipping to more than 150 countries. This is just because the quality has improved. This is how cobots are helping PM’s Make In India mission. Cobots are affordable, and increases productivity and quality of a product.
What is your company’s experience with the textile industry and which segments show potential for robot applications?
We have experienced a huge demand in textile sector especially in the Indian and Sri Lankan markets. Several Sri Lankan apparel companies have purchased cobots by UR to boost their industrial productivity. We are also going to see vast deployments in India within a year. Cobots can be used in any segment of textile manufacturing where accuracy, precision and repetitive mass production is required. The key areas in textiles industry where UR cobots are being used are inspection, ‘pick and drop’, cutting and sewing. The world’s first robot, which has been used for sewing garments, is made by us. Many people are surprised to learn that a robot has been used to sew a piece of clothing.
Cobots seem to be a prelude to Industry 4.0. What is the company’s strategy to penetrate its application in the Indian textile industry?
Cobots are a part of Industry 4.0 and we firmly consider that the evolution of the manufacturing industry now leads it to the next industrial revolution – Industry 5.0, which enables man and machine to work hand-in-hand. The scenario where humans and robots are inter-dependent and accomplish what each of them does best, safely. We are in an age where the application of next-generation automation is doing more than we ever thought possible, impacting individuals and businesses in many instances without even being noticed.
We are in talks with various textile companies all across India and we believe that our robots are built for such precisions that we can actually draw out the map of France with the help of them. A fabric industry needs high level of accuracy; weather it’s the application of picking the fabric parts from an exact location (by avoiding folding and minimise wrinkling) or cutting of materials in an exact shape or scraping denims. Our flexible, cobots, which occupy a very little space in work area can work alongside workers safely as a third arm and can help them in producing superior products. Hence it’s with this precision approach, we are going into the market and we believe that UR cobots have the potential to change the dynamics of the sector.Please share more details about Sewbo?
Sewbo is not our product. We provide Cobots, which are collaborative robots. People have taken robots and adapted it for textiles. They call it Sewbo because it is used in sewing applications. I can’t really say when are they planning to venture into India. It is just an experimental thing. They are finding out ways how it will help the textile industry. It will make production easy with not much dependent on labour.
How much is the demand generation for cobots in India, esp from textile industry?
Demand generation is phenomenal in India. People have started to understand the value. It is safe to operate alongside a human, and it occupies a very little space. As you know, in Indian factories, space is a huge constraint. It is lightweight, so we can easily mount it on the top of the ceiling. It operates in a zero clutter-free shopfloor. It can also be moved from machine to machine, and is flexible. I think, India is not been using robots like the rest of the world. For e.g: Every single robot coming to India, 30 goes to China. So the ratio is 1:30, which is a huge difference. Why? Because robots did not fit the Indian context well. However, cobots have a much better application in India, and we are expecting the demand to go up dramatically.
As per the textile industry, we have not made in roads in India as of yet. Cobots help in labour, productivity and quality. It is just a matter of time that somebody takes it and adopts it to the textile industry.
In Sri Lanka, a lot of garment companies are using our cobots in their application. I think it is going to happen soon. We don’t have the expertise in textile. So we need to partner with someone.What ar the challenges and expectations?
Challenge is of course to enter the industry. We really don’t have the knowledge or the technical know-how that is required. We only know how a cobot works. How we work in the specific industry is with the specialists in that particular industry. We have to find the right partner, which is our main challenge currently. Expectation is that we have a certain amount of technical skills, which we might to able to train them. We expect them to use their expertise to penetrate the market. It will be a combination of selling effort and technical effort.How cobots are working as a ‘helping hand’ and portable tool and not stealing human jobs?
Yes. In some cases, cobots are stealing jobs. For e.g: taking a piece from one place to another is a job and cobots can do it easily. Lower jobs will get eliminated. However, in higher jobs, earlier we had around 150 people working, but today we have around 700. We used to make 250 lenses a day, today we are making around 10,000. So this has able to create new jobs, and only the lowest-paying jobs are eliminated. But our job is to train them to use cobots.What’s UR’s roadmap for India?
Roadmap is to double every year. As a global company, we are doubling every year and expect to do that going forward. We expect to sign up more channel partners so that we have more reach. In some of the textile verticals, we have not penetrated yet. We have a good share in auto and auto components and FMCG. UR was started in India only last year. I expect to expand our partnerships. Right now, we have 11 partners in India and Sri Lanka combined.How much India contribution to the global revenues?
As a global company, we have done about 100 million last year.What about the geographical expansion plans of the company?Expansion plans is to grow geographically with partners. We already have 10 partners and hope to double it up in the next couple of years. We are not penetrating directly into the Indian market. Our model is to market through our partners, and right now we are in search of new partners. We are trying to attack new verticals where we have not penetrated.
Any new customers in pipeline? Yes. We have some new customers and are planning to bring in a few more. Garment innovation centres in Bangladesh are using cobots for jeans scrapping applications. This is not textile, but for the garment industry. Currently, Ahmedabad-based SMEW is the only textile company in India that we are working with.Which is the most promising sector in the next three years with focus on textile industry?
We think textile is a promising sector in India. Labour is becoming a issue. People are saying that labour is becoming cheap, but that is not the case. I am talking about dependent labour.
SMEW Textile Machinery Pvt Ltd, based in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, deployed the UR 10 from Universal Robots in January 2017.
The cobot and its human operator are engaged in CNC machine tending to produce textile machinery parts. The cobot runs 24x7, in a city that sees a great shortage of labour and this has led to a 300% production increase in the number of parts being manufactured. SMEW believes that they will see their return on investment in less than a year.