Turning to robots

Turning to robots

Jodhpur based Metallizing Equipment Co. (MECPL), spray equipment manufacturers and suppliers, required a spray painting solution that offered high accuracy. But, expecting error free work by human hand was asking for a lot. MECPL needed a solution that would ensure repeatability of the best outcome, uniformity in coating thickness, time effective process, error reduction, coatings on both simple and complex profiles and mass works.

“Thermal spray was an art varying from operator to operator,” points out S.C. Modi, managing director, MECPL. To convert it into science, the company started using robotics since 2000.

Chennai-based TI Cycles, a manufacturer of cycles and part of the Murugappa group, faces acute shortage of welders during the peak season of May and June every year. “This is vacation time and there is a great demand for cycles then,” explains Nagamaleswar Rao, asst. general manager, process engineering. The heat generated during the process is very high and tests human tolerance, the process is complex as the welding involves linear and circular welding more than straight welding and accuracy is of prime importance.

In April 2010, TI Cycles took samples and has implemented industrial robotics after testing its suitability to their requirement. Adds Rao, “Though in one shift, the productivity of labour and robots is the same, labour can be used only in two shifts, whereas robots can be used in three shifts. Also, one robot can do the job of many welders with greater efficiency since it does not suffer from fatigue.”

The rationale

Industrial robots are automatically controlled, programmable, multipurpose machines with multiple axes that replace human beings. It has application across areas including material handling, sealing, arc welding, spot welding, deburring, press tending, vision system applications, heavy material transfer, palletizing, glass handling etc.

 

Traditionally, the automotive industry, especially in Japan and Europe, were the first to opt for robotic solutions 30 years back to eliminate human labour from hazardous jobs. Explains Pradeep Shoran, asst. general manager – marketing (India), Kuka Robotics – a German manufacturer of industrial robotics, “Spot welding machines were very heavy back then and it was manually difficult to get a good spot. Robots were introduced to eliminate errors, and since then, they have taken over many jobs.” While abroad, the usage is widespread across segments, in India, the automobile (auto) industry continues to be one of the major users, especially in the passenger car segment. In India, 75 per cent of the robot deployment is still in the auto sector. Others are at a nascent stage still. China, though, has been a quick adapter, points out Shoran.

Sujith Shetty, joint managing director, Tespa India, a Bengaluru-based vendor of industrial robotics solutions agrees with Shoran. “Most industries can use robots. Indian industry has started accepting industrial robots for increasing production and improving quality and in areas where the process is humanly challenging like handling of hazardous or heavy material,” he says.

The advantages

One of the advantages MECPL experienced was to opt for expansion and diversification, leading to growth. This is one of the reasons why MECPL became the first company in the country to start a thermal spray segment and today, MECPL manufactures and supplies turnkey robotics thermal spray systems.

At TI Cycles, most of the welding work is done by suppliers. By deploying robots at the company itself, there has been no displacement of human labour, but, one of the indirect benefits has been the saving in the consumption of carbon-dioxide and Argon gas used in the process due to reduction in wastage. In the last two months of full operations since implementation, the company has realised a saving up to 17 paise/inch, translating to Rs. 40,000.

Encouraged by the results, the company plans to set up 50,000 sets of frame and fork with four robots. Robots will also be used in the electrostatic gun process for painting, where complexity of the process manually leads to incomplete painting of certain parts. Kitting assembly of components will also be an area where robots will be used to ensure that all kit components reach assemblers.

Some of these processes are currently handled by suppliers. TI Cycles will work on rationalising the vendor-supplier relationship and outsource other aspects of the manufacturing. Once the concept is tested, the company maybe replicate the model.

The market

Auto, foundry, food processing, metal and plastic industries and even in the entertainment segment, like in theme parks, robotics have a use and the virgin market is promising for the limited number of vendors playing in this segment. Industrial robots are used today, even in the treatment of cancers as medical robotics are also available.

According to an IFR (International Federation of Robotics) statistical department study, after a slowdown in 2009, a strong recovery of worldwide robot installations was seen in 2010, resulting in an expected increase of about 27 per cent or about 76,000 units this year. A further increase of about 10 per cent per year on average will resume in the period between 2011 and 2013 attaining a level of more than 1,00,000 units in 2013.

Among Asian countries, China, Korea and other South-East Asian countries are also installing robots. The main driver of the recovery is the automotive industry, which has started to reinvest in new technologies, further capacities and renovation of production sites. All other industries, except automotive already increased its robot investments between 2005 and 2008. This will continue between 2010 and 2013.

India still has some way to go in robotics. Explains Shoran, “Even globally, there are very few large players with a wide offering of products. There are not many known Indian players in this segment.”

Confirms Shetty, “India is yet to recognise any reliable Indian industrial robot manufacturer.” But, there are quite a few reputed industrial robot solution providers that cater to the Indian market.

The challenge for the vendors of these solutions is that awareness is low and India being a country with a huge population, acceptance of robotic automation versus labour is a stumbling block. This attitude is now changing with the need to increase productivity and quality to meet the global demand and also due to lack of skilled labour in certain areas, especially welding.

Typically, reaching out to the customers through industrial exhibitions with live robot demonstrations and through seminars and conferences where the potential customer can see a robot in action work best.

The human factor

For the user, at times, implementing a robotic solution could involve a complete change in the manufacturing process. But, as in the case of MECPL or TI Cycles, since it was in a specific area, both the investment as well as the complexity have been minimal with the benefits far outweighing the limitations.

Industrial robots clearly promise precision, consistency and improved productivity. This is expected not only to improve the company’s finances, but, also free up human labour from hazardous jobs and opt for high-skilled jobs that require creativity and imagination. But, for that, the companies implementing industrial robotics should have ethical manpower practices and the capability to grow to be able to redeploy its resources. Otherwise, it could lead to unpleasant situations between the employer and the employees and in some cases, the supplier and the vendor.

The decision to implement robotics might be viewed as logical as competition toughens. But, it will require sensitivity and rationalising to keep the precarious human-machine balance in check.