Far East on the move
In May, 2015, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe laid out a vision to “spread the use of robotics from large-scale factories to every corner of our economy and society.”
By 2018, South Korea wants to have 600 robotics firms in the country employing 34,000 workers and generating $5.9 billion (7 trillion won) in revenue — the revenue from the robotics industry was $1.7 billion (2.1 trillion won) in 2012.
China, already the largest market for robots in the world, wants 45 percent of “Made in China” robots sold within China by 2020. China also wants to create eight hubs for robotics and at least three companies in robotics that are globally recognized and competitive.
Much of East Asia seems to be displaying a plan of action for addressing the rising opportunities from the global robotics revolution.
Even Southeast Asia’s Singapore, a nation operating in the shadows of much larger populations, has an Economic Development Board that is actively pursuing multinationals to bring advanced manufacturing (e.g. robotics, 3D printing, etc.) to Singapore instead of setting up shop just to exploit cheap labor.
When it comes to India, with its world beating GDP of 7.5 percent — Fitch predicts will be 8 percent by 2016 — it is unclear if there is a vision, strategy, or even a plan for robotics.
In fact, when the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Silicon Valley in September 2015, he spoke mostly about “Digital India” and “Make in India.” There was no mention of robotics.
Is Modi missing the boat for robotics in India; does the country have a Plan B, even though it hasn’t shown a Plan A?
More importantly, who or what is driving robotics in India, especially when it seems that the rest of Asia looks to its governments to define and dictate the development and direction of the industry?
In short, it is proving to be the startups, local makers and foreign robotic companies that are creating the momentum in India. They are cultivating the market and tapping opportunities.
While consumer robots are also starting to take off, the penetration of industrial robots is much greater in India.
Robotics in India is a young market. According to the International Federation of Robotics, India is likely to purchase 5,000 industrial robots a year by 2017 (from 2,500 units a year in 2012). According to a daily newspaper, Business Standard, India will have an installed base of 24,000 industrial robots in 2017 from 12,000 in 2012.
For sure, a quick glance at the numbers tells you that the market for industrial robots in India will double by 2017. But, the numbers can be misleading.
Here is the dilemma
In August, 2015, a young worker died in a factory accident. Except, it was no ordinary accident.
A robot killed the worker in a metals factory in the City of Manesar, a part of the growing NCR (National Capital Region) around Delhi.
When the state government (Manesar is in the State of Haryana — neighboring Delhi) came to investigate, it could not find the number of industrial robots in use let alone figure out why the robot went “rogue.”
Further, the state government realized that it not only knows nothing about the factory where the accident happened, but it also does not know how many industrial robots and autonomous vehicles were in use in factories operating in the state.
If a single state does not know or cannot find the number of installed robots — information that should be easy to collect and collate — how can a prediction about tomorrow be made for the whole country?
If the numbers are hard to come by, where does one begin? Where are the industrial robots going?
Major application areas of growth
Warehouse automation: According to a retail consulting firm, Technopak, online retail is expected to become a $32 billion market by 2020 (from $1 billion in 2013). And, to support this staggering growth, the logistics and warehousing companies are rapidly automating.
That is the opportunity that an unknown startup — Grey Orange in Gurgaon, outside of New Delhi — targeted. It has captured almost 90 percent of the warehouse automation market in India . Its mobile robots?robotic butlers?are helping humans pick, sort and package items in warehouses across India.
Both Flipkart — the Amazon of India and a unicorn valued at $15 billion — and the U.S.’s Amazon are using robots made by Grey Orange.
After raising $30 million in August 2015, Grey Orange is planning to become a global company, including selling into advanced robotics markets like Japan and South Korea.
Automotive manufacturing: For many automakers like Ford and Hyundai, India is not only a consumer market for their cars but is also an export hub. If you are buying Ford Figo or Hyundai Creta (SUV), chances are you are getting a “Made in India” vehicle.
Accordingly, the car manufacturing plants in India are relying on robots for speed, scale and success.
550 robots are at work in Ford’s $1 billion plant in Sanand (State of Gujarat in Western India). Hyundai has 400 robots working in its factory at Sriperumbudur, a small city about 40 kilometers southwest of Chennai in Southern India (in the State of Tamil Nadu).
At both locations, the robots are welding and painting cars among other things.
About 4,200 robots are working in the factories of Honda (Hero Honda) and Suzuki (Maruti Suzuki).
In fact, based on the data collected by The Economic Times, another daily newspaper in India, the automotive sector buys 60 percent of all industrial robots sold in India.
As most of the industrial robots, especially those that are going into manufacturing, are coming from abroad (and they are expensive), Tata Motors has decided to locally manufacture an industrial robot of its own via its subsidiary, TAL Manufacturing Solutions.
This is significant because, like in the warehouse automation sector, foreign robotics companies will face domestic competition also in the automotive manufacturing sector.
Search & rescue: From collapsing buildings (due to faulty construction) to earthquakes to flooding, India faces all kinds of emergencies across the country every year. For rescuers, it is always the fight against time.
Now, the Indian Institute of Technology in Hyderabad (in the Southern Indian State of Telangana) is working on a search-and-rescue robot called SARP (Snake-like Articulated Robot Platform). The engineering institute is applying several technologies in building SARP: navigation, camera, infrared, haptic feedback (to identify survivors) and collaboration (multiple snake robots can communicate with one another) .
In 2002, when an earthquake hit the State of Gujarat, the rescuers used a robot to find people. The robot, called “Sanjeevani” or lifegiver, was developed by India’s Defense, Research and Development Organization (DRDO) in New Delhi.
National security: Whether it is with Pakistan, China, or Bangladesh, India has land border disputes with most of its neighbors. As a result, the line of control (LoC) remains a bone of contention and protecting it properly (on all three fronts) is a top national security priority.
The human lives are getting lost whenever there is a firing or illegal movement of people at the LoCs.
As a result, the government is looking to DRDO to develop the next generation of robotic soldiers that could be deployed at the LoCs and that, eventually, are able to differentiate a friend from a foe.
Plant maintenance: Whether it is a nuclear plant or power plant, a startup from Ahmedabad, Gujarat is doing the dirty work — stuff that is hard to do or nobody wants to do .
Tata Power used Gridbot’s stringer robot to remove a wood log from a steam pipe at a power plant in Mundra (also in Gujarat).
Marine engineering: Amogh is an autonomous underwater vehicle. It is designed to inspect and repair bridges, pipelines and hulls of ships — at the depth of up to 15 meters. The robot has the endurance capacity of up to 2 hours.
Amogh was developed by students at the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras (Chennai) .
So, what is the industrial robot story in India saying?
First, unlike other Asian nations, Indian firms are not waiting for a government policy before investing in robotics and developing it into an industry.
Second, making robots locally is gaining speed. Local makers are showing up everywhere.
Third, even though robotics in India is in early stages of development, when it comes to applications and deployment, the market is quickly becoming diversified.
Keep these three lessons in mind as you develop or refine your “India Strategy.”