September 03, 2015      

Will robotics change India, or will India change robotics?

At first, it’s a strange, somewhat arrogant question, especially the second part.

The land of nearly 1.3 billion bought only 1,800 robots in 2014. That’s not even a drop in the ocean. According to another estimate, India will have an installed base of 24,000 robots by 2017. Again, that’s not something to brag about. China bought 56,000 robots in 2014 alone!

Also, even if you give India the benefit of the doubt, is most of the robotic work not a copycat of ideas born elsewhere? So, where is the idea of India reshaping robotics coming from?

From afar, it looks that India is relying on the Western or Asian templates (yes, in robotics, there is also an Asian Way).

Yet step a little closer, and you start seeing the contours of an emerging Indian template.

Let’s start with the kind of robots “India Inc.” is favoring.

Across the world, companies are buying the fixed-form industrial robots. You buy them, “train” them, and plant them — at a fixed location for a single purpose. That’s taking place in India too.

India is also going in a different direction at the same time. And that direction is mobile robots. The warehouses of Flipkart — an e-commerce “unicorn” — are using mobile robots to help humans find, sort, pick, and package items for shipment.

Why is India Inc. attracted to mobile robots? In a nutshell, three things: flexibility, speed, and infrastructure.

Uninterrupted power supply is not yet available. Moving fast to catch up to China and compete with corporate America is a top priority. And, of course, having total flexibility to deploy and reprogram a robot anytime, anywhere is a must for India Inc.

While speed and flexibility are definitely critical for success with robotics, there is another factor — cost — that makes robotics in India different from rest of the world.

Indian snake robot

The Indian Institute of Technology-Hyderabad is developing this search-and-rescue robot.

Imagine a $300 snake robot that can find its way in hard-to-reach places. That’s what one of the engineering institutes in India is targeting.

Does this mean that when a disaster strikes a part of the world, instead of waiting for the United Nations or U.S. to take action, the world could turn to India to send its robotic army of search-and-rescue specialists? Why not?

When you look at the cost variable, typically a home-grown robotic project is approximately one-tenth the price of an imported project from the West.

That used to be the price differential when corporate America outsourced its jobs to India. Could this cost advantage make India the hub of robotic implementation/project management; i.e., could you outsource to India to deploy and manage robots for you?

It’s very possible if the robotics firms or the old outsourcing companies play smart.

Frugal innovation and robotics

Of course, an Indian story (or rather template) is incomplete without talking about “frugal innovation.”

Few pundits associate “frugal” with cutting corners. The Indian word for that is “Jugaad.” You are dead on arrival if your product innovation agenda includes Jugaad.

On the other hand, frugal is about working through constraints, organizing the pieces in innovative ways, and developing a practical solution that works and lasts (not a makeshift approach that Jugaad suggests).

Is “frugal robotics” a new way in robotics?

Get used to it if you’re going to sell in India or tap India for product development.

In fact, you can already see it happening.

A recent robotic hackathon saw a bunch of students create a robot made of ice cream sticks. The Indian prime minister is promoting a “Clean India” campaign, so about 40 students have developed a robot that picks up garbage.

For sure, both are far from viable commercial products. If you’re a skeptic you may wonder what all of this has to do with you if you just want to sell or invest in India.

A lot of people have and continue to fail in India because they miss the first principle of the Indian paradigm: What you see doesn’t mean it exists, and what you don’t see doesn’t mean it isn’t there.