Cobots: making light of heavy work

by Nilesh Wadhwa 29 Mar 2018


Bajaj Auto, the first Indian OEM to use cobots, uses them to perform tasks such as deburring, decal applications, vision applications, machine tending, welding, sealant applications and bolt tightenin

Denmark-based Universal Robots (UR), the pioneer of advanced, user-friendly and light industrial collaborative robotic arms (cobots), is bullish on demand from India’s automotive market, as most foreign players are, keen to have a footprint in one of the fastest growing markets in the world.

The company, which forayed into the Indian market in February 2016, has till now sold and deployed over 300 cobots, of which vehicle manufacturers and component suppliers have bought 200. The balance is employed by the FMCG, electronics and R&D sectors in the country.

Cobots are designed to work with humans and assist them in a variety of tasks which help automate and streamline repetitive and potential unsafe processes, thereby ensuring a safe work environment while increasing productivity and efficiency. As the industry looks to increase productivity and efficiencies on the assembly lines in manufacturing plants that operate 24x7, Universal Robots is banking upon the next-generation environment of robots and workers working together.

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The UR3, UR5 and UR10 are built for payloads of 3kg, 5kg and 10kg respectively. Unlike large robots, cobots can be easily deployed for a variety of tasks without necessarily having to change shopfloor layout. 

The Indian automobile and component sector, which contributes around 7.2 percent to India’s GDP, employs around 30 million individuals, along with contributing 25 percent of its total manufacturing to exports. The key concern for the manufacturing sector, particularly medium and small-scale enterprises (MSMEs) is to scale up production even as they face challenges of labour problems and lack of skilled, among other issues. UR says that its goal is to encourage human-robot collaboration in manufacturing, which helps to deal with labour proactively and also offers higher productivity and precision in the manufacturing process.

The company says it is targeting new business opportunities in the SME sector specifically in Tier 2 cities such as Surat, Aurangabad, Jaipur, Indore, and Coimbatore. For every industry, automating the last 20 percent of a production line is the most expensive part and human-robot collaboration (HRC) is necessary to make automation affordable for SMEs. UR says cobots create tremendous advancements in industrial processes as they can be programmed by operators, thereby adding considerable flexibility to meet human problem-solving needs. As such, they offer SMEs the opportunity to grow in measured steps so that they can stay competitive in a global landscape without taking on undesirable risks.

India journey

What has helped UR attain traction in the market is that the first application of cobots in the Indian automotive industry was by leading motorcycle maker Bajaj Auto. Commenting on cobots’ performance at Bajaj Auto, Vikas Sawhney, general manager – engineering (robotics and automation), says: “The key benefits of Universal Robots’ products such as their compactness, low payback period, flexibility, lightweight, cost effectiveness, accuracy and their safety, is what ultimately convinced Bajaj Auto about the suitability of Universal Robots for its standardised offerings. Other benefits include zero annual maintenance costs, reduced power consumption and retention of IP within the company. It has also helped organically drive forward the growth of the organisation.”

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UR currently has three models – UR3 Robot, UR5 Robot and UR10 Robot – which the company says cost anywhere between Rs 15 lakh to Rs 25 lakh. It says cobots can be easily integrated to fit in the current production facility of a manufacturer. They can be used in robotic car manufacturing systems just like any other car manufacturing or automobile robot. Their application is also in what are perceived to be dangerous environments where high quality and precision are critical including engine foundries, laser-cutting rigs, forming presses, moulding machines and packaging and palletising lines. Additionally, the robot arms can also be used in screw driving, assembling, labelling, handling and quality control scenarios.

With a working radius of up to 850mm, the UR5 helps put everything within reach, freeing a worker’s time to add value to other stages of production. The UR10 is the company’s largest industrial robot designed for bigger tasks where precision and reliability are of key importance. Heavier-weight collaborative processes such as packaging, palletising, assembly and pick and place are all well suited to the UR10.

With flexibility being key for any manufacturing company, the robot arm being lightweight and space-saving can be easily redeployed for multiple applications without changing the production layout.

Universal Robots claims that cobots have the fastest payback time in the industry (195 days globally, and 1 to 3 years in India).

The company, which has a yearly manufacturing capacity of 30,000 cobots in Denmark, sees its South Asia operations driven by a Bangalore-based unit comprising seven people. It currently works with its 11 distributors and three system integrators which have their own workforce for sales, technical experts and marketing personnel, allowing it to cater to its clients in India and neighbouring countries.

The company is now looking to aggressively increase its sales. Pradeep S David, general manager, South Asia for Universal Robots, says, “Large enterprises or manufacturers have shown a keen interest in the installation of cobots in their production facilities. We are looking for a more aggressive but a positive impact of collaborative robots in the Indian auto industry. We at present have deployed more than 300 cobots in India. We would be able to double our sales every year for the next 4-5 years as the demand for cobots in India is increasing as Indian manufacturers look forward to inculcate latest technologies in their production processes.”

UR's global clientele which includes BMW, Lear, Volkswagen, Continental, Nissan, Mercedes-Benz, among others, now aims to supply its offerings to the component industry which it foresees as the next growth opportunity. “In India, our focus is on the SME sector as they have a wider scope to expand,” states David.

Europe and China continue to be UR's main growth markets. While it is still early days yet in India, it is aggressively carrying out a cobot awareness drive and aiming for increased sales at both OEMs and SMEs.  The company's unit in India is headquartered in Bangalore and has a fully equipped and robust local technical support team to facilitate adequate training sessions on co-bot technology.

(This article was originally featured in the 1st January, 2018 issue of Autocar Professional)