An electric fan factory, Varanasi Benares India

What’s in the stars for manufacturing in India?

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An electric fan factory, Varanasi Benares India
An electric fan factory, Varanasi Benares India

Exclusive interview with Sharmila Annaswamy, India-based consultant specialising in industry

Apple recently established a manufacturing facility in India, through Foxconn, the Taiwanese company which makes its iPhones, iPads and other devices. 

For Sharmila Annaswamy, a Frost & Sullivan consultant specialising in industry, the tech giant’s decision is one of the “remarkable achievements” of the government’s Make in India campaign.

As well as Apple and Foxconn, a number of Chinese companies have set up manufacturing facilities in India. Huawei, for example, plans to make smartphones in the country.

In an exclusive interview with RoboticsAndAutomationNews.com, Annaswamy says: “Apple and other large companies moving into India is one of the good things that is happening with the Make in India campaign, which the government has been promoting on a large scale. 

tim-cook and narenda-modi
Apple CEO Tim Cook and Prime Minister Narendra Modi mark the company’s decision to make iPhones in India

“This is one of the remarkable achievements India has been pushing over the years, and when you consider that a lot of smartphones are made in China, I think India is emerging even more rapidly as the next manufacturing powerhouse.

“India has a lot of scope for the adopting robots. Automotive, of course, is a big segment. Then there’s electronics, and industrial electronics – they are growing in a big way. So I definitely see the smartphone manufacturing industry growing in a big way and adopting robots in into their assembly line.

“We also see collaborative robots in factories. Collaborative robots are a impressive technical achievement and they help smaller companies get into robotics because they are not very difficult to implement and a company can be up and running in no time at all.

“So when you consider an Apple-type tech giant coming into India to set up their factory to make their phone, it’s definitely viable for the future. I think we can expect more companies, including tech giants, doing that in India.”

Pay’s peanuts 

manufacturing in india tv sets
Workers at an LG television factory in India. Picture courtesy: Reuters

Annaswamy says India’s pay rates for human workers are still low enough to make adopting robots more difficult for businesses – meaning, it’s often cheaper to employ humans than invest in robotics and automation systems.

“I would say there will be a balance in production between human labour and robots,” says Annaswamy. “I don’t think robots are going to replace humans – that will take a lot of time.

“If you’re looking at the type of industrial robots that Adept or ABB manufacture, then India has a long way to go.

“The local market is just not ready to accept that kind of robot and are not going to invest in that kind of robot as of now, mainly because of the prices and other financial factors involved, the cost of maintenance of the machines, and when they compare the labour cost and the robot cost, it’s still not matching up to what they would expect.

“So India has a long way to go.”

Annaswamy’s specialism includes industrial automation and process control, and she tracks the market for such things as:

  • programmable logic controllers, or PLCs;
  • human-machine interfaces, or HMIs; and
  • supervisory control and data acquisition systems, or SCADA.

These technologies go to the root level of each and every industry.

Annaswamy says: “The latest trend now is industrial IoT, so I specifically track the IIoT market, and within that, the robotics market.

“Robotics is my specialty because I come with around four years of experience in industrial robotics. I dirtied my hands programming robots, handling them, putting them on the production line, on the shop floor, getting them to work, maintaining robots… So yeah, I’m pretty much into robots, they fascinate me a lot.”

Astrological analytics 

sharmila annaswamy frost
Sharmila Annaswamy, robotics and automation consultant specialising in industrial internet, Frost & Sullivan

Annaswamy is currently working on two reports for Frost & Sullivan. One is about predictive analytics and the other is on industrial mobility – how shop floors are going to be affected by mobile technology. But her first study was into industrial robotics and their impact on manufacturing.

“I did my engineering degree and went into manufacturing, onto the shop floor,” says Annaswamy. “We were this old legacy equipment factory, and we had to bring in some robots into the assembly line and I was in charge of the whole deployment of robots in the shop floor.

“We had around 15 robots working, and I was responsible for the programming, the deployment, the safety part, the maintenance and the end-effectors, vision systems, grippers – I was handling every aspect of the robot before I came into Frost & Sullivan.

“And here at Frost & Sullivan, I track the industrial automation and process control market, which involves tracking of HMIs, PLCs, and SCADA systems – basically industrial automation equipment.

“This is mainly for research purposes, but we also do growth consulting with our clients in each of these sectors.”

All the talk at the moment is about the industrial internet, or the industrial internet of things, or Industry 4.0 – all of which are terms referring to the ongoing trend of connecting up mechanical machines to sensors and, through them, to a computer network.

“The hot topic now is the internet of things,” says Annaswamy, “so we mainly focus on the industrial aspect of internet of things. So we see how big data, cognitive computing, artificial intelligence, are going to effect our daily lives and industries.

“Typically now, I am focusing on the predictive analytics market and seeing how this is going to improve the processes of the manufacturing sector.”

Superhuman capabilities 

The most often-mentioned benefit of the industrial internet is predictive maintenance – the ability to predict when a machine will need to fixed or adjusted in some way, or simply switched off to save electricity.

This apparently simple practice can save significant amounts of money for any industrial company, but it’s something a human would find difficult to do. How can a normal person – who does not have superhuman computing capabilities – simultaneously monitor hundreds, or maybe thousands, of machines and components simultaneously? Difficult, to say the least.

But predictive analytics and IoT in industry is still in a nascent stage of development. People are just getting to know the technology and how it works, and how it would benefit them. But there are many use cases of big data and predictive analytics in industry.

Basically, as Annaswamy explains it, the industrial internet of things involves the co-ordination of five aspects:

  1. you need the sensors that can convert your legacy equipment into ones that are IoT-ready;
  2. then what you have is your communications protocols – these protocols help machines talk to each other just one language, so it’s not going to be modbus or profibus or other things, it’s going to be TCP/IP protocols everywhere;
  3. the rest would be data storage, on your premises or in the cloud;
  4. then you apply analytics platforms to gather insights and take action based on information gathered about the machines and devices; and
  5. the fifth aspect is the mobility devices, like your smartphones and tablets, which help deliver the information exactly to the user who required that information at exactly the time they need it so they can take action immediately.

“When these five factors come together,” says Annaswamy, “what you get is a realtime scenario or realtime insight into what happened or what is going on in the factory, what’s happening in each machine, what’s happening in each assembly line, and so on.

“So, when that industrial internet of things platform is in place, plant managers and operators, when they see their all their facilities down to the component level on a global scale, they can be sure that each asset is being monitored and can track and optimise the performance of everything.

“That is obviously helpful in asset maintenance and is going to help a lot in improving the quality of your process or reducing the cost, and it’s going to help a lot in predictive maintenance, in maintenance costs.”

For a list of some IIoT platforms, visit our article, A different type of industrial cloud.

What’s the real problem? 

One of the perhaps under-appreciated or little-known advantages of such IIoT systems is that while a human operator may spot problems with a specific piece of equipment, they may not always know how that relates to the entire production process – maybe the real problem is the actual process.

Annaswamy explains: “Sometimes when you identify a problem with a machine, you may think that the problem is only with that machine, but the problem could be with the whole process as well, and because of the process, the machine could be affected or cause problems.

“This kind of insight would not be possible with routine maintenance. It’s only when you track the data on each variable in the process, you can identify anomalies. And this can only be done with predictive analytics.

“So when that comes into the picture, you will be able to track the performance of your machine and your process in a way that you would not have been able to do before.

“This can help you optimise your factory’s performance.”

And yet another benefit of IIoT, says Annaswamy, is that this type of system can transform people who don’t have any experience of the machine into people who can maintain things. “This can reduce any problems employers may have with skills shortages,” she says.

A simple picture 

This picture Annaswamy paints of the industrial internet might be simple to imagine for some people, but it’s the IIoT is still something that is alien to a lot of people – even if they have been involved in manufacturing for decades.

This is something that Annaswamy acknowledges is the situation in India. “Our research shows that people find it more and more difficult to adopt IoT platforms mainly because they are concerned about the available legacy technologies,” she says.

“So, for example, I’ve been using a printing press for around 15 years. It’s been there since I started in factories. How would I connect that press to an IoT network?

“How would I make use of the legacy equipment which is already present in my factory to connect to IoT?

“That is one of the questions people are trying to answer, because once you solve that, the major problem for all these companies is resolved. That is when you’re free to adopt IoT.”

Prohibitively expensive

Adopting the IIoT is becoming increasingly important, especially as machines become more intelligent and more widely utilised. In the past, an industrial robot may have been prohibitively expensive for the vast majority of business, but they’ve been coming down in price.

Not only that, a new generation of robotics and automation systems are being developed which have much lower starting prices and shorter times to returns on investments.

These new robots are often referred to as “collaborative robots”, or “cobots”, to indicate that they can be used by humans in much the same way as they use other tools, maybe even more safely than power tools.

“Robots used to be caged off and human workers were kept away from them because of the potential dangers,” says Annaswamy. “But now, because of collaborative robots, humans and robots can work together.”

This is a trend which may suit India, where as Annaswamy has pointed out, the cost of labour is low enough to compete on cost with investing in traditional industrial robots – the powerful beasts of burden which still need to be caged off.

Collaborative robots tend to be cheaper, maybe even affordable for many companies in India, which may well be able to make such equipment themselves. But, according to Annaswamy, the manufacturing of robots themselves is not yet a significant industry.

Annaswamy says: “In India, the manufacturing of robots is really in a startup stage – the country has maybe 10 or 15 companies which are into robotics, but not necessarily into industrial robots. They’re into other types of robots, like drones and warehouse robots, cleaning robots, and that kind of robots.”


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