Why manufacturing sector is looking to quickly go digital


NEW DELHI: The Indian manufacturing sector had been slowly transitioning to Industry 4.0 over the past two years. But the Covid-19 pandemic is significantly accelerating the pace.
Industry 4.0 is the term now widely used for what is seen as the fourth industrial revolution – with the use of connectivity (IoT), advanced analytics (AI and ML), automation (robotics) and advanced engineering (3D printing and nanoparticles). These are said to be helping companies increase efficiency, enable high levels of product customisation, improve speed to market, and create totally new business models.
Chandan Chowdhury, senior associate dean at the Indian School of Business (ISB), Hyderabad, says Covid has made more companies wake up to the necessity of digital continuity across their value chains. “We expect digital transformation initiatives to cover inbound, in-plant (movement of goods within the factory), and outbound logistics to establish digital continuity across the value chain,” he said, adding that sectors like textile, automotive, and pharma & healthcare would be among the earliest to adopt higher automation.
Javed Ahmad, senior VP of GSC (global supply chain) in Schneider Electric, points out that the migration of labour in the last few months impacted the manufacturing sector and made it realise that several of its processes were heavily dependent on its workforce. “The new normal with social distancing norms demands a more efficient and agile manufacturing process, and in order to keep the supply chain running, businesses now understand that robotics is the way forward,” he says.
Bajaj Auto is one of the earliest adopters of cobots – collaborative robots – in India. Cobots are much smaller than industrial robots. But unlike a robot whose area of movement needs to be fenced, cobots can work side by side with humans on the shop floor.
Bajaj is the biggest Indian customer of Universal Robots, a Danish company that builds cobots. It has deployed 150 such machines in its factories and at vendor sites, and its objective is to have “man-less assembly lines” in the next two to three years.
“On the fuel tanks of motorcycles, there is a sticker known as decal. When a man applies it, there may be bubbles and wrinkles, leading to a quality issue or wastage of decal, but not when you use this machine. Similarly, in the assembly lines, we apply sealant through a gun to many components. It is not possible for a man to move his hand at a constant velocity, but when a cobot does it, there is consistent volume and uniform bead, thus eliminating any leakages,” Bajaj’s vice president of engineering Vikas Sawhney says.
At cosmetic firm L’Oreal’s plant in Pune, workers were at risk when putting the final boxes on the pallet. Each operator lifted 8,500 kg of product per eight-hour shift, presenting what the firm classified as a Level 4 ergonomic risk – one of the highest levels of danger to the human body and posture. Cobots automated this hazardous task.
ABB India’s head of industrial automation G Balaji says automation was previously limited to control rooms of plants, but now it is part of anything that will lead to safer operations, agile workforces and improved productivity. He says in the highly regulated pharma industry, there is a common control system that controls the manufacturing process. But drug manufacturing also requires the associated atmosphere – temperature and humidity – to be controlled. These have to remain within a band. Traditionally, this required humans to constantly monitor them and make necessary changes. Today, sensors and AI can determine when these are about to go beyond the band, and automation can ensure corrective steps are taken.
ABB also has wireless, pocketsized smart sensors that can be screwed onto even older motors to sense temperature changes, vibrations and the electro-magnetic strength around the motor. This data is uploaded to the cloud, where it is analysed, and the results are sent back for optimising performance and predictive maintenance. Traditionally, to understand if a motor was likely to fail, an operator would have to keep a hand on the motor to feel the temperature or listen for unusual sounds or vibrations. But this is not a feasible solution in large plants that have thousands of such devices.
Sunil Mathur, MD & CEO of Siemens India, says manufacturing is being driven by the need to cater to increasing individualisation and to variant diversity of products. This requires highly flexible production concepts. Mathur says automated guided vehicles (AGVs) will play an important role in making production dynamic and scalable. An AGV is a portable robot. Their movements are controlled and directed by a combination of software and sensor-based guidance systems. “With AGVs, manufacturers can improve the production process and optimise the manufacturing flow. It allows them to change their manufacturing lines into a flexible and modular production. AGVs are the backbone of the digital factory,” Mathur says.
Consultancy firm McKinsey says in a recent report that industry leaders in Asia are already leveraging Industry 4.0 solutions. About 39% have implemented a nervecentre, or control-tower, approach to increase end-to-end supply-chain transparency, and around a quarter are fast-tracking automation programmes to stem worker shortages arising from Covid-19, it says.
Watch Industry 4.0: Why manufacturing industry is quickly going digital

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