Industrial automation growth: on right track but not at right pace

Industrial automation growth: on right track but not at right pace
Today’s businesses are increasingly realising that with automation they can produce better quality products while keeping a check on the costs
Milind Kulkarni Head-Business DevelopmentFactory AutomationSiemens Ltd.
It is often said that the invention of wheel is the biggest revolution for the industry. Today, however, it is the invention of logic circuits that has laid the foundation of the automation industry. Over the past 50 years, automation technology has evolved to the extent that today our conversations revolve around “bringing the satellite vehicle onto the launch pad” and “precisely placing the satellite in the orbit”. With the adoption of sophisticated automation, India is currently in a position to independently launch the satellite and also position them successfully.
The influx of technology and increasing awareness has paved the way for automation to gain prominence in manufacturing industries. Businesses today are increasingly realising that with automation they can produce better quality products — sustainably and efficiently — while keeping a check on the costs. In India, however, this degree of sophistication in automation has not reached across all the industry segments adequately. While the double-digit growth of automation business in the last decade is a clear indicator that we are on right track, the issue is “not everyone is running at the same pace”. Needless to say, the overall growth rates are naturally hampered due to the “slow runners”. Despite heavy investments to the Indian manufacturing sector, the implementation of automation is still at a nascent stage. This is primarily because automation is seen as expenditure than an investment.
In India, majority of manufacturing units are SMEs or family owned businesses that are sensitive to costs and technology adoption. Of late, manufacturers opt for automation in piece meal to cut down on initial costs. In the long run, however, such an arrangement proves more costly and acts as a bottleneck, especially at the time of integrating non-uniform automated processes. Also, an interesting observation here is that investment decisions are ruled by tangible benefits which is nothing but the ROI. The intangible benefits, such as safety from possible accidents, enhanced brand value gained owing to meeting flexible customer requirements, significant reduction in “time to market” etc. are ignored. All these can be avoided by choosing a right automation partner who would not only give a clearer picture of long-term benefits but also introduce the customer to the intangible benefits of automation, which would in turn motivate him to make an appropriate decision. The partner would ideally recommend manufacturers to adopt automation in the initial stages itself so that the processes are scalable, adaptable and flexible. This will allow the manufacturing companies to reap the benefits and fruits of making the right investments that will augur well for a longer period of time — called as making “future-proof investments”.
Yet another factor that inhibits the adoption of automation is the notion that it could possibly lead to labour redundancy. Paradoxically, in addition to error-free output, automation enhances the skills of the labourers which subsequently allow them to add value to the company.
Another major limitation is the lack of IT integration with automation. Barring a few big manufacturers, a manufacturing company rarely chooses automation this way. While initial investments for such an enterprise can be really high, manufacturers must at least make their existing automation in such a way that it is ready for IT integration. This would ensure that they remain in the league of state-of-the-art-manufacturing set-ups. Once they start reaping benefits of automation and begin to grow significantly, they can change gears further by adopting next step of plant-IT integration.
Automation is important and essential to all manufacturing processes, irrespective of the type of the process involved. For instance, many pharmaceutical, fine chemical and F&B manufacturers aim to export their “produce” to the international market. However, this calls for companies to mandatorily adhere to U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) norms such as complete traceability, tracking etc. Even other manufacturers like automotives — who have discrete or hybrid manufacturing process — too need traceability and tracking for their product manufacturing history along with product and production data. Unless automation is deployed, it is next to impossible to achieve this compliance and the required traceability and tracking.
Automation players need to convey the true value of the offered solution to the manufacturers as the degree of automation not only defines the pace of the growth for the manufacturing set-up but also sets the direction and dimensions for this growth. Various industrial forums like ARC and AIA are trying along with the automation suppliers to spread the technology by promoting the technology, concepts and benefits. This will help save the industry from commoditising the automation components. Hence, while on one hand awareness about automation technology and its benefits are increasing, due effect of this leading to uninhibited decisions still has some way to go.
Sooner or later, it is imperative that all manufacturers will have to go for complete automation right up to IT integration. The question is whether one participates in the same proactively or barely gets forced into it due to pressure from the consumers and market. In the next decade, automation in India will definitely grow at a phenomenal rate as compared to the previous decade.

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