India can be a robotics hub in the near future

India can be a robotics hub in the near future

The market growth of industrial robots is projected to be worth over $ 66 billion, at a CAGR of 15.1 per cent, by 2027. In 2020, according to the International Federation of Robots (IFR), the automotive industry was the largest (around 28 per cent) user of robots worldwide. Construction robots are a...

The market growth of industrial robots is projected to be worth over $ 66 billion, at a CAGR of 15.1 per cent, by 2027. In 2020, according to the International Federation of Robots (IFR), the automotive industry was the largest (around 28 per cent) user of robots worldwide. Construction robots are a relatively new phenomenon but as painting and coating operations are highly repetitive, they are well-suited for robotic automation. Painting robots can paint a room in a fraction of the time (nearly 30 times faster than manual painting with more consistent results) that it takes a person and they are not bothered by toxic fumes. Also, they ensure accurate regulation of pressure and flow, which is important to give consistent high-quality results. The machines can work continuously with no breaks, except for periodic maintenance. Understanding its potential, Ayushmoy Roy and Srinivas K Pai co-founded Pace Robotics, a construction robotics startup. The journey began in 2020 when Roy developed a prototype for a painting robot. An expert in robotics with a master’s degree from Pennsylvania University, during conversations with contractors he realised the huge interest for such a product as skilled labour shortage was a critical pain point. He reached out to Pai, a construction professional with over 13 years of industry experience and a strong proponent of Lean Construction. In March 2021, Pace Robotics was incubated with SINE-IIT Bombay and was then inducted into an accelerator programme by MARL 5 G, a San Francisco-based accelerator. The funds received from these two programmes were used to build the first prototype. In the same year, Pace Robotics received a seed fund from Pidilite Ventures. To learn more about the company and the potential of the product, R SRINIVASAN spoke to Srinivas K Pai, Co-Founder & CEO, Pace Robotics. Excerpts: Please comment on the current scenario of robotics in India. Industrial robots have been in usage in India for a long time now. A recent development in the past couple of decades is the emergence of Indian startups developing and exporting robots to the rest of the world. We have many such well-established companies operating in India, especially in warehousing robotics. Construction robotics in India is still in its early stages. Companies are engaged in the development of drone-based robots, concrete 3D printers and robots for advanced tasks like wall and floor finishing, block laying, etc. With a large and growing domestic construction market, keen interest among top players to adopt innovative technology solutions and availability of high-quality technology talent, the current decade will see the emergence of some companies as global players, developing and exporting construction robots to the rest of the world from India. What were the factors behind your decision for a robotic startup? The idea originated from Ayushmoy’s passion to utilise his skills to solve a real-world problem at scale. Construction provides a great opportunity due to its size and impact on society (it contributes close to 10 per cent of the nation’s GDP), dependency on skilled labour and concentration in urban areas (specifically large-scale building construction) where it was easier to provide operational support compared to the agricultural sector. Most construction companies faced severe challenges during COVID and the lockdown and were searching for a solution. India was also turning into a major hub for startups with several unicorns emerging, availability of capital and talent started to become easier and the general ecosystem was also conducive to starting up. All these factors contributed to our decision to build a robotics startup. How many years of research went into finalising the idea? The idea for a wall-finishing robot was finalised after several conversations with contractors and real estate developers and identifying that the availability of skilled painters and masons was a major pain point a critical factor impacting delivery of their projects. R&D work for the product has been going on for over three-and-half years now. The product has gone through multiple design iterations. Each one was initially tested internally in our labs and then at a construction site. Design improvements were made based on customer feedback and observations made during these project deployments. We have completed three such project deployments, including a paid pilot in March 2023. We have received our first commercial order and deployment will be undertaken in April 2024. Patent was granted for the product in 2023. Operations at scale will take another year. How long did it take to deploy? Any projects in other cities? It has taken us over three-and-a-half years of R&D for our first commercial deployment, which is scheduled for April 2024. This is one among the first such products in India that can execute the tasks of painting, puttying and sanding with a single modular product. We have done all our deployments in Bengaluru so far. We are planning to deploy in other cities in FY24-25. Which city, apart from Bengaluru, could be your biggest market? All Tier-1 cities that are large real-estate markets are our target markets. Outside Bengaluru, cities like Mumbai, Pune, Delhi-NCR, Hyderabad, Chennai, Ahmedabad and Kolkata could be our biggest markets. Kindly mention the segments that are most lucrative. The most active areas based on current trends in construction robotics are drone-based aerial surveying, concrete 3D printing, wall finishing and block laying. Our focus area is the entire building finishing segment (this includes plastering, painting, floor finishing, tile laying, etc), which has seen very little innovation and technology penetration over the past couple of decades. What is the expenditure on the robot's maintenance? We do expect regular maintenance of moving parts such as bearings, couplers and guides, which consists of oiling/greasing. This is standard on most construction machinery. Other than this, we have a sander tool, fluid filters and spray tips that might wear out in the first two years depending on use, but these account for less than 2 per cent of machine cost. Please elaborate upon the firm’s fundraising plans. We've received funds for product development and deployment plans for the current year. We'll revisit our plans to ascertain our requirements towards the second half of this year. Even though robotics is part of Lean Construction, the technology is expensive. Your views. We have managed to keep costs down by not depending on off-the-shelf multipurpose robotic arms and building a customised platform suitable for the Indian construction environment. Our robots can deliver 10 times higher productivity compared to manual methods; this brings the operating cost of the robot down by up to three times compared to the cost of labour. What type of mechanical structure (Delta, SCARA, Cartesian, articulated or cylindrical) robots does your company employ? Our robot consists of a differential drive-based, mobile base platform with a vertical lift that moves the end-effector arm, which holds the spray gun and sander unit. The arm has 5° of freedom (DOFs) provided via linear and rotary actuators. Ours is a patented unique multi-dimensional robot design and does not use standard off-the-shelf mechanical structures listed above. Further, what types (stationary, wheeled, etc) of robots are commonly used in construction? The vast majority of robots employed in construction are wheeled mobile robots, which are used for finishing tasks, surveying, layout, etc. There are also aerial robots like drones that are used for surveillance, legged robots like Spot and stationary ones like Robotic Total Stations. What do you think about robots that provide a solution for skilled labour shortage but need skilled manpower to operate them? Our robots can automate the work (painting, puttying, sanding) and are capable of navigating autonomously. The skill requirement is limited to basic operations (start, stop, choose task, room-to-room movement), initial positioning and pump operations (material mixing, cleaning of pump, hose and nozzles, etc). These non-technical skills can be leart in a few days. Unlike traditional skills that are unique in nature (a painter’s skill is different from that of a mason), the skill to be an operator will be standardised across different use cases – for instance, the skill to operate a painting robot will be largely similar to the skill required to operate a plastering robot. In terms of policy, what should be done to nurture innovation? We have benefitted from the favourable environment for startups in the country. Today, a majority of electromechanical parts used in the robot are produced outside India. Home countries of these products have an advantage in terms of cost and time to market compared to Indian companies. Support in terms of developing this ecosystem will help Indian companies gain an advantage and attract more talent towards India. These are two major challenges we face today. Robots are being introduced in the US and Japan at a pace of 35 per cent annually. By when will India see such usage? A major shift will occur in the next five years. The current skilled labour shortage is projected to become worse as construction labour is ageing, the majority of the upcoming generation has access to better opportunities and there is little interest in physically intensive and lower paying jobs in construction. Today, India is home to multiple startups that are developing and exporting robots to other countries in the warehousing sector. With several startups in construction robotics and one of the largest global construction markets available domestically, India has the opportunity to turn into a robotics hub in the near future.

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