Policy Hacks: What’s Stopping Industrial Robots

History moves in cycles. Patterns and Repetitions are the norms in the development of the human race. The world is today standing or rather a wee bit into the age of robotics. Yet it is nothing compared to what is in store for the planet if we are to believe Dr. James Canton, CEO of San Francisco-based Institute for Global Futures and author of ‘Future Smart: Managing the Game-Changing Trends that will Transform Your World’. He predicts that sometime in coming future humans and robots will merge, digitally and physically, to treat patients who may be based anywhere in the world.

According to an article in the Huffington Post, this new breed will advance the tele-medicine concept far higher. But before we reach these amazing future realities, we have to pass through the present age when the possibilities and understanding of the technologies are not completely comprehended. Much less, by governments and regulators around the world.

Most bureaucrats are grappling with the rapid advances in technology. Laws and policies governing this industry are rapidly getting antiquated even before they witness implementation. However, some countries like China are putting in a focused effort to remain ahead of the curve – both technologically and regulatory.

Chinese share in the robotic sales worldwide will be about 40% by 2019 according to the International Federation of Robots. This would be an astounding increase from 27% percent in 2015 making China currently the leader of the robotic global market at a net worth of $30 billion. South Korea, Japan, and the U.S. follow at a distant second, third and fourth respectively.

So where does India stand on robotics? For the last two decades, political debates have always tried to link the India story to Chinese. While the overall economic and military narratives are nowhere parallel in nature, yet there have been certain pockets of green shoots – like Indian IT and the Indian generic drugs industry – where Indian companies seem to have taken a march ahead of their Chinese counterparts.

Indian record in private sector robot-tech is not so dismal. GreyOrange, a company founded by a bunch of Indian techies in 2011 is India’s biggest robotic technology company. Early Facebook investor Peter Thiel and Mitsubishi picked up a stake in the company, with the valuation estimated to be between $400 million and $500 million. Its success has taken them to service developed robotic technology-driven markets like Japan, USA, and Germany.

They have revolutionized supply chain automation, especially at a time when Walmart and Amazon are fighting a tooth-and-nail battle for the Indian retail market. Other Indian starts up companies in robotics are ASIMOV Robotics, I2U2 Robot, and Sastra Robotics India, among others.

Indian Government’s 2017-18 Economic Survey clearly identified robotics as a focus area (along with blockchain, AI and other futuristic technologies) and stated, ‘India under-spends on R&D, even relative to its level of development.’. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s shepherded ‘Make in India’ gave multi-billion-dollar impetus to the manufacturing sector. In fact, the Economic Times had reported a few months ago that under ‘Make in India 2.0’ robotics would find a special place. you may like Can Robotics Solve Its Diversity Problem?

A study released last month by industry association ASSOCHAM states that ‘Robotics is a settled necessity for taking Indian industry globally competitive and the country attractive for outside entrepreneurs for the PM’s “Make in India” drive as an industrial location for global companies as well as for domestic ones’.

Lack of hardware eco-system:

Primarily among the reasons, is the lack of a hardware eco-system. Research and Development need high-end varied component inputs. Lack of a hardware eco-system results in imports of most of the components overcoming challenges in dual-use certifications, high import duties (in some cases), customs amongst other permission driven environment.

Upgrading or changing even a single high-end component results in stretching the time of development cycle thereby delaying go-to-market plans. Policy focus needs to go beyond the manufacture of computers and phones in India.

Financial incentives:

Any company which imports robots into India currently pays about 26.85% (7.5 Basic Customs duty plus 18% GST) tax. This is a serious impediment to mass adoption of robots.

India should aggressively bring down this rate drastically as this would then create a more efficient supply chain in critical sectors like agriculture. Taxation incentives should also be given to companies investing in robotics as capital expenditure which would then automatically increase adoption of robotics, more efficient manufacturing and higher R&D in robotic-driven technologies. This would incentivize robotic-tech companies to set up manufacturing in India as make it a regional robotic tech hub.

Critical human resources:

According to the FICCI-TSMG Advanced Manufacturing Survey 2016, ‘the current workforce does not have the necessary skills and expertise to work with advanced manufacturing technologies’. Lack of quality human resources negatively impacts the ability to undertake cutting-edge R&D in India.

Mindset shift required:

The industry also faces a glass wall – the political hurdle. In spite of the Government’s focus on robotics lately, somewhere the notion that robotics will destroy jobs in an already precarious job market is completely misplaced. Recently media articles indicate that data from a job portal indicate that there is a huge demand for roboticists (with about 1000 robots sold annually) in industries like healthcare, construction, and manufacturing industry, especially the automobile sector. Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Telangana which hosts large industrial and technology hubs seem to create the most jobs in robotics.

Policy dialogues:

Government should participate in a dialogue platform with tech-adopting industry, robotic-tech companies, and academia to derive regulations which will not only regulate current advanced technologies but also keep the ‘brain bank’ of the country updated on future technologies for which regulations can be updated or framed. This will help in rapid industry-wide standardization of robotic technologies enabling faster integration.

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