IIT NewsSummer 2002
  Newsletter of Industrial Research & Consultancy Centre

Low Cost Automation
N. Ramakrishnan, Mechanical Engineering

Under the present regime of globalization and liberalization, it has become imperative for manufacturing organizations to inculcate an ethos of competitiveness, by achieving high productivity and quality. Large multinational corporations - with tremendous financial strength, technical leadership and vast worldwide market - are better equipped to remain competitive through the use of cutting edge technologies. But that is a solution that is likely to prove expensive for many organizations in developing countries like India, especially those which are small and medium in size. For, the latter are often constrained by low levels of finance & absence of the best technical leadership. In addition they have to operate on a smaller market, and also contend with relatively low labour productivity. How does one achieve productivity and quality through measures workable under such conditions?
     One of the very practical, safe, economical, and rewarding strategies is the application of Low Cost Automation (LCA). IIT Bombay’s experience with devising LCA solutions for the industry suggests that it could be an effective tool for organizations both varied in nature and size – that is, from enterprises employing only a few people (less than ten) to big manufacturing units employing thousands of people. Indeed, the viability of this approach is also underscored by the fact that today many large, well-known, organizations like L&T, Siemens, Mahindra & Mahindra, Bajaj Auto etc., have established separate cells for in-house development of low cost automation.

What is Low Cost Automation?
Even though several definitions are available, one that fully clarifies the concept of LCA is as follows: It is a technology that creates some degree of automation around the existing equipment, tools, methods, and people, using mostly standard components available in the market. It allows low investment so that the pay back period is short, typically of the order of a few weeks to less than a year. Some of the major advantages features of LCA are:
•  Financial constraints do not hinder the application of LCA. While capi- tal equipment is expensive and has long pay back period, LCA is built around existing resources. Hence, the invest- ments required are lower and payback period short.
•  Labour productivity can be enhanced substan- tially using LCA.
• Expensive automation needs sufficiently large turnover to be cost-effective. Lower batch/pro duction sizes, typical of small to medium scale industries, can be made viable using LCA.
• Raw material costs have been rising steadily; This necessitates better utilization of material, less Work In Progress (WIP) and less rejection. LCA can help curtail such wastage.
     Since the people involved in the production activities are encouraged to participate in the LCA systems development, the additional skills necessary for maintenance and repair activities are also developed. This reduces the break-down cost and time. Consequently, team spirit is encouraged, which can enhance job satisfaction and self-esteem. In general, as the establishment of LCA systems involves a step-by-step approach the attendant risks are low. The higher risks typically associated with heavy investments or probable selection of an inappropriate technology, or market uncertainties are minimized.


Limitations of LCA
The judicious application of LCA systems, however, should be based on an understanding of its limitations. We enumerate some of them below.
•  When a readymade automatic machine /    system is purchased, the time that needs to    be spent in developing it, troubleshooting,    and for making modifications is avoided. In    contrast, LCA systems that are typically    custom-built (gene- rally in-house) take more    time to develop.
•  A technology like Computer Numerical Con-    trol (CNC), for instance needs very little time    for changing from one drawing/design to an    other, since the skill is inbuilt into the    program. LCA, how ever, uses manual    participation and hence takes more time to    learn, especially when a change is    incorporated.
     Nevertheless, it has been our experience that the advantages of LCA far outweigh its limitations. Indeed LCA systems have been employed widely in many developed countries, including, Japan and other South Asian countries, as it was proven to be the most attractive proposition for small entrepreneurs. It is not unreasonable to expect that for a large country with unemployment levels as ours, this is one of the least painful choices.
     IIT Bombay has been involved in developing and implementing Low Cost Automation projects in various industries (pharmaceuticals, switchgear, consumer products, locks, FMCG etc.) for more than two decades. Besides, IIT Bombay also conducts regular courses under the Continuing Education Programme so that working professionals can be equipped with the skill for this work. Details of some of these are provided on the back cover.

Applications of LCA
Any manufacturing activity is a potential candidate for LCA. It is useful in the case of all activities related to discrete manufacturing, irrespective of the product. A wide range of activities such as loading, feeding, clamping, machining, welding, forming, gauging, assembly and packing can be subjected to LCA systems adoption. Besides, LCA can be very useful for process industries manufacturing chemicals, oils, or pharmaceuticals. Further, the mode and efficiency of downstream operations like packaging, printing, and labeling of any product can be augmented considerably using the LCA approach.
    The other possible beneficiaries include agriculture, in which the functions of tilling, sawing, plucking etc., can be mechanized to varying degrees. Operations involved in stock breeding, such as controlled mixing, and distribution of feed can be another LCA candidate. Finally, many operations in food processing industries which need to be carried out under totally hygienic conditions can also be rendered easy through LCA systems. Clearly, the width of applications of LCA is considerable, and its evaluation for adoption in specific manufacturing situations is worthwhile.

Methodology for LCA
Fig. 1, which is simple and self-explanatory, shows the overall methodology used for LCA systems development. However, what is important to note is that the stages 1 and 2 (System Synthesis and Cost Estimation) of the development protocol are very crucial for stage 3 (Systme Implementation).