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
Bombays 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
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
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).