hree hundred robots whirr to life every morning all over Hyundai‘s Sriperumbudur plant near Chennai, rubbing shoulders with 1,500 employees and 7,000 contract workers. Together, man and machine churn out one car in less than a minute; over 600,000 cars roll out of the factory every year. The number of robots inhabiting the factory has increased more than 10-fold in a decade.
This alliance between man and machine is an uneasy one even as automotive companies from Chennai to Chakan, Gurgaon to Sanand, slowly deploy more robots. Honda Siel, in its journey from 30,000 cars a year to 120,000, has almost tripled automation levels – from 20% to 55%. Maruti Suzuki‘s Manesar plant is highly automated compared with its older Gurgaon facility. Ford India deployed 90 robots to meet high demand for its small car Figo.
There is no full-blown man-machine confrontation yet, only a gnawing fear among 200,000 employees at auto factories across the country. “Automation is also one of the points of differences with the management,” says A Soundararajan, general secretary of trade union Citu, who has fought many a battle with Hyundai India’s management in recent years. “Automation will result in job losses and retrenchment.”
Car companies directly or indirectly employ over five workers for every car produced. All automobile and component companies together employ over 1.3 crore workers directly and indirectly.
Many companies – and Hyundai is a good example of that – are taking care to preserve and progress human workers. Still, growing automation is forcing the latter to engage with existential questions about their future.
“Our greatest fear is when large number of workers are substituted by machines,” says Harjeet Grover, union leader at Honda Motorcycle and Scooter India.
Kuldeep, who leads the union at Sona Koyo Steering, a major supplier to Maruti Suzuki, gives an example. Fifteen machines would have needed 15 operators a few years ago, he points out. Now, one man can run 10 machines.
At Hyundai, gone are the part-bypart way of putting together a car; today, 40% of the value of the car comes to Hyundai by way of pre-arranged modules, de-skilling the job at the shop floor.
COMPONENT MAKERS DOING IT TOO
Yet, against the backdrop of these robots, sourced from sister company Hyundai Heavy Industries, Hyundai employees aren’t letting things drift in favour of their inanimate factory mates. They have been working hard on improvements. These range from tools to detect the welding quality to an energy saver system that switches off power automatically during the breaks.
All this is part of a focussed programme called ACT 302, wherein workers have been urged to suggest ways to improve productivity by 30% in two years (that’s why the number 302).
Hyundai has never had to do such a focussed programme to get workers to ideate and collaborate until now; not even in its global mother plant at Ulsan, South Korea. The fact that India’s No. 2 carmaker decided to break tradition had largely to do with how workers were reacting to automation all around them.
As T Sarangarajan, Vice President in charge of production, puts it, the workers were getting panicky. There was a need to engage them, he says. Thus, ACT 302. “We have to make use of BOB ( best of both),” says Rajan Wadhera, chief of technology, product development and sourcing, Mahindra & Mahindra.
It’s not just carmakers, even component vendors are automating factories. The level of automation in Apollo Tyres’ brand-new Chennai plant is the highest among all its plants. “Our Chennai unit was built with automation as an intrinsic part of its operations and, therefore, it is part of the plant culture,” says Satish Sharma, chief (India operations).
“Automating may seem more expensive in terms of initial investment, but the advantages outweigh the capital costs over a short period of time.” Apollo has already set in motion an automation deployment plan for all its four India facilities.
For Indian firms, the first steps are always through the low-hanging fruit of automation – found in three areas. One, areas that require extremely high precision. Two, where hazard levels are high. Three, where human fatigue can be a factor. That should actually gladden workers at the shop floor. It has, in some measure.
But it has also spooked them. That’s because there is a likely future for automation beyond the low-hanging fruit. Already, work done by a group of workers earlier is now managed easily by a robot. Also, to be in the game, workers would need more advanced skills.
THE RE-SKILL MANTRA
The Indian auto shop floor isn’t as automated as those in the more mature markets. So, while German carmaker Volkswagen’s Chakan plant has an automation of 30% in its body shop, the comparative number back home would be 90%.
In the West, the biggest leap in automation happened “in the welding shop where robots were introduced to practically all welding by the 1980s”, says Cambridge-based lean expert James Womack, who predicted Toyota’s ascent in the auto world way back in the early 1980s in The Machine That Changed the World. Then, the paint shop was fully automated.
“The remaining area is the final assembly of the car. Here automation has progressed only very slowly,” Womack says. In low-wage countries like India, the question Womack asks is whether rising wages and rising production volumes will lead to the levels of automation as in mature economies. “And the answer is yes.” Yet, he reckons, Indian workers can breathe easy for now. That’s because volume growth will more than make up for the increasing automation levels.
India’s car output, Crisil Research predicts, is set to double from current levels to about 4 million units by 2015-16. Labour does remain an alluring option, despite recent problems. That’s why, Abdul Majeed, auto practice leader, PricewaterhouseCoopers, reckons, “The growth of automation will be slow in India.” This is despite robots enabling efficiency improvement between 25% and 30%, he says.
M&M’s Wadhera gives more reasons as to “why the decision to go for robotic automation is sometimes not easy to make in India.” Enormous shortage of skilled personnel is one. Another is the high cost of maintenance.
Automakers don’t have to make hard choices at this point of time. They can increase automation levels and then redeploy the workforce. The high rate of growth in the industry makes this possible. So, although there is no immediate threat to workers in the Indian shop floor, the demands on them aren’t the same anymore. Their roles are changing.
Says Apollo’s Sharma: “We do not have what has traditionally been referred to as ‘workers’ at the Chennai plant.” Apollo, instead, has shop floor engineers who are not just in charge of running machinery but also its upkeep, maintenance and effecting innovation.Volkswagen India has launched the Mechatronics Apprenticeship Programme, based on the German dual system of vocational training.
This three-year programme seeks to provide modern automation technologies to apprentices. “More automation requires more skilled force,” says John Chacko, president and MD, Volkswagen India.
A Maruti official talks of multi-skilling on the shop floor. Mahindra’s Wadhera emphasises the need to re-skill. Hyundai’s Sarangarajan says there’s a clear career road map from worker to supervisor, the latter role isn’t vulnerable to technological advances.
In a June 2010 analysis, Hyung Je Jo, professor of sociology at the University of Ulsan, ascribed Hyundai’s global success in recent years to, among other things, a production model that has reduced dependence on direct labour but increased automation levels.
SRIRAM SRINIVASAN, SANJAY VIJAYAKUMAR & LIJEE PHILIP