Machinery automation: A double edged sword

Written by: Subir Ghosh

A double Automation is no longer knocking at the doorstep; it's already here. But more than being an eventuality, the migration towards automation is the cumulative result of a number of factors: from the compulsions of cut-throat competition and need to boost efficiencies to the obvious benefits from big data and the fluency of operations brought about by technology. But in a country like India, where the textiles and apparel sector is one of the largest avenues for direct employment and indirect livelihood, the inevitable move towards automation needs to be handled sensitively, and with tact, writes Subir Ghosh

 

In September this year, leading fabric and fashion retailer Raymond decided to truncate its workforce by a third. The company decided to replace 10,000 of its employees with robots. And this was a company that employed roughly 30,000 people across 16 manufacturing units across the country.

 

Raymond CEO Sanjay Behl told a newspaper on the occasion, "Roughly 2,000 work in each plant. Through technological intervention we are looking to scale down the number of jobs to 20,000, through multiple initiatives in technology. One robot could replace around 100 workers. While it is happening in China at present, it will also happen in India." The numbers were too big to be ignored.

 

3.jpgThe move by Raymond was the first by a big company towards a direction that industry experts have been talking about for a while, in fact since the very beginning of the post-quota regime. What was at that time dismissed either as speculative science fiction or simply as mumbo-jumbo, is now becoming an ensuing reality. The reasons behind the Raymond decision were simple: a need to cut costs and an equal need to increase efficiency. The decision certainly showed financial results immediately for the company: share prices jumped nearly 10 per cent over that particular September weekend.

 

The beginning of the trend, of course, will not be unique to the textiles and apparel industry alone. Earlier this year, the World Economic Forum (WEF) in its report titled The Future of Jobs had predicted that the world is standing at the cusp of the 4th Industrial Revolution, and that advancements in technology will destroy over 5 million jobs by 2020. The fields that were said to be the drivers were automation, artificial intelligence, robotics and biotechnology. The WEF report had cracked down on the numbers, ".. Current trends could lead to a net employment impact of more than 5.1 million jobs lost to disruptive labour market changes over the period 2015-2020, with a total loss of 7.1 million jobs.."

 

Various studies have indicated that automation will wipe out 50 per cent of all IT (information technology) jobs in India. The top five IT companies in the country hired 24 per cent less employees in 2015 due to automation and robots. A report released about a year ago by National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM), titled Perspective 2025: Shaping the Digital Revolution, had predicted all this in clear words. The report, based on extensive research conducted for over a year by McKinsey & Company, had said that about 260 million jobs would be replaced or augmented by technology.

 

Industry's own predictions

What's true for IT (as also other IT-intensivve sectors) is also true for the textiles and apparel industry, probably only in a bigger way since the latter is a manfacturing powerhouse. Similar predictions had been made by a report titled Textile industry as a vehicle of job creation for inclusive growth that was released in July by The Cotton Textiles Export Promotion Council of India (Texprocil) and Ernst & Young (E&Y).

 

This report had outlined three trends. According to the first, increased automation and state-of-the art machines are reducing the dependence on labour. For instance, only two persons as compared to the earlier 20 persons can man one autoconer. Second, the growing popularity of synthetics is causing a shift in production from spun yarn to synthetic filament yarn, which has lower labour intensity. And third, as the textile and apparel sector becomes more organised there is higher operational efficiency and labour productivity, leading to lower job creation. For example, a local tailor produces two pillow covers in a day, while in an organised setup one tailor produces around 20 pillow covers a day.

 

The prediction about the fallout of automation trends on employment that was made by Texprocil-E&Y could have almost gone unnoticed. It had pointed out, "With the current business as usual scenario just ~29 lakh workers would be required to meet the demands of the domestic market in five years, down from 47.5 lakh today." In short, one of the biggest employers in India would now be creating less jobs than earlier.

 

This report came close on the heels of the government approving a 6,000 crore package for the textiles and apparel industry with an aim to create one crore new jobs over the next three years and attract investments of $11 billion. The Texprocil-E&Y report, however, said the technological advancement leading to increased efficiency may reduce job opportunities. From a high of 40 workers being employed by the industry, it has now declined to 25 workers per 1 crore.

 

In many ways, what the Texprocil-E&Y report had virtually done was to show a way out for the Union government to create jobs (in that face of its tall promise), while keeping automation trends in mind. It had said in as many words, "To succeed amidst the shifting tides, it is imperative that India takes critical steps to address the challenges this sector faces in the domestic as well as global context, in order to realise the potential of the textiles and apparel sector and create jobs at an accelerated pace."

 

The advent of Textiles 4.0

The latest advancements in robotics for the textiles and apparel industry has been consistently showcased at trade fairs for the last couple of years. Machinery companies have been presenting innovative solutions with respect to automation for the various functions in textile and apparel manufacture like ginning, spinning, knitting, weaving, dyeing, finishing and various others.

 

In the run up to ITMA 2015, Germany's Neuenhauser Maschinenbau GmbH, which provides automated handling and transport system for natural, chemical and carbon fibre bobbins, announced that it would exhibit new automation solutions for collecting packages from spinning machines, palletising and packaging at the event.

 

Wilhelm Languis, head for textile industry automation at Neuenhauser, summed it up best, "Anybody who walks into a spinning plant, wherein Neuenhauser has had a hand in designing, is likely to believe to be in some kind of a science fiction film. Robots carry out an enormous variety of tasks autonomously in cavernous production halls almost unpopulated by humans. Even loading and unloading the machines, transporting and packing the bobbins are executed without human intervention."

 

Languis was right; innumerable spinning units are fast switching over to robots to do labour-intensive tasks formerly carried out by people. These include handling, transport and packaging of bulky natural, chemical and carbon fibre bobbins. His company now provides solutions to spinning mills all over the world and 80 per cent of its output is exported. Its primary markets-not surprisingly-are the textile-apparel hubs of India, China, Turkey and the United States.

 

4.jpgNeuenhauser is very much in India-only last year, it provided automation solutions involving robotics to the Welspun manufacturing facility at Anjar in Kutch district of Gujarat. That particular project was one of its largest orders ever, one that was meant specifically for roving bobbin and package transport systems with palletisation. On its part, Welspun had wanted a completely automated, contactless material transport system for its unit. That solution to its need, it got from Neuenhauser.

 

What Neuenhauser did for Welspun is a case in point-it implemented Cantrac, a floor-based tracking system for carrying the cans containing loose fibre strips by a walking floor mechanism-from combing machines to draw frames to roving frames. Next, they installed Textra, a transport system for roving bobbin transport, containing closed profile rails, curves and switches for guiding trolley rollers.

 

According to Neuenhauser, "Friction-drive motors drive the trolley trains. Bobbins are automatically transferred to the trains by a bobbin doffer on the roving frame. From here, they are taken to the storage area or the spinning machines with the help of the trains. The bobbins are then inserted in the roving frame creel, replacing empty tubes. A flexible link system makes transporting any roving yarn produced at any roving frame to any given spinning frame easy. The control system makes sure that the right roving yarn is delivered to the right spinning frame." For many manufacturers that sounded too real to be true.

 

Autoflow came next for picking up packages of finished yarn. This measure can manage and transport over 1,000 packages per hour with more than 20 articles simultaneously. These are then transferred to a palletiser or a carton picking system for shipping. Such automation helps manufacturers keep a contactless material transport system, extremely short clearance time, and zero chances of misdirection of the yarns.

 

This, of course, is only one case study, pointed out by Languis a little more than a year back. But as the Raymond example now shows, automation is in-real big time.

 

More trends, more predictions

Exactly a year ago, at the fag end of 2015, technology research and advisory company Technavio released its report on the global textile machinery market, which analysed the most important trends that it expected to impact the market outlook during 2016-2020. The top three emerging trends driving the global textile machinery market, it said, were automation in textile machinery; growing popularity of spinning machinery in India; and overseas demand for Spanish machinery. According to Technavio, an emerging trend is a factor that has the potential to significantly impact the market and contribute to its growth or decline.

 

Technavio, in a statement, pointed out what is now obvious. It said, "Automation plays a crucial role in improving the quality and cost-competitiveness of textiles. Automated textile machinery accelerates textile production and increases the flow rate of fabric, enabling lean manufacturing. Automation plays a significant role in fibre manufacturing, yarn manufacturing, weaving, dyeing, and finishing processes."

"Automating the manufacturing processes should reduce labour cost and manual handling of machines significantly, and avoid shop-floor mishaps. This will result in the development of superior quality products," remarked Anju Ajaykumar, a lead analyst at Technavio for engineering tools research.

 

Both the Technavio and Texprocil-E&Y reports can also be seen in a different light altogether-in the context of what China has been doing of late. The "why" factor is probably just as important.

 

China took over from Japan as the world's largest market for industrial robots in 2013, according to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR). In February this year, the findings of a survey conducted by IFR revealed, "Never before have so many robot units been sold in one year as were sold in China in 2014 (57,100 units). The boom is continuing unabated in line with the forecasts: In 2018, China will account for more than one-third of the industrial robots installed worldwide."

 

According to the China Briefing business intelligence newsletter of Dezan Shira & Associates, "During the years of double digit growth, the manufacturing sector capitalised on China's massive supply of young able-bodied workers. High birthrates during the 1960s and 1970s contributed to a demographic dividend that flooded the labour market with cheap, young, and strong workers-prime for the physical demands of manufacturing." This era has now almost ended, most analysts conclude.

 

But China is not just thinking ahead; it has found a way out. As Dezan Shira says, "While a diminishing workforce and stronger government enforcement of regulations are increasing the costs of labour, China aims to remain competitive by boosting productivity and producing higher value goods. As certain labour-intensive industries such as apparel shift to lower cost locations like Vietnam and India, Beijing is responding by encouraging manufacturers to move up the value chain and produce more innovative products. The 'Made in China 2025' campaign promotes this effort, hoping to spur the Middle Kingdom into a global power in manufacturing advanced technology in place of cheap and often imitated merchandise."

 

This is also reflected in the IFR survey report which concurred, "At 36 units per 100,000 employees or about half the global average figure, China is currently in 28th place. Within the overall global statistics, this is roughly on a par with Portugal (42 units), or Indonesia (39 units). However, about five years ago, China embarked on a historically unparalleled game of catch-up aimed at changing the status quo, and already today it is the world's largest sales and growth market for industrial robots."

As it had done shortly after it joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) almost ten years back, the manufacturing powerhouse of China seems determined to drive industrial trends for Industry 4.0 as well.

 

India has to go the automation way too

Assessments and predictions in India vary in terms of details, but most people are agreed on one thing: that automation is inevitable, and is possibly the best way out of stagnation.

 

Gurudas Aras, director (textile engineering group) at ATE Group, which provides a range of textile machinery and accessories across the value chain along with a comprehensive range of utilities, believes, "Certainly robotics is the future of manufacturing. However, for an industry like textiles, it might take some time to get robotics introduced on a big scale. Automation has been fast picking up over the last couple of years. Looking at the increasing costs of labour as well as availability issues in India, there is a huge scope for automation in our industry." He sees the garment industry to be investing more in cutting room automation, laser finishing, special garment washing machines, as well as special garment finishing equipment.

 

Bharath Subramaniam, director at Mehala Machines India Limited, thinks that with rising labour costs and falling labour productivity in India, "the apparel sector is very much on the lookout for affordable technology to reduce dependency on labour and improve efficiency and productivity." He sees "an increasing demand for sewing machines which come with features that reduce human handling-be it elimination of manual processes such as feeding of cut pieces, and unloading. With use of robotics, human handling is reduced, which results in consistency in quality and output. Technologies such as CAD, automatic cutting and spreading machines are in good demand as they help in reducing fabric consumption, increasing efficiency, improving productivity and reducing labour costs."

On the issue of robotics in apparel, he goes on to add, "Robotics for apparel manufacturing is in its nascent stages due to the loose nature of fabrics. Robots are suitable to handle materials that are hard. We have seen in recent times in news that there is a method to temporarily harden the fabric and make it suitable to be handled by robotic arms for sewing operation, and in the end the fabric will be soaked in water to reinstate the original loose nature. This seems to be a good beginning."

 

G Radhakrishnan, managing director of Sieger Spintech Equipments Private Limited, not only believes that industrial automation is inevitable, he even describes it as the need of the hour. "As availability of skilled and unskilled labour force is decreasing day by day, automation in textile machinery is a boom for the textiles industry. Sieger has thought about this well in advance and we have started producing machines with a lot of automation and robots."

 

Sieger has a yarn conditioning plant with full automation called Auto Line. This plant consists of automatic loading of trolleys, automatic increase of moisture content in the pre-conditioning chamber, conditioning of the textile material in the yarn conditioning plant and unloading of trolleys. Second, C to C, or short for cone-to-container system, is "where we employ robots in our machinery and it is a sophisticated and automated system to pick, transport, pack and store the cone from the automatic winders to storage yards."

 

Amitabh Vohra, director at AM Inno-spin Systems Pvt Ltd, which specialises in spinning and material handling and provides custom designed turnkey projects for automation in material handling, sees inadquate skilled manpower as a challenge. And therefore, "any automation which reduces manpower and increases the efficiency and quality of the plant is welcomed by the industry. We have recently introduced automatic cone packaging line with a unified system."

 

But, Amoli Shah, director with the Prashant Group of Industries, does not want to rush. Points out Shah, "The textiles industry in India employs about 45 million people. It is the second largest employment generator after agriculture. I really don't think that complete automation is possible in this industry. However, since labour cost is increasing day by day, automation is the way to go in the future, and therefore there is a huge scope for automation in the textiles industry."

 

Shah elaborates on reduced human intervention, "Robots can perform repeatedly precise jobs better than human beings. Various manual functions required in the conventional sectional warping need to be replaced by technological advancement to cater to the highly changing fashion trends. Some of the unique features of our Robowarp PB 9 for instance include endless warping, highest productivity, flexibility, perfect warp quality, automatic leasing, finest quality weaver beam, independent use from both side of creel."

 

Costs, people and automations

Parkdale, a US cotton spinning mill which closed down in the 1990s, re-opened in 2010. But, there is a fundamental difference in the company's production dynamics after its revival: the factory now produces 1.1 tonnes of yarn per week with just 140 employees. That same production would have required over 2,000 people in 1980. Large-scale automation has been the key to the mill's revival.

 

This case study was pointed out in a research study conducted by the International Labour Organization (ILO). The findings of the study, ASEAN in transformation: Textiles, clothing and footwear - Refashioning the future, were as clear as the other ones mentioned in this article, "The robot age is already a reality among ASEAN manufacturers, who have been incrementally introducing robotic automation to improve productivity, quality, consistency, and workplace safety. Critically, widespread use of robots does not automatically lead to job replacement. Current trends reveal that robots are being deployed in a human-centric, collaborative way to raise the productivity of higher-skilled workers, rather than replace them."

 

It went on to indicate what the future would be: "Here, skilled jobs are particularly vulnerable to disruptive technologies, like additive manufacturing and automation. This could reduce export growth, as destination markets in Europe and the United States bring production back home. The subsequent social consequences could be particularly significant for some ASEAN economies, such as Cambodia and Vietnam".

 

The disruptive technologies that found mention were: 3D printing, body scanning technology, computer-aided design (CAD), wearable technology, nanotechnology, environmentally friendly manufacturing techniques, and lastly, robotic automation.

 

And it is a lot about costs. Thet Su Zin Win, director at Maple Trading of Myanmar, told the ILO researchers, "In the past, the sewing department needed to re-cut fabric by hand. The Smart Myanmar team [a technical project] advised us to make the cutting department to [be operated by machines] strictly follow orders. The result was unbelievable. There is no longer re-cutting in the sewing department. It saved us approximately $3,600 (Bt13,000) a year: 65.4 per cent on material costs and 34.6 per cent on labour costs."

 

The ILO report too had agreed that it would be China that would drive automation. The reasoning went something like this, "First, China's extensive material base is unrivalled in Asia. Other countries in ASEAN cannot provide the full vertical supply chain and many import from China. Second, China has a long history of manufacturing and extensively investing in highly efficient and specialised ports, roads, bridges and services to support the movement of goods. Third, lower wages in ASEAN are not only offset by inferior infrastructure, but also worker productivity. Interviewees stressed that Chinese workers are higher skilled and more experienced. Additionally, the major focus in China's TCF sector has been to sustain competitiveness through investment, individual training and lead time reduction. Finally, the growing middle class in China brings millions more individuals armed with new spending power that will increase net consumption. Alongside this, the proportion of income committed to discretionary and semi-necessity spending is predicted to rise by 13.4 per cent and 10.9 per cent a year until 2020, while mainstream consumers are expected to reach 51 per cent in 2020, up from 6 per cent in 2010."

 

The aggressiveness as well as the famed Chinese obsession for efficiency was documented in the same report. "A textile and clothing manufacturer in China reported to Aljazeera in 2015 that technology is becoming a critical component of maintaining competitiveness in the industry as it increases productivity and reduces labour costs. The company employs about 5,000-6,000 workers during peak operations and generates between $113 million and $129 million in sales annually. They developed a digital printer [invested $ 500,000] which prints 30 metre lengths of cloth in one minute. The printer reduced the workload of eight people down to three and allows sales of $161 million to be achieved with maximum 300 workers-roughly 20 times more productivity per capita."

 

The human element

Cutting jobs in a world that is still in the throes of the 2008 recession is not easy. There are some who try to find ways out. An example of this is marked in the ILO study. An Adidas official in Indonesia remarked on how the brand is handling such situations, "If we have a process that was done by three to four people, then we see the need for automation. However, we take into consideration that due to automation the excess labour doesn't get laid off. We collect all the excess manpower and then set up another manual process which implies increased capacity. By having one more line, we have more capacity. Actually, none of the people lose their job due to technology. We relocate them to the new line which is developed."

 

When the concern is expanded to a country like India, where the textiles and apparel sector is a major source of livelihood, it would become a nightmare for the Indian government. Currently, the textiles and apparel sector employs 76 million people across sub-sectors and allied industries. Of this, only 21.7 million are employed directly, while 71.2 per cent are employed indirectly, in allied industries. Of those employed directly, 40 per cent have jobs in the high labour intense textiles segment. In terms of job creation, the industry is already down. According to Texprocil-E&Y, "The number of jobs created per 1 crore of output in the domestic sector has declined from a high of 40 workers to 25 workers in the last 15 years."

 

Looking at the changing dynamics of the industry as also keeping the human element in mind, the Texprocil-E&Y report had emphasised in its preface, "This sector is the best bet for job creation in general and 'good for development' jobs in particular. It also has the unique capacity to support India's long standing policy objective of inclusive growth, without any additional cost to the government. The non-migratory production model holds special promise to address a host of issues like women empowerment, increasing low labour force participation rate (LFPR) for rural women, and others. Hence, it is prudent for the government to actively promote this production model.

 

"Growth of the textiles and apparel sector is crucial for the growth of jobs in the country. To succeed amidst the shifting tides, it is imperative that India takes critical steps to address the challenges this sector faces, in the domestic as well as global context. A tariff regime that is at par with competing countries, and favourable trade agreements with select destination markets can help realise the potential of the sector and create jobs at an accelerated pace." It was a question of doing a balancing act.

 

At the end of the day, that's what industry might need to do as well.