Dr. Kesh Kesavadas, Founder and Global CTO, AirV Labs and professor of industrial engineering and computer science at the University of Illinois in Champaign, USA shares his views on adoption of digital technologies in manufacturing industry, the potential of Virtual Reality technology in the sector, and more.
How do you see the adoption of digital technologies in the manufacturing industry in India? What are the major factors driving its growth?
I think there has been a tremendous growth in adoption of digital technologies in India in the last 5-10 years. There has been significant adoption of Industrial IoT, 3D Printing technology, virtual prototyping, and predictive analytics using AI and machine learning, across large as well as mid-size companies. With the advent of Industrial IoT and Industry 4.0, automation is becoming cloud driven in order to improve efficiency. So, it is very encouraging.
As for the growth drivers, there is definitely a push from the government in modernizing manufacturing. Moreover, the fact that there are so many large companies who have set up their manufacturing divisions in India has also helped in bringing technologies that are being used in Europe or Japan and South Korea, which is being replicated in India. At a higher level, India has a very strong knowledge industry which can provide digital services to other countries. So, there is a strong awareness in terms of implementation of these technologies in India, which is helping the Indian industry as well because many of these technologies are in fact being implemented in Europe and in America by some of the leading Indian companies.
What are the major challenges impeding the adoption of new technologies in manufacturing industry? And what kind of reluctance do you see amongst the core manufacturing sector when it comes to full scale digitalization?
Digitalization requires investment. But in India, there is always a tendency to invest in technologies that give immediate benefit. Adoption of digital technology takes time for it to mature and produce results. So, the concern for many industries in terms of adoption is that they have to see what the return on investment is.
Secondly, although India has a strong knowledge based economy, in terms of adoption and implementation, there is a lack of skilled people who can actually implement that on a wide scale. That is a big problem. In future, if you want to be a plumber, you should also know what IoT sensors are because you are going to change a tap which will be connected to the internet at some point, recording the consumption of water. So, the skill level required for digitalization is actually pretty sophisticated. And I think there is a lack of enough skilled labor and also dearth of IT service companies who can provide this with a shallow learning curve.
How do you see the potential of AR/VR in transforming manufacturing?
AR/VR has been around for may be 20-25 years. I myself have been working in virtual reality space since in 1996. But what has really happened in the last six or seven years, is that the cost point of virtual reality implementation has dropped significantly. What we used to program in expensive computers can now run on a phone or on a laptop. So, the process for implementing VR has actually dropped down and these technologies are ready to be used in manufacturing and are in fact revolutionizing it.
One very popular use case which people always talk about is virtual prototyping which is about making the parts all the way from CAD modeling, to visualizing the end product as to how it is going to be manufactured. It is a fantastic example of improving the process of manufacturing completely in a virtual domain without having to make physical prototypes as the product that comes out will have a higher quality because you have already built that in a completely virtual environment.
But now, these technologies are getting much more useful for manufacturing than just prototyping; for example, visualizing your factory to know what is happening inside the factory, helping in tele maintenance i.e maintaining the machines remotely, training and safety, and more. So, the manufacturing industry can now start using VR in a much more rigorous fashion that can actually make it much more efficient.
How useful is VR technology in preventing accidents and disruptions and to what extent do you think it can reduce downtime and the cost incurred?
I think it is one of the best use cases for VR in manufacturing and some allied industries as well like construction. VR can play a very important role in reducing accidents, and one of the best ways in which you can do that is to provide high quality safety training for workers and technicians who are working in the field. That part of training has always seen a big gap in India and many developing nations.
So, we are also looking at things like training a crane operator in a construction industry or training for fire hazards inside a plant. Employees can be trained in a safe VR environment away from the shop and by the time they actually start working in the factory, they are much more prepared and if something happens, they can react better, ensuring the safety of manufacturing floor.
How do you think gamification is being combined with VR, and helping users perform better in a simulated environment?
That is definitely one of the elements of VR that makes it very attractive, especially for the younger generation, who are getting into workforce, and who have grown up playing games. Gamification makes learning more fun through what they call as active learning. When you gamify the activities, you are actually a part of the learning process and you can do things on your own. And then there are some rewards which make it more interesting.
There are many benefits of having this kind of VR training. Sometimes industry does not have the resources to give people training in a real environment or they do not want to put trainees at risk. But in a virtual gamified environment, you can make a mistake and learn from it because you do not have the risk of breaking anything. So, there are many facets of training using VR which are superior to many of the traditional kinds of hands-on skills training.
Could you please tell me about your company winning the NASSCOM manufacturing innovation challenge in the VR category?
The technology and the company were licensed from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, where I am a faculty in the industry engineering department. This was a technology that was developed in my center. One of the things that we were trying to focus on was to increase the speed at which one can build virtual reality environments. Traditionally, one of the bottlenecks for VR has been the time it takes to build VR environments, which is usually very slow and the content has always been a problem. So, we have been building a platform that can be used to design the environment in a short time. The way we develop the software is by merging 360 degree videos, video captured for the entire room or entire factory, and then merging them with virtual reality in a way to increase the speed of development of products. So, we licensed the technology and commercialized it.
India is a fantastic market for virtual reality as there is a lot of interesting technology adoption going on in India. When we saw the NASSCOM challenge competition for manufacturing innovation, we decided to compete for it. The challenge that was provided was to create a virtual plant. It was provided by Bayer Crop Sciences Company in India that was a partner with a NASSCOM Center of Excellence in AR/VR. We were one of the 90 companies who participated and finally, we were selected as the winner in AR/VR category.
How do you see the future of manufacturing industry in terms of technology adoption? Which technologies do you think have massive potential for the manufacturing industry, but are yet to be implemented?
Trends like virtual plant are going to become the norm. If you can reduce the number of people traveling to your factory, you are cutting down the cost. So, this technology is something that we are going to see grow. We are also going to see companies trying to reduce dependence on lower skilled employees. We are going to see adoption of technologies that can be used to monitor, collect data, and use that on the cloud so that people can work remotely. There is going to be a huge investment in that.
Another useful technology for the future is Cobots or Cooperative Robots. These are robots that can work with human beings hand-in-hand. Also, I think that we are going to see a lot more of next generation 3D Printing being adopted in the Indian industry. In last three to four months, companies have been making ventilators using 3D printed parts in India. People have woken up to the fact that there is a real value for these technologies in any situation. So, I believe that there is going to be a ten-fold increase in usage of 3D Printing.
As the pandemic fades out in 2021, there is going to be a big change in Indian industry and it is going to modernize itself in a very big way, with huge investment in VR/AR, machine learning and other technologies.