In the last two decades, human productivity has in fact gone up thirty times in technology sectors. And processed food industry will not be an exception. Food processing and agriculture will also undergo the remarkable change which we will witness in the coming years. Rajat K. Baisya discusses the role of Cobots in improving productivity in the agri-food industry in this second part.


The agro-based industry in India holds significant promise to emerge as a global supply source. This we have been talking about for decades. A lot of development is happening in terms of process and manufacturing technology. India is an agriculture-rich country and about 16% of our GDP is contributed by agriculture. In spite of having the distinction of the number one producer in the world for many agricultural and horticultural products as well as low farm labour wages we are an insignificant player in the international market contributing only about 2.5% of global trade in food and agricultural sector. The reason being high wastage and low productivity which makes the Indian processed food product globally not competitive. The level of processing, as well as value addition, is still very low. Our domestic consumption of processed food is also low because processed foods are costlier and fresh foods are easily available which consumers prefer.

The majority of the Indian food industry is still in the unorganised sector but the growth of the processed food industry is largely due to the effort of the large players and multinationals (MNCs). Multinationals are helping the industry to grow by introducing new products, innovation, and upgrading process technology. The investment is also largely coming from MNCs, some of them, of course, are entering the Indian market through the acquisition of Indian family-owned companies. MNCs are primarily interested in the large domestic market in India and therefore, acquiring a local company helps them to get an easier entry into the domestic market and learn the tricks of the trade and value system of Indian business better.

Migrant Labour for Farm Sector and Food Industry

The large part of the agricultural farm labour workforce is constituted by migrant labours from the states like UP, Bihar and Andhra Pradesh. During both sowing and harvesting season, these migrant labours move to other states like Punjab and Haryana to work in the agricultural field living in difficult conditions and become the victim of the landlords’ and farm owners’ own rules of the game. Over the years this migrant labours’ number is declining and that throws up challenges to the farm sector. In our country farming is still done traditionally and largely labour intensive. Automation although not a new thing in the farm sector but in India, it is still limited to the use of the tractor and in the large farm may be using harvester. But not beyond that.

Agriculture engages a large workforce

Although agriculture contributes only 16% of our GDP now, and it absorbs over 50% of the total workforce. This workforce is employed in the season but their working conditions are still poor. The farm sector does not follow the minimum wage act and the farm labours are not organised. Their wage is low but their productivity is also low. Because of the low level of technology deployment during harvesting as well as in post-harvest stages our wastage and cost of the agricultural commodities are higher than desirable.

Robots in Agriculture and Food Processing

Robots in agriculture: Many agricultural products require very quick harvesting, many also require delicate handling and in those situations, Robots can work closely with human beings as well as animals. Robots can increase productivity as well as can perform delicate and high precision work with accuracy and therefore, can also reduce cost and help to improve the competitiveness of the agricultural sector. Robots which are capable of working alongside the human being and animals are called Cobots or collaborative robots which can be successfully used in the farm sector as well as in food processing industries. Cobots can release skilled workforce to the areas or for tasks which are more suitable and appropriate to their capabilities and skillsets. And this can come with a rapid or short payback period making cobots ideal for agricultural as well as food industry operations. There are significant advantages to engage cobots to work alongside the human workforce in agriculture and food processing industries in the sense that cobots will be able to deal with a lot of the strenuous, repetitive work involved in things like lifting and moving and even can work under difficult work conditions like the application of pesticides and weedicides which is hazardous in agricultural field. Cobots will not fall sick requiring sick leave and medical treatment. Cobots can take a lot of heavy work out of agricultural operations once the crops have been harvested helping both farming and food processing companies to boost product quality and customer responsiveness. Cobots can automate labour-intensive activities and make the operations cost-competitive. Cobots can also be used in agricultural farms collectively on a cooperative basis meaning cobots can be made available on hire only during the season for a specific cost of service for a period when required. That way an individual farmer can avoid capital investment.

Robots in Food Processing: During mango season we have seen a significant rise in the temporary workforce to be engaged for mango processing to produce mango pulp which is largely exported and also sold to large processors like Coke, Pepsi, and Parle in the domestic market. Mango season lasts about two months of the peak period and during that time mango processing industries work round the clock and as getting such a large workforce is not easy to those manufacturing units located in remote areas, most of the processors keep workers within the factory premises and make them work overtime which is at least 12 hours a day. These workers will need food and shelter which processors need to provide and that is a significant cost, complexity and administrative challenges for the processors. Cobots can easily replace that workforce and help reduce the cost of operation as well as complexity and management challenges in addition to providing better hygiene and quality. I can see a distinctive advantage of engaging cobots in the seasonal industry like food processing. Mango pulp is packed in an aseptic bag-in-box for export which can be totally automated improving the product hygiene and productivity which overseas buyers will prefer.

Robots in action: GNE Farm Equipment in the USA is using collaborative robots (cobots) to reduce the labour costs associated with milking cows thus helping the company to deal with the long-standing problem of acute shortage of qualified milkers. The cobots automate the labour-intensive process of manually disinfecting cows’ udder before and after being milked. The conventional system of tackling these requirements normally involves a large robot equipped with cameras and spray system. When triggered, the robot sends six-foot long pipe with sprayer under the cow to apply disinfectant. These floor-mounted robots require expensive installation into the floor of the milking parlor as well as fencing to safeguard employees. The installation of robots is expensive and also requires professional programming and training of employees. It also requires costly re-programing if there is power failure and robots loses power. Cobots is an ideal replacement in such a situation.

Orkla Foods in Sweden uses cobots to work independently to pack bags of vanilla cream into cartons and act as part of the network that includes carton erector, packer, a carton sealer, and a filling machine. When process requirement is flawless work eliminating costly supervision or extra support, cobots come handy and more productive solution in such situations in the food processing industry. Orkla Foods is present in India. Orkla entered Indian processed food market by acquiring

MTR Foods, a leader in ready to serve snacks in the country. If they are using cobots in their Sweden factory, the day will not be far that Orkla will be engaging cobots in their manufacturing operations in India as well.

There are many agricultural products which have a very short season and manufacturers of end product have to stock their entire year’s requirement during the season itself. Amla is another fruit largely available in UP and Bihar and very short season lasting about a month and it is required as an essential ingredient in Chyawanprash manufactured by companies like Dabur and Baidyanath, Himalaya etc. Amla pulp has to be stored in preserved form to be used during the winter season when consumption of Chyawanprash is highest. Cobot is a definite advantage in such operations.

I also can see the practical application of cobots in marine food processing industry in India which is also
highly labour intensive and cobots can help profitability improvement in marine food processing and make them globally more competitive. Use of cobots will also reduce the incidences of quality failure which is quite often in the processed food industry.

In India, Universal Robotics Ltd, a Danish company is operating having its office in Bangalore and supplying cobots to many industries in other areas and they control a large part of the global market making them a leader on cost-effective and affordable manufacturer and supplier of collaborative robots. In India Project & Technology Management Foundation (www.ptmfonline.com) has a strategic partnership with an EU funded Competence Centre ROBOFLEX working on the application of Robotics in SME sectors in Europe.

Conclusions

The general perception everyone has that Robots will take away the job of human beings making them unemployed. When the personal computer (PCs) was first introduced in the sixties there was resistance from the workforce in offices and factories for the fear that manual work will get eliminated resulting in unemployment. But the fact of the matter is that the computer did eliminate many types of manual work but people were not thrown out of employment. New employment opportunities were created, people learned to use the computer for productive purposes. And the internet has actually revolutionised the way we do business today. The technology has improved human productivity several times. In the last two decades human productivity has in fact gone up thirty times in technology sectors. We have now entered industrial revolution 4.0. The fourth industrial revolution is bringing together physical, digital and biological change. Everything will also get integrated into a new eco-system and our own identity will also change. As predicted, the impact of the fourth revolution will lead to polarisation of labour force as low skill and even middle-level jobs will be automated. A large portion of the jobs in the US is said to be at the risk from automation. Policymakers, economists, as well as politicians, are talking about Universal Basic Income (UBI). The changes are going to be so profound that from the perspective of human history there has never been a time of greater promise or even potential peril. Businesses have to gear up for these inevitable changes. And processed food industry will not be an exception. Food processing and agriculture will also undergo the remarkable change which we will witness in the coming years. In this article, we have discussed the implication of Robotics in the Processed food industry and Agriculture and how it can improve the productivity in Agriculture. In developed countries including Europe and US, use of robots and cobots are quite common even in SME sectors, we should welcome engaging them in our agriculture and food processing. In other industries in India, cobots are already making the news. Cobots will be shortly seen being used in Indian Agriculture and food processing as well.