Shooting was an early passion for Rajesh Manpat. As a student, he won several medals for air rifle shooting, including at the National Games, where he equaled a national record. But technological innovation and entrepreneurship were passions as well.
No surprise then that his first business foray was a device he invented called Elite Scorer – a device that helps in shooting practice. It uses infrared laser technology to score targets in real-time and provides a digital display of shot locations, transmitting them over WiFi. This was the beginning of iFuture Systems, in 2008. Starting with just US$90, Manpat obtained a patent for the Elite Scorer and began marketing it in 2013. It has since acquired customers, including defense personnel and shooting enthusiasts, across 26 countries.
But Manpat aspired for more. Having understood the nuances of building a service business in industrial automation, he handed over the charge of iFuture Systems to his family and launched iFuture Robotics. iFuture Robotics is an original equipment manufacturer that builds innovative robots to address warehouse automation needs.
In 2015, after carefully observing warehouse operations, Manpat devised ARK, which stands for Autonomous Robot for the Known environment. This robot can navigate a warehouse it has been familiarized with – the “known environment” – independently, to stack inventory or retrieve it as required, thereby reducing manpower costs and offering unlimited opportunity for scaling. “It was our first structural robot,” says Manpat. “It automated a lot of backend processes of e-commerce companies.” ARK was a winner at Qualcomm’s “Design in India” challenge, leading to Qualcomm becoming an early investor in the project, providing advice on technical, strategic, and intellectual property-related aspects and giving Manpat access to all its products built for Internet of Things (IoT) applications.
The ARK robot will soon be available in three models of ascending size:
- Mark1 can carry a payload of 20 kg and operate for six hours at a stretch
- Mark2 can carry a payload of 50 kg and operate for 12 hours at a stretch
- MINI can carry a payload of 500 kg and operate for eight hours at a stretch
Mark1 has been launched commercially, whereas the other two models will be available in 2018 along with another variant of ARK robot designed for factory floor automation. This variant can scan the environment and navigate its way to deliver parts and spares to different workers on the shop floor leading to lean and efficient manufacturing.
The customer base of iFuture Robotics is rapidly expanding in domestic and overseas markets. Among early users of Mark1 is one of India’s leading e-commerce retailers. “We have started a proof-of-concept with a large online retailer, distributing its products to its delivery vans,” says Manpat. iFuture Robotics has recently forayed into the European market by signing up a leading Swiss retailer in November 2017, and will deploy robots for sorting goods for retail stores in central warehouses. This makes iFuture Robotics the first Indian company to deploy robots abroad.
The robots are programmed to save both time and costs in innovative ways. “While loading the vans, for instance, the robots arrange the packages in such a way that no time is wasted when the vans reach the houses where deliveries are to be made,” says Manpat. “The process is structured to ensure that the least possible time is spent in the field. Our study shows 30%–40% increased efficiency in terms of both time and cost thanks to the robots because they can be used on multiple shifts in a single day, unlike human beings. Thus companies can run two or three shifts without any increase in manpower.”
Customization is key
Beyond the three basic robot models, Manpat takes pride in the customization that he, along with his team, has brought to the robots, enabling them to perform different tasks on the warehouse floor. “We have filed 10 patent applications in India and the United States,” he says. Manpat relies heavily on artificial intelligence (AI) tools. “The AI engine decides the best kind of robot for a job, the best product to pick at a particular point of time, the best path to take to reach each of the innumerable items in the warehouse, and more,” he adds. “AI technologies have been deployed to build models using large volumes of available data from which the system derives the best option.”
A unique feature of Manpat’s robots is the motion detection sensor they are equipped with, enabling them to maneuver their way even amid heavy traffic in any part of the warehouse. Such a safety measure is rare in mobile robotics, and Manpat acknowledges that he is still working on improvements. Sensor data is used to create better algorithms, leading to more reliable performance and data records captured in real time, which allows for preventive maintenance. For example, using the data helps predict the battery level of each robot at any stage so batteries can be changed in time to avoid disturbing warehouse operations. Manpat even hopes to use the data to capture real-time changes in the diameter of the robot’s wheels due to wear and tear and make adjustments so that the robot does not deviate from its path. This will lead to further savings on maintenance.
Manpat and his team have extensively deployed embedded hardware and computer-aided design in their robots. “We’ve used a lot of network and communications technology since we have multiple robots working in a single warehouse, which are connected to a single server,” he says. “A whole lot of different technologies have gone into building our solutions.”
Building the ARK was a challenge at every step. “The lack of local suppliers and vendors whose products met quality standards was a big hurdle in the early days,” says Manpat. “We had to import, which led to higher input costs and longer lead time. We had to plan production cycles well in advance. It was also difficult to raise capital from the market to acquire the hardware.” But he knows that to make his robots affordable, there is no alternative to procuring their parts locally. He also strives to find solutions that are scalable, so they can be applied in large numbers without incurring excessive costs.
Competition is another challenge – there are at least 10 companies manufacturing warehouse robots – but Manpat’s robots work out to be more economical because of their versatility. With labor costs low in India, a robot has to be able to perform the tasks of a number of workers to be worth a company’s investment. “I designed our products in such a way that each robot does more relevant tasks than other robots,” he says. “When my robots go around, they can handle six different SKUs at a time. In the United States or Europe, a robot handling a single SKU is enough to justify acquiring it, but not here.”
Since different Indian companies deploy different enterprise resource planning (ERP) software, another challenge for iFuture Robotics is creating robots whose application programming interface (API) is flexible enough to be compatible with all of them.
Another challenge is that building or acquiring a warehouse is itself a substantial investment, and companies are often reluctant to spend more on robots. Besides, most warehouses are designed for purely manual operations. “Our products suite is designed to work even in warehouses designed for manual operations only,” says Manpat. “But Indian companies need to factor in the future needs of automation and design warehouses accordingly.”
On the question of whether robots replacing people will lead to unemployment, Manpat remarked “Robots replace traditionally less value-added jobs with newer and more efficient jobs” He notes that robots have by no means increased unemployment in China, despite that country being the largest industrial robot manufacturing country in the world and the hub of cost-effective manufacturing solutions.
In coming years, Manpat wants his company to grow beyond servicing only Indian needs. His team is working on technologies that will help make the robots function effectively across warehouses catering to different sectors, including opportunities in the West. “We want to build a large product portfolio addressing different segments of the logistics industry,” says Manpat. He has plans of moving beyond the warehouse. “We could develop underlying technologies outside the warehouse, perhaps creating autonomous driving capabilities in the logistics sector,” he adds. “We have a five-year product road map and are currently working on products we hope to launch in 2019. We aim to be global leaders in robotics for smart logistics by 2022.”
To learn more about the future evolution of the human-machine relationship, read the in-depth report Bring Your Robot to Work.