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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 October 2018

Technology is changing the face of the Indian workplace

Automation can relieve workers of jobs in factories that are often dirty, harmful to one's health, or dangerous

A dye factory in Mumbai, India. Automation could free workers from mundane repetitive tasks. Reuters
A dye factory in Mumbai, India. Automation could free workers from mundane repetitive tasks. Reuters

Ganesh Papad, a three-decade old company in India which manufactures papads, or papadums, has long relied on teams of workers to make its snack products – but it is increasingly turning to machines to do the job.

“To make 1,000 kilograms of handmade papads, we require 300 women,” says Harshal Chheda, the director at Ganesh Papad. “The new generation is not interested to make papads. Hence we're bringing in modern machines with capacity of 3,000kg per day and this is helping to save labour costs by up to 30 per cent and increasing profits.”

More and more companies in India are replacing people with machines in their factories.

The implementation of industrial automation, which includes the use of artificial intelligence and robotics, is expected to double in India in the next three years, according to a survey by Willis Towers Watson, a global advisory company.

Its findings reveal that the extent of automation in India is set to outpace the global and Asia Pacific averages.

But the country is starting from a low base - at just three installed industrial robots per 10,000 employees in 2016, according to Statista, far behind the leader South Korea at 631.

While companies in Asia Pacific expect 23 per cent of work to be carried out by machines in the next three years compared to 13 per cent today, in India, Asia's third-largest economy, it is expected to rise to 27 per cent from 14 per cent over that time period, Willis Towers Watson.

“This trend will definitely continue and is here to stay and, in fact, automation will increase irrespective of the industry,” says Nirupama VG, the managing director of Ad Astra, a human resources consulting firm based in Bangalore.

This comes as India's government is striving to expand the country's manufacturing sector to become a global hub under its “Make in India” initiative. This is aimed at creating more jobs for its population, which totals more than 1.3 billion, along with maintaining strong economic growth levels. India's economy grew by 8.2 per cent in the quarter between April and June, according to official data. The country's workforce is expected to balloon by 138 million by 2030, a 30 per cent increase, according to the McKinsey Global Institute.

Arvind Patel, who works as a diamond polisher in a factory in Surat in Gujarat, where most of the world's rough diamonds pass through for polishing, has seen the industry transform and become more and more dependent on high-end technology over his 30-year career.

“It used to take four people to operate a basic machine to polish one diamond,” he says. “Now technology has come in and there are machines that can polish many diamonds at the same time.”

Some diamond factories in Surat have robots that have four “arms”, which can replace the jobs of several workers.

Technology can relieve workers of jobs in factories that are often dirty, harmful to one's health, or dangerous.

Ms Nirupama says “mundane jobs” can often be carried out far more efficiently by robots and machines.

“Robots in a car manufacturing set-up fix the nuts and bolts and in manufacturing units, quality controls are done by cameras and defective products are rejected automatically,” she says.

Machines are becoming more and more sophisticated as technology advances, expanding the roles that they can perform in India's factories, she adds.

“Tools equipped with artificial intelligence, Internet of Things, machine learning and blockchains will have a predominant role to play where the functions are more process-oriented.”

Manish Kumar Jha, is the executive director of Aurinko Management, a recruitment consultancy in Mumbai that specialises in hiring for manufacturing firms.

“What we are witnessing here is that a lot of factories are opting for new-age technology, including machines and Internet of Things, which is replacing a lot of jobs at the bottom of the pyramid,” says Mr Jha. “A lot of efficiency and productivity is coming in because of machines.”

Naturally, these high-tech machines and technologies do come at a cost. Advanced robots for industrial use cost upwards of tens of thousands of dollars, while many factory workers in India may earn as little as a few dollars a day.

But the landscape of the working environment in India is changing and new jobs are being created, for example with the rise of ride-hailing app Uber and its homegrown rival Ola, and app-driven food delivery services such as Zomato, which are creating opportunities for Indians outside of its often dark and cramped factories. Such jobs can be more lucrative than factory employment for India's workers, too.

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“A lot of jobs might be going away from the manufacturing sector because of new-age technology, but because of these technologies a lot of jobs are also getting created,” says Mr Jha. “It's an interesting time. People are becoming more choosy about the kind of jobs that they want.”

Companies like Ganesh Papad say it is a growing struggle to find workers, so it is a necessity to use technology.

“The new educated Indians like to do jobs in malls, in front of a computer, and children of the workers are not coming to do the work their parents did,” says Mr Chheda. “Upgradation of technology and new machines that reduce manpower requirement is a must as business increases.”

This trend is gathering pace.

“Every factory is having only one aim,” says Mr Chheda. “Reduce people and increase machines to help productivity and reduce cost. This is the aim of every manufacturer in India and in future this will continue. The main benefit of machines is accuracy and better quality.”

But recruitment experts say that given the fact that machines are replacing a lot of jobs that require low skill levels, the challenge for India now lies in making sure that its workforce is much better skilled to be able to meet the demands of employers, who want people who can perform more complex tasks.

“Employers often don't find the relevant skill set,” says Mr Jha. “There's this mismatch of manpower. There are people who are available for generic kind of work, however employers are looking for very specialised skills, and that is not there.”

To solve this problem, the government and industry should focus even more on education and training to make sure that citizens are well-equipped for the changing demands of companies.

And manufacturing firms in the country will have to rapidly adapt to keep up with the changes.

Willis Towers Watson's research found that although more than half of India's manufacturing sector companies realise that they need to implement automation to boost their performance and productivity and remain competitive, only one out of three is actually prepared to manage such a change.

“The fact of the matter is that the future of work is already here, whether organisations realise it or not,” says Sambhav Rakyan, the head of talent and rewards at Willis Towers Watson India.

“Automation and the resulting shift in work arrangements will create new challenges that will test employer readiness around technology, future workforce requirements, HR programmes and an enabling organisational structure.”

Ms Nirupama believes that taking action to skill the population is one of the most pressing issues in India and, if it can get this right, there could be new opportunities on the horizon for the country's labour force.

“All jobs cannot be retained,” she says. “Hence people need to be multi-skilled or enhance their skills to upgrade their skill sets. Robots are created and are controlled by human beings.”