Automobile industry

Three Japanese words help Maruti Suzuki strike a balance between robots and humans

Kitanai (dirty), Kiken (dangerous) and Kitsui (difficult) sum up the carmaker’s philosophy for deploying machines instead of men.

For 16 hours every day, a serpentine production line coiled inside a 600-acre facility in Manesar shapes and slots steel, rubber, and plastic into shiny new Maruti Suzuki cars.

The largest facility of India’s biggest carmaker, some 55 m away from New Delhi, works at a prodigious pace. Amid a somewhat dystopian industrial township of glass-fronted buildings, boxy manufacturing units and dusty sidewalks, this sprawling factory typically spits out 3,100 cars in 960 minutes daily. The rate of over three vehicles every minute helps Maruti Suzuki, majority owned by Japan’s Suzuki Motor Corp, maintain its control over 47% of India’s passenger car market.

Inside the factory’s cavernous hangers, some 7,000 workers and 1,100 robots work in tandem. Around noon at the welding shop, where steel beaten into various automotive shapes is hauled in, there is a constant whirring of yellow robots fusing disparate pieces into the familiar frame of a car. Sparks fly as the robotics welding arms hit the metal, the action unfolding safely enclosed within secure pens. An array of green and orange lights blink intermittently, signalling to a handful of yellow-helmeted operators who watch over carefully.

At one point in the production process, some 20 half-built car bodies in a straight line are worked on by 250 robots, providing a display of robotic gymnastics that can prove bewildering to the untrained eye. But there is a method to the madness.

The company’s underlying philosophy for deploying robots instead of humans in certain operations is outlined by three Japanese terms, or the 3K, explains PK Roy, Maruti Suzuki’s senior vice president for the Manesar plant.

Kitanai (Dirty)

Kiken (Dangerous)

Kitsui (Difficult)

Once used to describe jobs that were shunned by Japan’s native workforce and usually taken over by immigrant workers, 3K has been adapted by Maruti Suzuki as the yardstick to decide where robots will replace human workers. “The idea is that where ever we have 3K operations, we will use robots,” said Roy. “It is practically impossible for a human to do that job consistently.”

Line ’em up. (Credit: Maruti Suzuki)
Line ’em up. (Credit: Maruti Suzuki)

At the weld shop of the carmarker, for instance, robots are gaining ground, especially as the company uses higher volumes of high-tensile steel in its vehicles. To cut and weld these thinner and tougher steel sheets into car bodies, Maruti Suzuki is deploying smaller, faster and more flexible robots. With 10,000 tonnes of steel consumed by the Manesar facility, the volumes involved are not insignificant. At the paint shop, too, the machines have taken over. And every one of them is imported.

Yet, there are large swathes of the Manesar factory where humans are simply irreplaceable – right now, and for the foreseeable future. On the stretch of the assembly line where doors are fitted on car bodies, young, uniformed men work in an unerring flow. As an endless procession of car bodies move along a conveyer belt, one worker reaches out to grab a backdoor fixed on a rig. In under a minute, he manoeuvres the rig to the right spot, pulls the door out, plonks himself on the back seat, fits the door into the body, tightens everything up and then steps out to prepare for the next car.

“Typically, where judgement is required, where the eye or some kind of sensing is required, we can’t use robots,” said Roy. “Delicate work needs hands.”

From seats belt to air-conditioners and light fittings to exterior trims, Maruti Suzuki can’t help but rely on experienced workers who can get the job done precisely and quickly. And as cars for Indian customers become laden with an ever increasing list of features, Roy reckons that a factory like Manesar will probably need more hands, not less. “In 1983, for example, we were predominantly producing non-AC Maruti 800s. But now, today all the cars have this as a standard feature,” he said. “If you add more features, you need more people to do assembly.”

At a time when automation seems poised to threaten millions of jobs in India, especially in the labour-intensive manufacturing sector, Roy’s prognosis is upbeat. It is also one that analysts agree with. “The content in a car is steadily increasing and we need a higher number of people to assemble the car as the production line would have a higher number of stops,” said Deepesh Rathore of Emerging Markets Automotive Advisors, a Gurugram-headquartered consultancy. “Looking across the supply chain [original equipment manufacturers and suppliers], I actually feel that the labour force would increase.”

For now, the current 3K-based formula for balancing machines and mortals is delivering the goods for Maruti Suzuki. The assembly lines at the Manesar plant work at 98% efficiency, which means that for every 480-minute shift, the company can afford a stoppage of only around nine minutes. For the workmen at the factory, that can be quite a pace to maintain. For the robots, it’s probably just good vibrations.

This article first appeared on Quartz.

We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

How sustainable farming practices can secure India's food for the future

India is home to 15% of the world’s undernourished population.

Food security is a pressing problem in India and in the world. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), it is estimated that over 190 million people go hungry every day in the country.

Evidence for India’s food challenge can be found in the fact that the yield per hectare of rice, one of India’s principal crops, is 2177 kgs per hectare, lagging behind countries such as China and Brazil that have yield rates of 4263 kgs/hectare and 3265 kgs/hectare respectively. The cereal yield per hectare in the country is also 2,981 kgs per hectare, lagging far behind countries such as China, Japan and the US.

The slow growth of agricultural production in India can be attributed to an inefficient rural transport system, lack of awareness about the treatment of crops, limited access to modern farming technology and the shrinking agricultural land due to urbanization. Add to that, an irregular monsoon and the fact that 63% of agricultural land is dependent on rainfall further increase the difficulties we face.

Despite these odds, there is huge potential for India to increase its agricultural productivity to meet the food requirements of its growing population.

The good news is that experience in India and other countries shows that the adoption of sustainable farming practices can increase both productivity and reduce ecological harm.

Sustainable agriculture techniques enable higher resource efficiency – they help produce greater agricultural output while using lesser land, water and energy, ensuring profitability for the farmer. These essentially include methods that, among other things, protect and enhance the crops and the soil, improve water absorption and use efficient seed treatments. While Indian farmers have traditionally followed these principles, new technology now makes them more effective.

For example, for soil enhancement, certified biodegradable mulch films are now available. A mulch film is a layer of protective material applied to soil to conserve moisture and fertility. Most mulch films used in agriculture today are made of polyethylene (PE), which has the unwanted overhead of disposal. It is a labour intensive and time-consuming process to remove the PE mulch film after usage. If not done, it affects soil quality and hence, crop yield. An independently certified biodegradable mulch film, on the other hand, is directly absorbed by the microorganisms in the soil. It conserves the soil properties, eliminates soil contamination, and saves the labor cost that comes with PE mulch films.

The other perpetual challenge for India’s farms is the availability of water. Many food crops like rice and sugarcane have a high-water requirement. In a country like India, where majority of the agricultural land is rain-fed, low rainfall years can wreak havoc for crops and cause a slew of other problems - a surge in crop prices and a reduction in access to essential food items. Again, Indian farmers have long experience in water conservation that can now be enhanced through technology.

Seeds can now be treated with enhancements that help them improve their root systems. This leads to more efficient water absorption.

In addition to soil and water management, the third big factor, better seed treatment, can also significantly improve crop health and boost productivity. These solutions include application of fungicides and insecticides that protect the seed from unwanted fungi and parasites that can damage crops or hinder growth, and increase productivity.

While sustainable agriculture through soil, water and seed management can increase crop yields, an efficient warehousing and distribution system is also necessary to ensure that the output reaches the consumers. According to a study by CIPHET, Indian government’s harvest-research body, up to 67 million tons of food get wasted every year — a quantity equivalent to that consumed by the entire state of Bihar in a year. Perishables, such as fruits and vegetables, end up rotting in store houses or during transportation due to pests, erratic weather and the lack of modern storage facilities. In fact, simply bringing down food wastage and increasing the efficiency in distribution alone can significantly help improve food security. Innovations such as special tarpaulins, that keep perishables cool during transit, and more efficient insulation solutions can reduce rotting and reduce energy usage in cold storage.

Thus, all three aspects — production, storage, and distribution — need to be optimized if India is to feed its ever-growing population.

One company working to drive increased sustainability down the entire agriculture value chain is BASF. For example, the company offers cutting edge seed treatments that protect crops from disease and provide plant health benefits such as enhanced vitality and better tolerance for stress and cold. In addition, BASF has developed a biodegradable mulch film from its ecovio® bioplastic that is certified compostable – meaning farmers can reap the benefits of better soil without risk of contamination or increased labor costs. These and more of the company’s innovations are helping farmers in India achieve higher and more sustainable yields.

Of course, products are only one part of the solution. The company also recognizes the importance of training farmers in sustainable farming practices and in the safe use of its products. To this end, BASF engaged in a widespread farmer outreach program called Samruddhi from 2007 to 2014. Their ‘Suraksha Hamesha’ (safety always) program reached over 23,000 farmers and 4,000 spray men across India in 2016 alone. In addition to training, the company also offers a ‘Sanrakshan® Kit’ to farmers that includes personal protection tools and equipment. All these efforts serve to spread awareness about the sustainable and responsible use of crop protection products – ensuring that farmers stay safe while producing good quality food.

Interested in learning more about BASF’s work in sustainable agriculture? See here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.