Auto makers bet big on robots as frequent labour stirs hit output

In August-September last year, India's largest carmaker, Maruti Suzuki, found itself in a particularly tough spot. Around 1.5 lakh customers were awaiting delivery of the Swift and Dzire, two of its most popular products, but the company was hardly able to produce them. A violent clash with workers at its plant in Manesar outside Delhi in July led operations to be shut for a month and 500 workers to be fired, and even after restarting operations by mid-August with a few workers, the initial output was still very low. Maruti, which sells two out of every five cars in India, not only risked losing revenue but market share and future brand loyalty to the hungry competition.

Desperate to get back on track, Maruti then turned to robots. Just a year before in September 2011, it had set up a new fully automated weld line at the Manesar plant, which meant that even if it did not have enough workers to man other key functions like the assembly line, paint shop and quality checks, it could still, however, run the weld line without interruptions. Thus, it decided to make only the car bodies for the Swift and Dzire at Manesar and then send them to its other plant in Gurgaon for the final assembly.

A car production line is typically divided into three sub-lines — a weld line, followed by a paint shop and a final assembly line. "The assembly line typically needs the most number of workers. At our newest line in Manesar, the weld line is 100% automated, while the paint shop has about 70% automated. Customers are demanding better quality products today and higher automation helps in maintaining consistent quality. Wherever there is mass production, automation is cost-effective," a Maruti official told FE, while requesting anonymity.

Maruti may be the best-known example, but it is hardly alone.

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