Robotics To Transform Several Industries, But Not Before We Bridge The Skills Gap
For the robotics companies facing employability issues, tying up with the engineering institutes and collaboration in creating and running their labs and projects is important
Imagine a task like picking and sorting the correct packets out of 10,000 different items stored in a warehouse and dispatch it to the right addresses picked from a list comprising 50,000 entries. The task is not only complex but repetitive, and requires immense accuracy, speed, and continuity. This is exactly the kind of industrial problems that robotics can address and transform several industries. Industry 4.0., the fourth phase of industrial revolution, envisions 'smart industries', where advanced automation supports workers to complete their increasingly complex tasks without errors. The smart, self-learning robots will play an important role to automate several processes to increase efficiency and accuracy on the shop floor. Therefore, the question is no more about whether or not to automate. It is only about when and to what extent bring robotics into the factory space.
While the other industries prepare themselves to reap the rich benefits that robotics brings, robotics industry itself is facing the challenge to find and hire the right talent. The skill gap in the robotics industry is currently hampering not just its own growth, but also of all the other industries which can be transformed by robotic deployment.
According to a 2015 report by Aspiring Minds, an Indian employability evaluation and Certification Company, 80 per cent of the 1, 50,000 engineering students graduated in 2015 from over 650 colleges, 80 per cent are not job ready. The problem becomes more acute for robotics industry, given the complexity of operations.
In the last 5-6 years, popularity of robotics as an academic specialization has picked up in India. Apart from the crème de la crème institutions like IITs (Mumbai, Chennai, Delhi, Kanpur, and Kharagpur), IISCs, NITs, and BITS Pilani etc., several other colleges have also come up to conduct short term courses, workshops, and seminars etc. on robotics. The industry may have realized the potential of robotics as a career option but the employability of those who sign up for these courses remains far from desirable.
Given that robotics involves multi-disciplinary approach covering software, mechanical, electronics, and firmware engineering, exposure to live projects involving more than one of these is the only way of gaining the appropriate experience. Team AcYut at BITS Pilani (developing a series of indigenous and autonomous robotic platforms) and Technology Robotix Society at IIT Kharagpur (initiated unique projects to explore opportunities in unmanned aerial vehicle and swarm robotics) are some examples of how the right exposure can build a strong pipeline of future robotics experts. The same effort needs to trickle down to tier 2 and 3 engineering colleges in the country in order to bridge the huge skill gap in the industry.
Catching 'em young
At the beginning of the career, engineering students need to adopt generalist approach (since robotics demands multi-disciplinary skills). To elaborate, students from different streams like software, mechanical, and electronics etc. need to appreciate how software enables hardware to create robotic wonders. This exposure is not easily available in India since the ecosystem is not as evolved as in the USA or Germany. The students need to consciously work around this constraint and identify opportunities beyond their classroom to learn about robotics. Participating in various state, national, as well as international robotics competition, attending seminars on the subject, and experimenting with the available resources as much as possible are the keys. Most essentially, they need to be passionate about solving industrial problems using robotics.
What academia and industry can do?
For the robotics companies facing employability issues, tying up with the engineering institutes and collaboration in creating and running their labs and projects is important. They can also provide internship opportunities to the students so that they can realize the exciting career opportunities in the field. This will allow the companies to engage with the talent pool for longer duration and assess their suitability for the projects that the company is expecting or currently undertaking.
On the other hand, the institutes need to encourage hardware and robotics companies, even if they are early stage start-ups, to participate in the placement process, ideally on Day Zero. Software is traditionally the most popular engineering stream in the country. So when software companies queue up like an early bird in engineering campuses for placements, even the best of mechanical and electronics students explore their career option with them.
To sum this, the students need to envision robotics as convergence of hardware and software that solves industrial problems. Currently this is not happening. For example, in case of e-commerce, students often think only about the software technology that drives the business. However, the biggest problem faced by e-commerce companies is to optimize their supply chain in the backend. Only robotics and automation can solve these issues with technology. Machine learning, Artificial intelligence and swarm robotics is not limited to software. Hardware and software needs to come together some of the largest industrial problems.
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