Ranked among the top 50 in the world in robotics testing, Sastra Robotics is making a splash in India with its human-machine interactions testing to make products markets ready. We chat with Co-Founder Akhil A on the challenges they faced as a tech start-up in a non-tech town.
By Kumar S
According to Indian startup Sastra Robotics, the performance of a device is measured by its ability to respond to human-machine interactions (HMI), and, making sure that devices are exhaustively tested to give the desired outcome.
Kochi-based Sastra Robotics says it provides robotic solutions for human-like automated functional testing of real physical devices. Launched in 2013, the company started with a modest seed capital of USD 1,431 by three college mates Akhil A, Auronin P and Achu Wilson.
Co-founder Akhil says original Equipment Manufacturers and service providers need quick testing solutions to test their products and make them market ready. Sastra Robotics renders services primarily in three sectors vis-à-vis electronics, automobiles, aviation and electronics.
“We make it possible to conduct rigorous testing beyond the human capacity and capability. Such exhaustive and extensive testing ensures the supreme quality of our customer’s products and empowers them to retain their market leadership in this ever more competitive world,” says Akhil.
After Sastra Robotics sold its first product to a company based in South Indian state Tamil Nadu, Akhil says this marked a pivotal turning point in their startup journey.
“We were doing some online marketing of our products when a Coiambatore-based company came to us with a specific problem. It required a testing solution which could facilitate 1,000 clicks per minute and our product could give over 900 clicks. They were happy with our solution. That was how our first order came to us,” says Akhil.
The product was a “futuristic machine – ahead of its time”, says Akhil, adding that its cost was INR 1 million at the time.
Akhil says Sastra holds patents on a few products in India and one in the US. It currently ranks among the top 50 robotic solution providers in the world as per TiE Silicon Valley’s evaluation of Technology Startups 2017 report.
After the founders completed their engineering degrees in 2012, Akhil was working as a Secretary of the College Student Union and managed programmes and events. After being offered a few roles from several IT firms, Akhil says they decided to go their own way.
“Running a company was always a dream and it became stronger after we graduated from college. The turning point was our association with a local not-for-profit incubator ‘Start-up Village’ which helped us set-up the company,” says Akhil.
The decision to base Sastra Robotics factory and R&D centre in Kochi rather than tech cities like Bengaluru, Hyderabad or Pune was a deliberate one.
“We wanted to create opportunities in our hometown,” says Akhil.
According to Akhil, human-machine interfacing is entering into all conceivable areas and will be the future; making robotic testing a mainstay and critical, service.
“A simple glitch in one of these systems could be fatal and lead to traffic chaos, or worse, cause a fatal accident,” says Akhil.
Akhil claims that manufacturers are spending over 35% of their Quality Assurance budget on testing human-machine interfaces, which is billions of dollars annually.
“HMI testing is the answer to expensive workforce deployment for testing work,” says Akhil.
The global electronics industry is worth USD 1.8 trillion in value, and Akhil says a large component of this demand lies in vehicle automation.
Automobile manufacturers are buying Sastra’s testing solutions for their GPS navigation systems, touch screen and/or voice-activated audio and video systems, rear-view camera systems, lane change assist devices etc. In addition, Akhil says commercial aircraft still utilize toggles and switches in the cockpit, along with state-of-the-art touch panels, however, control panels must be rigorously tested, both in production, and during regular use.
Challenges and Headwinds
Akhil pointed to the dynamic nature of the industry where HMI is continuously evolving. He says it’s important to build testing solutions that have a fairly long-life cycle or industry relevance. He also spoke of the high import duty on components required for testing machines which can be cumbersome.
“This is an emerging sector and a 30% import duty for any organization, especially startups, is difficult. We don’t have domestic manufacturers of many components leaving no choice for us, but to import, ” says Akhil.
Skilled labour shortage is also difficult, given its an emergent industry. Robotics is a combination of hardware, software and electronics and requires electronic, mechanical, electrical, robotics experts. Geography is a lag indicator too.
“Not many people are ready to come and settle in Kochi!” says Akhil.
In 2018, Sastra Robotics opened an office in Bengaluru as a part of its expansion plan to ramp-up sales. Akhil says they are planning to open an office in the US to reach out to international customers soon.