Why the glass is half-full for Indian manufacturing!

Amaresh Chakrabarti, Senior Professor and Chairman, Centre for Product Design & Manufacturing, Indian Institute of Science (IISc), explains how the institute is creating innovator entrepreneurs and also enabling effective interface between students and Indian manufacturing SMEs to solve complex problems. He firmly believes that with the right ecosystem to scale up such endeavours, India can re-emerge as a manufacturing superpower, especially by bringing its skills in information technology and its spirit of frugal innovation to the table.

Amaresh Chakrabarti, IISC, manufacturing

The evolution of the manufacturing landscape across the globe in the past two decades can be viewed from three key angles – business, societal and technological. From the societal angle, many emerging economies have witnessed a sharp rise in their GDPs, per capita incomes and people aspirations.

From the business angle, manufacturing has re-emerged into the forefront, which was not the case at the turn of this century. The IT industry was paying much better at that time. Moreover, the ‘blue collar’ aspect of manufacturing kept quality engineering talent largely away. Finally, you have the trend of connectedness; of not just people but things through technology. With the rise of Industry 4.0, manufacturing is again regaining its place as the centrepiece of economic activity.

The first decade of this century was all about the continuance of an astounding surge of China as the factory of the world. Over the past decade, other economies, particularly those in Southeast Asia have come up, as China gradually lost its cost competitiveness.

Of late, a lot of debate has centred around the growth in the manufacturing ecosystems of economies like Vietnam and Thailand, and what India can imbibe from there.

While that is relevant to an extent, I would like to mention a caveat. Whenever we compare a large country with a small country, we have to be careful. It’s easier for smaller countries to either become much poorer or much richer very quickly, which is not true of large economies.

Good progress, just not good enough

If you look at India’s per capita income, it stayed at about US$ 500 per capita for about 1,000 years and then went up. Interestingly, during most of that millennium, the world’s per capita income was much lower. Subsequently, the world’s per capita income has gone up, at least in some of its parts; but India more or less stayed at the same level – through the industrial revolution to the colonial era and even post-independence till the onset of the 1991 reforms.

However, India’s per capita income has also gone up, quite exponentially, in the last 30 years. So, on the whole, the economy in India has done well lately. By and large, when we started, 2/3rd of the GDP was in the rural economy, while 1/3rd was in everything else taken together. But in this period, manufacturing and services have grown quite substantially and the percentage of rural economy has gone down. So clearly, manufacturing has done better than it did before and soon after independence. Has it done as well as some of the bright and shiny tiger economies or the dragon economy or so on? The answer is no. There are many factors there, which could be best explained by an economist.

As a technologist, my take is that we haven’t actually paid enough attention to encouraging manufacturing as an area of endeavour across the board. It is not just about cutting costs; it is about creating aspirations in the manufacturer and meeting the evolving aspirations of consumer India and the world at large.

For example, if you compare SMEs in India with those in South Korea and Germany, there are interesting similarities and differences. The similarity is that they both account for a large share of employment.

But the difference is that if you look at the Mittelstand in Germany or the South Korean SME sector, many of them are MNCs. One example of that is the pencil-making company Staedtler. On the whole, SMEs in these countries account for a far more significant share of the GDP compared to that contributed by the Indian MSMEs.

Now, why is that happening? One reason is that the Indian MSMEs have very limited aspirations. There are many countries where India can become an export-oriented economy and MSMEs can play a substantial role. Secondly, support for technology and innovation is poor across the board for manufacturing, and in particular for the SMEs. So three areas need to be strengthened – we have to figure out how to make MSMEs more export-oriented, innovative, and technology savvy.

Not all MSMEs are likely to be interested, or able to think beyond tomorrow. So at IISc, we pick forward-looking MSMEs, and have handholding projects with them, wherein we can co-innovate on problems specific to their space. For example, our students have handheld a traditional composites-making MSME to make it a smart-composites making company.

Leap from concept to execution

So, we train our students to be innovator entrepreneurs and engage some of them with the MSMEs to innovate together. The problem owner and the solution provider are working together and creating not only a ‘patentable’ but also a ‘translatable’ product. The MSME is getting trained in how to innovate in a systematic and structured manner. That actually gives a very interesting model, to try out not just in IISc but also to scale up in other places.

If you look at the history of design, there are five broad stages of evolution when it comes to designers. Way back, a designer was actually a craftsperson – locksmith, goldsmith, ironsmith, etc. When the first industrial revolution came, manufacturing started moving to machines, which led to the rise of designers of the industrial era, who could work by taking into account this new way of manufacturing.

Jobs became more specialised over time; you had an engineering designer who would look at technological aspects and industrial designer who would cater to non-technology aspects – usability, aesthetics, semantics, etc. The concept of industrial designers evolved further to give rise to industrial design engineers, roughly around the 1980s. This set of professionals is able to look holistically at both technology and non-technology aspects of a product system. Places like Stanford in the USA and Delft in the Netherlands championed the concept of industrial design engineering.

Further down in time, this expanded into what you might call an innovator entrepreneur, somebody who not only looks at the technical and the aesthetic/usability but also the business aspects. In the Centre for Product Design and Manufacturing (CPDM) at IISc, we are trying to create this last kind.

Many of the design schools such as Stanford have actually further transformed themselves now, more in the line of training innovator entrepreneurs rather than the earlier versions of the designers. Of course, all of the above types of designers have a place in the economy and society, and different design schools have been championing the training of these different types of designers.

So, with that spirit, we wanted to create job creators rather than job seekers, and we have been rather lucky in that. About 20% of our students are now creating their own companies. That’s a very substantial percentage, if you look at the typical percentage of students from an institution adopting entrepreneurship as their first option. You cannot feed so many people by simply depending on the current set of companies. The ecosystem has to expand.

For example, one of our ex-students Mona Sharma is the design head of a Bengaluru-based start-up that makes Bempu – a wristband for babies. This wristband continuously measures the temperature of the baby for potential hypothermia, which can be life threatening. It is a condition when the temperature goes down by too much. The product is basically a smart, continuous temperature sensor that alarms the caregiver when needed.

By simply doing this, they saved around 10,000 newborns in 2017 in 25 different countries, including those in India. During that year, Time magazine picked up Bempu as one of the top 25 inventions of the world!

Another one of our students Nitin Gupta (along with his classmate Nikhil Meshram) innovated on how to improve the efficiency of harvesting cotton from the fields. Nitin then started a company called Sickle Innovations to market this as a product. Subsequently, his classmate Vinay Reddy joined. They have been expanding the product portfolio for picking other crops like mangoes and apples. They brought in IoT and some of the cutting edge imaging technology and married these with their picking solution.

In essence, their product is perched on a kind of stick that goes up, and first allows the operator to look at the fruit. With the camera up there, the user can see whether the fruit is ripe or not. Based on that, the user decides whether to cut it, and he cuts it with a cutter that gives a clean cut. Then, it doesn’t fall directly on the ground, but there is a nice path through which it is gently brought down so that the quality of the fruit does not get spoiled.

The Ministry of Agriculture has given them the National Entrepreneurship Award for being the most innovative agritech company in the country. Now they have started collaborating with Israel and going global.

At IISc, we are always unafraid of grappling with new technology. It’s not just how to cut cost, and even if you want to cut cost very substantially, let’s say by a factor of 10, you cannot make do with the current technology. You have to go beyond the box and look for very different technologies.

So, even for highly cost-effective designs, you need to have advanced technologies. So, what we are trying to preach here is that we should design advanced and affordable products and solutions. Only if you are advanced, these products and solutions have a chance to be highly affordable.

Uniquely Indian innovative spirit

The crux of it is the philosophy that we want to propagate. Consider the case of Britain in the 18th century. At the time, India was the leader in manufacturing for a number of sectors – steel making, shipbuilding, textiles and jewellery, to state a few. Britain learnt from India, made these far more scalable with the help of the ensuing Industrial Revolution, and became market leaders.

Consider the case of Germany, which was in tatters when the second World War ended. As they collected themselves, the Germans realised that they needed to substantially improve their manufacturing, since nobody wanted to buy products made in Germany. And they looked at the leader at that time i.e. Britain.

The Germans learnt from what Britain had to offer, and added their own thoughts to come up with the concept of Fraunhofer institutes. The added element was to bridge the gap between the university and the industry. Further down about the turn of the century, the British realised, very interestingly, that their manufacturing needed to improve substantially, and they should learn from, among others, the Germans! It’s interesting as to how history flips itself.

They looked at what the best of the day was doing and decided that they needed to add innovation to this equation of university connecting to industry. So, they created centres of excellence called Catapults about a decade ago. These are helping the manufacturing economy significantly in the UK and surrounding areas.

So, the time has come for us to look at the best of today and learn from them. Further, we need to bring in a few elements of our own to that.

As Indians, we are still one of the most innovative societies and we must bring in that spirit of innovation. It is not without innovation that you can have 350+ languages, 4 major religions, zero, early forms of calculus (by the great mathematician Madhava of Sangamagrama, 300 years before Newton), etc.

The second is that you should infuse the component of entrepreneurship, not just innovation. It’s not just coming up with an idea that can change the world, but taking that idea to the world.

Third, we must not shy away from the latest technology, including information technology, to achieve our goals. India is serving the whole world as its IT backend. Almost any piece of software you see as a major product today had the hand of Indians in its development. This is a major resource – the software expertise – and our innovations must try to leverage this. Developing smart solutions, for instance, should be a target in our innovation and entrepreneurship roadmap.

Fourth, because of the way that we have been, our philosophy also has been geared to use as little as possible – to not overuse, not overspend, not boast about your richness and knowledge and so on. There is a sense of understatement in our way of living, which gives us a sense of frugality that is unmatched. And that sense must come in our innovation, so we can be far more economical than anybody else.

Let me emphasise that I am not talking about jugaad at all. To me, jugaad is a symptom that there is an opportunity and a problem that is not being addressed. As a consequence, the people facing the problem have to make do with whatever they have and put it all together to create a semblance of a solution. As Rishikesha Krishnan says, we must move from jugaad to systematic innovation, because only then can we have products and systems that are of consistent quality that are robust, reliable, replicable, etc.

We mustn’t compromise on the quality, or all the things that an aspirational society would like to have. But this needs to be done with the minimum possible use of resources. And that is the true definition of frugality, which India can bring to the table most effectively through its products. I am confident that it is possible, but one IISc cannot scale it up. We must all do it together.

Amaresh Chakrabarti is a Senior Professor and current Chairman for Centre for Product Design & Manufacturing, Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore. He is BE (topper in Mech Engg, IIEST Shibpur), ME (topper in Mech Design, IISc) and PhD (Engg Design, Univ of Cambridge UK). He led the Design Synthesis group at EPSRC CoE Engg Design Centre at University of Cambridge for 10 years.

His interests are in synthesis, creativity, sustainability, and informatics. He published 16 books, over 300 peer-reviewed articles, and has 11 patents granted/pending. He co-authored DRM, a methodology used widely as framework for design research. He has been Associate Editor, AI EDAM & Design Science Journal (Cambridge University Press), Area Editor, Research in Engg Design, Regional Editor, J Re-manufacturing (Springer), and Advisory Editor for 7 Journals incl. Clean Tech & Env. Policy (Springer), and J of Engg D and Int J Design Creativity & Innovation (T&F). He was on Advisory Board and Board of Management, Design Society; member, CII National Committee on Design India; Jury, India Design Mark; invitee, CII Smart Manufacturing Council India. He founded IDeASLab – India’s first Design Observatory.

He is Programme chair for Intl Conf Series on Research into Design (ICoRD), 22nd CIRP Design Conf 2012, 3rd Intl Conf on Design Creativity 2015 (3rd ICDC) and vice-Chair for AI in Design and Design Computing & Cognition Conferences. He is an Honorary Fellow of Institution of Engineering Designers, the peer society under the UK Royal Charter in engg design, and TUM Ambassador Awardee from TU Munich Germany. Sixteen of his papers won top paper awards in international conferences.

He co-initiated India’s first Smart Factory R&D platform. He also heads IISc-TCS Innovation Lab, IISc Press, and Springer International Book Series on Design Science & Innovation. He received Careers360 Faculty Research Award 2018 for being the ‘Most Outstanding Researcher’ in Decision Sciences. He is the current Editor-in-Chief for AI EDAM Journal (CUP).

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Dr Kottala Sriyogi
Dr Kottala Sriyogi
1 year ago

Insightful we should give space to SME’s within the university (as some German universities practice the same concept) we can train bachelors/masters students towards more societal innovative solutions for developing economies like India…

PK Bandyopadhyay
PK Bandyopadhyay
1 year ago

Great Amareshda.

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