January 2017 | Vibha Rao

Airborne for the future

TAL Manufacturing Solutions, a Tata Motors subsidiary, has emerged from the shadows of its parent to craft a success story in supplying to the aerospace and robotics industries

Tucked away inside the sprawling Tata Motors campus in Pune is the headquarters of TAL Manufacturing Solutions, a company that is quietly and confidently leading the Tata group’s foray into new, global businesses that operate on the cutting edge of technology.

TAL's aerospace business unit in Nagpur in Maharashtra, India, caters to an exacting group of customers

TAL has notched up some impressive achievements to its credit. For one, it has become a preferred supplier to Seattle-based global aerospace leader Boeing for its state-of-the-art 787-9 and upcoming 787-10 Dreamliner airplanes. In August 2016, TAL shipped its 5,000th advanced composite floor beam assembly for the Dreamliner, a crucial assembly that requires world-class manufacturing competencies and capabilities. It has also secured a big contract with RUAG Aerostructures for making parts and assemblies for the Airbus A320 family of aircrafts. In another noteworthy achievement, TAL’s robotics division has developed and built India’s first indigenous, industrial and articulated robot aimed at improving efficiencies and eliminating dull, dirty and dangerous work in the small and medium sector.

Taking flight
TAL’s challenging, yet successful journey, offers insights into business leadership built on innovation, strategic alignment and relentless execution. TAL was created in 2000 by merging two promising divisions of Tata Motors — the machine tool and the growth divisions. The early years of the company were spent in learning, innovating and studying the market. TAL tried its hand at several ideas — from artificial limbs to car parking systems — before zeroing in on the aerospace sector.

In 2007, a big opportunity presented itself when Boeing approached then Tata Sons Chairman Ratan Tata to explore collaboration for the manufacture of titanium hybrid floor beams for its new 787 Dreamliner aircraft. “Given TAL’s manufacturing capabilities, we were the obvious choice at that time. A greenfield plant was commissioned at the Nagpur Special Economic Zone the same year. That was the beginning of our aerospace journey,” says Rajesh Khatri, executive director and CEO, TAL.

The first titanium hybrid floor beam was built by TAL in 2010, based on an experimental Boeing design. Unfortunately, the project was shelved by Boeing as the design did not meet structural requirements. In 2011, when Boeing developed a new design — the advanced composite floor beams (ACFBs) for the 787-9 Dreamliner aircraft — it turned to TAL yet again for production. What worked in TAL’s favour this time was its proven ability to absorb new technology and the readiness for this type of production. Boeing’s Aerospace Development Center at Seattle designed the manufacturing technology for each beam and transferred the technology to TAL for adoption and manufacture.

Hard knocks
But the challenges of the high-tech industry continued. While the floor beams were being manufactured, Boeing awarded TAL a project to manufacture machined parts for its legacy 767 programme, which were earlier being produced in the US. However, the finished parts did not pass muster.

To add to its troubles, in October 2013, TAL floundered in the production readiness assessment (PRA) conducted by Boeing to check if its business processes were geared to meet quality and delivery standards. “It put us in a very difficult position. If things didn’t improve soon, we were liable for termination of contract,” Mr Khatri recalls. “That was a huge turning point for us.”

Over the next nine months, the team at TAL worked hard to turn the situation around. The first step was to build confidence in the team. A TAL veteran, Lokesh Srivastava, was inducted to head the aerospace business. He took off from the word go to set things right. The first ACFB was successfully produced and dispatched to Boeing in October 2014. By May 2015, TAL had moved from red to green in the PRA, ticking all the right boxes on Boeing’s production parameters. In doing so, the company acquired significant learning of its own. “This was the best thing to have happened to us because it laid the foundation for robust business processes within the aerospace business unit,” says Mr Khatri. Impressed with its consistency, quality and delivery track record, Boeing conferred a supplier’s appreciation award on TAL in December 2015.

The potential of the aerospace sector was visible. In 2014, TAL came up with a strategy plan where aerospace and robotics were identified as growth drivers. The plan was approved by the TAL and Tata Motors board and Rs500 million of equity was infused to fuel the expansion of the aerospace business unit.

The next step was to build on this momentum. According to Boeing’s projections, TAL was expected to reach a steady state of production by September 2016. However, the company set itself a rather ambitious internal target of March 2016. TAL not only achieved this target successfully, it also delivered the 5,000th ACFB to Boeing in August 2016, reaching the milestone six months ahead of schedule.

While work for Boeing was underway, TAL’s reputation as a world-class aerospace manufacturer only grew, with a variety of projects coming its way. The biggest among these was a multi-year $150 million contract with RUAG Aerostructures, a tier-1 Airbus supplier, for making precision machined and sheet metal parts to be used in the Airbus family of aircrafts.

This catapulted TAL into being the only company in India to be on two of the world’s leading aircraft programmes — the path-breaking, new technology 787 Dreamliner and the best-seller Airbus A320 family.

New avenues
While the aerospace division was learning the ropes, TAL prepared to enter the highly promising areas of mechatronics and robotics. In 2014, the company began putting together a team with relevant experience. Amit Bhingurde, who had years of experience in Tata Motors and the German robotics major Kuka, was appointed COO of the industrial business unit in January 2014. Five months later, TAL was ready with its first prototype industrial robot. Branded the TAL Brabo, it was the result of focused innovation at TAL, and targeted mainly at shopfloors of the micro, small and medium enterprise units across the country.

Encouraged by the success of its high techventures, TAL now eyes a future that is bright and promising. The company has drawn up an aggressive growth plan for both aerospace and robotics. Mr Khatri summarises, “The aim is to be self-sufficient, self-reliant and to generate value for the parent company. We are looking at investing over Rs1 billion over the next two-three years from internal accruals and borrowings to grow our businesses exponentially.” Clearly for this Tata company, technology has been a path to success.

TAL Brabo — Joining the 'robolution'

Brabo is TAL's indigenous robot that is easy to use and program. Brabo is all set to revolutionise automation in the micro, small and medium enterprise sector as dull, dangerous and dirty jobs can be automated completely at a manageable cost.

Made for 2, 5 and 10kg payloads, Brabo provides a strong value proposition for the user. It has flip-back capabilities and 360-degree rotation. These 5/6-axis articulated robots can be used for a variety of industrial functions that include handling applications, pick and place operations, assembly work, sealant applications, inspection that uses vision systems, and welding. With five axes, it has high repeatability at a speed of 2,000 mm/second.

With the distinction of being India’s first indigenous industrial articulated robot, Brabo was displayed at the Make in India week event in Mumbai during March 2016, and gathered great reviews and media coverage.

 

This article was first published in the October - December 2016 issue of Tata Review. Read the ebook here