Twenty-five years ago, the vision of JRD Tata gave birth to a centre for applied research that would work both for the good of science and of society. His words, "To apply existing knowledge for the benefit of our industry and our people", had a profound influence and served as a roadmap for the Tata Research Development and Design Centre (TRDDC).
The thinking back then, according to Dr Mathai Joseph, executive director, TRDDC, was that, "The Tata group had a centre for fundamental research and teaching institutes for social sciences and natural and engineering sciences. They were a large industrialised group, but they had nothing that was specially focused on industry."
Set up in Pune in 1981 as the R&D division of Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), TRDDC's first director was Dr EC Subbarao, who was then the dean of R&D at IIT Kanpur. Dr Joseph describes the setting up of TRDDC as a "remarkably brave gesture". It was a time when the 500-strong TCS, recognised today as the pioneer of the Indian information technology industry, was still finding its feet in a world in which software was itself a fledgling. Everything that TRDDC did then involved setting its own standards and coming up with its own workable model.
The early work, says Dr Joseph, "concerned materials science and process engineering." Dr Subbarao himself was a reputed materials scientist. Over the years, the organisation has worked in the field of mineral processing, software engineering, process engineering, nanotechnology, etc.
Slowly, TRDDC grew in strength and stature, working with Tata companies like Tata Steel and Tata Chemicals, besides non-Tata companies. It has also been engaging in collaborative R&D with a few Tata companies.
Dr Joseph says, "We have a three-year horizon. If anything takes longer than three years, we sponsor universities to do it." The organisation has forged academic alliances with universities in the US, the UK and Denmark. These alliances enable it to collaborate with the universities in areas that are of interest to TRDDC but where it will be years before results are seen.
Interestingly, while TCS funds the research, it allows the universities to work at their own pace and direction. The university research itself is in the public domain, enabling scientists to have their work reviewed by their peers.
While TCS does not own the university research that is sponsored, it is the first to gain access to it. So if there is any opportunity for commercial exploitation, TCS has the right to first refusal. Other companies will have to wait until the research reaches a scientific journal or a conference some years later. "Here we not only know what it is," says Dr Joseph, "But we are part of the process of making it happen."
The universities in turn benefit from having the funds to work in emerging fields and from getting a free hand to work on a larger canvas than they would otherwise have had. TRDDC is open to new ideas and to building a relationship with universities.
TRDDC also invites students to do small projects, depending upon their course of study. This facility helps it to source good people for recruitment, interact with the faculty of reputed universities, create opportunities for students and ensure greater visibility for itself.
TRDDC is very concerned about empowering its own people and giving them intellectual freedom. Dr Joseph clarifies, "We give them a lot of flexibility when it comes to choosing what projects they will do. Typically when someone joins, they work in different projects, trying to understand what we do and how we do it. Then they decide what they want to do. It may take months or even a year. We try not to slot people into compartments. In the long run, it is better for the organisation."
The organisation is very clear about giving its people growth opportunities. If a group working in a particular area proves itself, it is moved out of R&D and made into a TCS business unit. In many instances, people who started their careers in TRDDC have moved on to lead major business groups in TCS.
TRDDC is equally serious about its responsibility towards society. In the 1990s, the organisation built a water filter for domestic use, in a joint R&D exercise with the Canadian International Development Agency. While the agency pulled out after two years, TRDDC continued to work in the field. Its aim was to produce a user-friendly water filter that could provide bacteria-reduced potable water to villagers.
The value of the filter was enhanced in numerous ways. TRDDC trained some villagers to make this element at a cost price of Rs17. These people then sold it for Rs25, thereby earning some revenue on it.
TRDDC has sent 28,000 of these filters to different places in India. The filters were especially beneficial following the Gujarat earthquake and the tsunami in Tamil Nadu. The organisation continues to research ways to improve the water filter.
TRDDC also supports another cause, the adult literacy project, which, though not under the purview of R&D, underlines its commitment to society. This project, the brainchild of FC Kohli, the director-in-charge then, and created by TCS Hyderabad, proposes to teach people to read in 40 hours. The test of the learning is being able to read a newspaper.
Another social project involved setting up a computer lab for the members of the Society for the Physically Handicapped. This facility served to stimulate children to go in for higher education and later employment.
Dr Joseph wants his organisation to prove its abilities both on the industrial and the social front. He says, "Our people are measured in terms of their patents and publications. Our organisation is measured by its industrial and social projects. We want to know that what we are doing is of relevance to industry and society. We must demonstrate that what we do goes into the company and creates value for the company."
Today Dr Joseph heads an organisation that plays a leading role in TCS business, one that has leveraged its knowledge to expand its horizons and sought to improve the quality of life of ordinary people. All through its 25-year existence, TRDDC has faithfully adhered to the course set by JRD Tata. Guided by the former chairman's noble intentions, TRDDC can look forward to achieving more in the years to come.
TRDDC is one of India's premier R&D centres in software engineering and process engineering. The R&D work at TRDDC leads to the creation of intellectual assets. These take the form of new technologies, models, tools and products that serve the needs of software engineering and of TCS clients in a wide range of industry verticals.
R&D is focused in different groups, each specialising in a key area of work. With expertise in process engineering, software engineering tools and technologies, advanced techniques, and in systems engineering methodologies, TRDDC provides solutions within TCS and for major clients. Researchers regularly present their work at international symposia and publish their papers in reputed journals.
TRDDC has established academic alliances and R&D collaboration with institutes in India and overseas. The collaborations with these institutes lead to the generation of IPR and meet the need for TRDDC to have timely access to upcoming and future technologies and expertise.
Third year (sixth semester) computer science and engineering students (graduate level) as well as master's and doctoral students can apply to do a project in an industrial R&D environment.
Experimental facilities enable the process engineering group to carry out precise measurements for validation of the process modelling and optimisation results before implementing them at industrial operations.
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