Here’s an interesting story that aptly describes Tata Motors' innovative way of life. Over the past few years, the company has the only world-class crash facility in Asia outside Korea and Japan. In order to achieve its ambition of setting up a crash facility at the lowest cost possible, Tata Motors set out to innovate around cost, a recurrent theme in its R&D, to achieve the desired end without compromising on technology.
"A crash event generally takes place in about 150 milliseconds", says Dr V Sumantran, executive director, passenger car business unit, Tata Motors. "To understand what's going on, one needs a sequence shot of the car crashing. In order to film the event, very high-speed digital cameras with frame rates of 1000 frames per second illuminated with powerful ‘daylight’ quality lighting are needed to illuminate every scene." This could only be possible through the use of sophisticated and very expensive imported equipment. It was then that the company realised that our domestic film industry was using such technology and the right thing was to try and adapt this technology to the company's needs. "The company innovated around some of the lighting equipment and configured it to suit our crash test facility," says Mr Sumantran. In adopting this novel approach, Tata Motors hit upon the key to innovation while reducing costs.
Innovation has always been a tradition at Tata Motors. The company has come a long way from the 50s and 60s when its technical collaboration with Mercedes Benz saw it through. The end of that collaboration put Tata Motors on its technical path to design and manufacture its chosen line of projects. The emphasis was on indigenisation. JRD Tata and Sumant Moolgaokar encouraged the development of newer capabilities, knowing well that these would become the mainstay of development soon. In more recent times, Ratan Tata has encouraged the company to strategically develop technology and capabilities that they have now acquired. The setting up of a world-class crash-test facility was to be just one of many innovations designed to offer better value and an enhanced cost advantage. Says Mr Sumantran, "We are working around offering more affordable, more value-oriented products."
Over the years, innovation around cost has become a recurrent theme in Tata Motors. The launch of the Indica is yet another example. The car was born out of Mr Tata's vision to create a car with the roominess of an Ambassador, the dimensions of a Maruti Zen, the economy and cost of operation of a Maruti 800 and the ability to meet the safety standards of European cars. Mr Sumantran adds, "The Indica has the lowest running cost at around Rs2.06 per km, as against its nearest competitor, which works out to Rs2.18 per km. The Indica is big on the inside and small on the outside. We wanted it to be miserly with fuel consumption, yet tough with crash safety performance." Having proved its merit and fulfilled the promise inherent in its slogan, more car per car, the car continues to undergo constant improvements.
Meeting challenges that demand innovation has become a way of life for Tata Motors. The company strives to give its people challenges that must be transformed into realities. "The chairman's articulation of his vision for a car that can be sold at the price of Rs1 lakh is going to drive a huge amount of innovation," says Mr Sumantran.
Tata Motors is also doing considerable work in the area of electrical and electronic systems, work that will anticipate the advanced onboard electronic systems that cars of the future will be equipped with. Importing the requisite systems being the expensive solution, the company developed an A-ECU (Electronic Control Unit) and low-cost accessories that would effectively manage critical engine and vehicle systems without calling for a full-fledged and expensive conventional ECU. This was another one of Tata Motors' innovations.
Besides development in electronic systems, the company is also striding towards new emission standards. Each level of progress from Bharat Stage I to IV requires large amounts of investment and technology. When Tata Motors decided to move up from Bharat Stage II to Bharat Stage III, they realised that they would need sophisticated management systems, which could not be imported, as it would add to cost.
Says Mr Sumantran. "We wanted products to be affordable to the Indian population." Spurred by this aim, the company innovated and ended up becoming one of the first companies to develop technology that would manage this changeover even in the absence of expensive technology. "You require a lot of innovation around engine calibration, engine mapping and engine strategies," says Mr Sumantran. "The company could count on resourceful engineers to do this"
Tata Motors has to achieve a number of these breakthroughs to maintain its status as a pioneer and to succeed in its intention to innovate around cost. Most of Tata Motors' competitors have deep pockets. This money can be used by them to purchase good solutions regardless of cost; however, a recurrent theme at Tata Motors is to seek solutions that would avoid expensive solutions which would burden its customers.
In order to succeed in the marketplace, it was essential for the company to have a very aggressive objective for its product line up. Given its limited resources, by global standards, this could be achieved only through innovative product and process solutions. Today the company has set up numerous project development teams, which are supported by engineering process centres. Additionally, it has set up a separate function for advanced research projects. People from various functions are assigned to this function on a project basis. Such steps have enabled Tata Motors to also move to a team-oriented development activity.
However not every idea from its advanced engineering projects can be brought to fruition. Says Mr Sumantran. "For every creative idea, you get a lot of others that may not work."
That there is no formula to distinguish ideas that are feasible from those that are not does not deter the research teams of the company from continuing to work on their ideas. The R&D department at Tata Motors is buzzing with activity, eager to be true to its promise of innovation around cost.
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