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From Salem to the skies

A first generation graduate endeavours to make India excel in aerospace.

It all began in 1988 from a single shed in Salem. R Sundaram, founder and managing director of Salem Aerospace, had just graduated from the Madras Institute of Technology. The ambitious first-generation graduate chose to set up a small workshop to cater to the industrial needs of BHEL, NTPC and other companies in the power and oil sectors.
In 1988, Sundaram came to know about a peculiar problem at BHEL. They were importing a vitriolic coupling gasket for use in machines through which hot coal was transported. Every ten metres there was a vitolic joint in the gasket. The joint had a lifespan of two years. Each time the Germans sold the joint along with the gasket; but BHEL needed just the joint and not the gasket;the latter took a lot of storage space and a bulging inventory of Rs 15 crore.
Sundaram saw an opportunity in indigenising this product and succeeded. He went back to BHEL in 3 months with the joint design. Impressed, BHEL placed an order for 400 joints. This impressive start was the major thrust for Salem Aerospace’s growth.

A LIFE-CHANGING MEET WITH KALAM

In 1991, a meeting with Dr A P J Abdul Kalam was a life-changing event. It chartered Sundaram on to a new trajectory.
At that time HAL was manufacturing Kiran Aircraft with the support of British Aerospace Systems. The joint venture partner announced that it wouldn’t support with further supply of spare parts. If this happened, 500 aircraft would have been grounded. The cockpit seal, a crucial part, has a specified shelf life. This is vital for taking care of the cabin pressure at a height of 40,000 feet. At an emergency, this seal must take care of the cabin pressure for
16 seconds.
This was an entirely new turf and Sundaram spent about three years to work on it. His team developed the rubber compound, got it certified by DRDO and in 1996, the first product was ready for testing.
“Our product went for final testing to Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma, the famous astronaut who orbited space! He went on the test flight and landed 55 minutes later. Straight away he came and hugged me and said that we had done a wonderful job,” reminisced Sundaram.
From then, there has been no looking back. Today, Salem Aerospace’s cockpit seal functions effectively in all fighter aircraft and the company also exports the product to the UK!
The year-on-year turnover was around Rs 18 crore for the year 2015-16, rose to Rs 22 crore for 2016-17 and Rs 30 crore for the year 2017-18. “It is estimated to grow to Rs 50 crore and targeted at Rs 100 crore in two years.
The average age of his team is 27 years. Young graduates from colleges in and around Salem are recruited. In fact Selvaraj, a 6th standard pass out, who helped with the design of the cockpit seal, still works here!
Salem Aerospace is soon to expand its operations at Hosur. “Currently we manufacture rubber, metallic and composite products. We are planning to expand this to electronic and electro-mechanical products through a joint venture with a US company ,” said Sundaram.

VISION FOR THE FUTURE

Tamil Nadu had recognized aerospace as one of the potential sectors to garner investments and is setting up an Aerospace Park in Sriperumbudur. There are also plans to create a joint testing facility at a cost of Rs. 300 crore. Mahindra Defence, along with Airbus Helicopters, has plans to produce helicopters to cater to India’s Defence requirements. If this facility comes to Tamil Nadu, it will provide the necessary boost to the aerospace sector, said Sundaram.
By 2035, India would need 2500 small passenger aircraft. “This would be a Rs 1000 crore project. To begin with, we can get the technology from a foreign country and assemble the aircraft here and in 6 – 7 years we can indigenise 30 to 40 per cent. This will not only reduce aircraft cost but in parallel create the needed pilots,”
explained the visionary entrepreneur.

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