In the pre-1991 era, capacities were limited and there was little incentive to catch up with technology. Manufacturers were content to enter into limited collaboration arrangements that restricted access to technology. In areas where a business sought technical collaboration, these were mostly limited to technologies that were not the latest. And global changes were taking place with lightning rapidity.
Indian enterprise was content to focus on reverse engineering and incremental improvements. Many industrial units spent efforts to duplicate machine tools by dismantling an imported, sophisticated machine, building identical parts and assembled these. I remember my visit to Ralson Tyres, Ludhiana: it started supplies to Hero Cycles and grew in tandem; with the latter emerging the largest producer of bicycles in the world, the company also emerged as the largest producer of bicycle tyres. Over three decades ago, I saw the ingenuity of local enterprise: the company purchased a tyre making machine from L&T McNeil, dismantled it, fabricated part by part and built dozens of similar machines. I witnessed a similar exercise in several other enterprises spread over the country. In that process, the intricacies of the mechanical, electrical, hydraulics and later electronics systems were understood and assimilated.
The experience of V Ramachandran (VR) who heads the engineering development division at Super Auto Forge Ltd is exemplary. VR, a mechanical engineering graduate from Annamalai University, joined Bimetal Bearings in 1969. In the aftermath of the severe industrial relations crisis at the Simpson and group companies in 1971, the bearings plant at Huzur Gardens, Sembium, was shifted to Coimbatore. A number of machines had to be dismantled and re-built at the new location in Coimbatore. Teams of engineers including VR gained the experience in studying the structure of a wide range of machine tools.
Later, VR had the opportunity to visit and spend time at the Clevite bearings manufacturing units in Australia and the USA which further helped expand his interest in machine structures. When the new plant of Bimetal Bearings was set up in Hosur, he was entrusted with the responsibility for building dozens of machines for the production of a vast range of bearings, bushes, etc. With his great interest and involvement, VR built over 100 such machine tools.
After serving Bimetal Bearings for 37 years, VR joined Super Auto Forge that pioneered cold forging of precision components. Encouraged by the CEO, S Seetharaman, VR built a 25 strong team of engineers specialising in various aspects of building machine tools – mechanical, electrical, hydraulics, automation, software, instrumentation and systems. Over 150 machine tools have been produced by his team. The latest being the fully automatic assembly line for ball joints.
While such beautiful work has produced immense value to individual enterprises, the rich expertise is yet to be utilised on a larger scale. Look at the potential for units across a vast spectrum coming together, collaborating with IITs and other higher institutes of engineering and design and embarking on the design and manufacture of machine tools! On such products, thousands of crores of rupees are continued to be spent on imports, but we do not have a strong base for manufacture in our country! HMT that started off with great promise was caught up in the bureaucratic muddle and declined. In the familiar Indian enterprise with low volumes, costs are prohibitively high. At such low volumes, there is little investment in expanding technology and sophistication. And sadly innovators like VR lack recognition at the national level.