Rajan Wadhera is the Chief Executive of Technology, Product Development and Sourcing of the Automotive & Farm Equipment Sectors, M&M. A BTech & MTech from IIT Bombay, Wadhera also has a graduate degree of the Advanced Management Programme from the Wharton Business School, US. Prior to joining M&M, Wadhera was with the Eicher Group. Among other key responsibilities, Wadhera is faced with the challenges of identifying and harnessing synergies between M&M and Ssangyong Motors.
The MRV is clearly the most significant bet for M&M as far as research, engineering and innovation is concerned. How are your biggest challenges?
The needs of the Mahindra Group vis-à-vis the needs of the other players in the automotive industry are very different. Most global players get their developments done abroad, while their Indian suppliers manufacture them based on their manufacturing knowhow and deliver. These parts don’t need to go through any validation, because they are to design intent, and that is already proven either in the lab or on their vehicle testing. You’re only duplicating that in India. So, foreign brands in India are only doing indigenisation or localisation in India.
To that extent, the challenge for us is much higher. We start from a scratch, a concept. Extensive market research is undertaken to understand various demographic trends, macro analyses and other macro-economic parameters that help us decide which segment we should be in. We have the disadvantage of being an Indian company trying to get into new product development. The challenge for us begins at the specification stage. From getting the specification right to clay modelling, and to committed surfaces and engineered surfaces – the challenges are increasing for us.
Traditionally, Indian suppliers haven’t done engineering. So, unlike global players, Indian manufacturers like us have to engineer, make drawings and do design validation by ourselves. That’s the biggest challenge. Indian suppliers have perfected the art of manufacturing knowhow, but has no understanding of the design know-why.
The second part of the challenge is the availability of trained manpower. We are the first generation of engineers exposed to fundamental product development. As a very young company with just a 10-year history of product development, we have brought out three product families in the Scorpio, Xylo and the XUV500.
So, Indian vendors need to spruce up their engineering expertise to remain competitive?
Precisely; vendors have to be involved right from the stage when clay surfacing is done. They have to let us know if our styling is feasible. There is a concept of studio engineering, where our engineers are involved as well and they work with the suppliers. If some design can’t be manufactured, we got to get back to our drawing board to correct that. For instance, simulation techniques are exercised using CAE for material flow, metal flow and plastic flow.
Are Indian vendors up to the mark?
I must say Indian vendors have a long way to go. As I said earlier, they need to develop the design know-why capability and not stay happy with the manufacturing knowhow capability, else they’ll lose business to global suppliers. If Indian suppliers don’t scale up, why should I waste my product development phase by going to an Indian supplier?
And you do have a choice of doing so...
Yes, I do, but they don’t. Most Indian suppliers are happy servicing the needs of a few OEMs, and the volumes are such that they aren’t looking at the future, where they run the risk of getting consolidated. We are trying to extend our engineering knowledge to them, and hand holding them to the extent possible. But we don’t have the bandwidth, and it’s not a social mission.
Lack of favourable government policies also prevent vendors from investing in basic R&D or engineering?
That is quite the case. I’ve seen the kind of support the Korean industry gets from its government. Korea has set-up government labs for safety, crash test, noise and vibration. While in India, even equipments bought for the NATRiP centre in Chennai is rotting in containers! We have started doing a lot of fundamental development and sourcing from China because of the government labs and facilities, subsidies and quality people.
What is the kind of research you’d undertake at the engine development centre at MRV? Could you throw some light on your strategy for engines?
The engine development centre at MRV is to basically develop engines for durability, reliability, emissions, for driving calibration required and to make sure the overall NVH is under control. The engine development centre fundamentally works towards giving the best fuel efficiency, lowest sound, and enough margins in emissions.
Does M&M believe in the premise of downsizing as a tool to increase efficiencies? What would be your approach to achieving efficiency in powertrains?
Downsizing is not an option anymore; it’s a compulsion. The only way we can improve fuel efficiency, reduce CO2, and lightweight is through downsizing. Downsizing is nothing but reducing friction, reducing parasitical losses and reducing weight. It brings its own challenges though – if you want to take out 100 hp from a three-cylinder engine vis-à-vis a four-cylinder engine, then the engine is going to produce more heat. The challenge is to take away the heat quickly. You have to design a thin-walled engine because a thick-walled engine will retain the heat inside and the power-to-weight ratio goes up. So, you need to take away the heat through processes of radiation and convection.
Would that also involve use of different materials? At the MRV, is there a provision for material research?
Material research is also getting triggered by CO2 reduction, lightweighting and better fuel efficiency. Lightweighting is a technology programme, spread across various centres of excellence. We are lightweighting seats, and the vehicle body by using high strength steel to meet crash and safety norms. We are also working on composites, which bring their own challenges. Composites are today used in high-end cars made by premium carmakers like Audi, Mercedes or BMW, where affordability is not an issue. For us to use composites to lightweight the vehicle will take the cost of the product up drastically. These technologies are available, but not affordable for that price point. Same is the case with aluminium for instance – they are not affordable for the vehicles in the Rs 2-10 lakh price bracket.
We have a full-fledged material science lab and a polymer lab, where people are working on composites both in the concept proving stage as well as parts making stage, and using it on to the vehicles.
What’s been your experience with the XUV500’s light weighting process?
Honestly, there isn’t much use of composites in the XUV500. It’s important to understand that the joining techniques of composites are not fully developed right now. We have used high strength steel to lightweight the XUV500. We are working on composites and have worked on an aluminium hood. But we are waiting for a certain commercial and techno-commercial feasibility before we put it on any programme. We have a lightweight aluminium hood ready. We are working on a complete tailgate in plastic and once it is fully cooked-off, it will go into a new programme. You can’t put any of these on an existing programme because the cost is very high.
At the MRV, what’s the kind of work we’d get to see on safety?
Safety is a regulatory requirement on vehicles – not for India so far. But we are looking at safety norms coming into play in 2016, where we are likely to get crash and safety norms. Safety norms are mandated in developed markets of Europe, the US, and Australia and we are already selling vehicles in most of these markets. We can sell the XUV anywhere in the world, except the US market as it is not designed for the US market. It meets the safety and homologation needs of those markets. We have not invested in the safety and crash lab, because we expected the NATRiP centre on safety and crash test in Chennai to come up. Plus, we also have a full-fledged crash lab at SYMC R&D. We have already started using that lab for our requirements.
Electronics is another major focus area for you. Could you tell us more?
The electrical and electronic content in vehicles is going up – from the typical use of two to three ECUs to almost 32 ECUs currently; from 20 circuits to 200 circuits; from five sensors to 80 sensors. The fundamental research that is happening is largely on software development, which is very critical. Tomorrow, I could add a particular feature on the infotainment system in-house, and don’t have to go back to the same supplier. We are already doing some bit of it, and in three to five years, we should be completely self-reliant.
Text: Deepangshu Dev Sarmah
Photos: Mahindra & Mahindra