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Collaborations work only if the partners keep their doors open for their collaborators’ views

Management Interview The challenge in harnessing know-how is our approach

Aug 17, 2018

... says Dr Nagahanumaiah, Director, Central Manufacturing Technology Institute (CMTI), in this interview with Juili Eklahare. He is of the opinion that successful R&D in manufacturing is where machines and processing protocols demonstrate techno-economical viability to attract industry users. Excerpts from the interview...

CMTI plans to set up a digital factory to cater to needs of SMEs. Could you tell us more about this initiative? How will it prove to be of help to SMEs?

In our centre at CMTI, the focus is to demonstrate the concept of smart manufacturing – factories of the future and also to indigenously develop the IoT-enabled smart manufacturing machines and systems. SMEs could use this centre to train their manpower and also use as a test bed for active learning by trying out their cases to feel the benefits of Industry 4.0 technologies. The expertise on process prediction, digitisation and design of IoT enabled smart and modular machines that CMTI committed to build at its centre, will ensure technological sustainability, which is one of the major uncertainties that MSMEs will have in interventions of advanced technologies.

CMTI and HMT Machine Tools have signed an MoU for manufacturing and selling machine tools and equipment developed by CMTI. Please give us more details on it.

Over the years, CMTI has developed special-purpose machines for various needs and established unique facilities, significantly assisted MSMEs by providing high value-added services. However, being an R&D establishment, we have limitations in taking our new machine tools and its subsystems to commercial markets. This is the vision of our Secretary of DHI – for the benefit of the capital goods sector, CMTI and HMT have signed the MoU with the aim to productionise some of the novel machines, which are not being currently manufactured in India. With this initiative, both the organisations are committed to develop high-end machines, such as, multi-spindle automat.

Product innovation through R&D is vital to be a leader in today’s competition. How does R&D play the role of a catalyst in manufacturing technology growth in the country?

Companies, irrespective of their nature of products/business, need to be innovative, responsive and cost competitive for sustainable growth. Manufacturing innovation plays a pivotal role in assuring these business attributes in the process of transforming ideas to viable products. In our country, with the limited resources and hard mindset towards the change, R&D and their practice remain in isolation. This has forced us to divest our competitiveness for others. Therefore, R&D towards process documentation, process prediction, data sharing and development of indigenous multifunctional modular and reconfigurable machines are needed for the growth of manufacturing in the country.

What are some of the biggest challenges when harnessing know-how in the manufacturing technology sector to practical purposes?

The biggest challenge is our approach. Researchers & companies come up with lots of ideas and ‘throw everything against the wall (at others) and hope something will stick’. This does not work in harnessing new know-how into the real manufacturing setup. It requires cohesiveness and strong belief in one another. The other challenges include shortage of resources, poor definition of research problems, fear of taking risks, poor supply chain and few other interpersonal aspects. These challenges are forcing us to restrict to incremental innovation, resulting into no indigenous disruptive technologies. On the other hand, business houses that are economically sound show more inclination towards acquiring the demonstrated technology from elsewhere in order to realise immediate benefits. This has ultimately put knowledge creators and wealth creators in isolation.

How is India’s environment for innovation in manufacturing technology different from the environment in other markets? What are the bottlenecks to successful R&D in manufacturing technology in India?

In the context of manufacturing innovation, I see three types of approaches by the Indian industry. Small companies usually prefer ‘Jugaad Innovation’ – finding low cost, quick-fix solutions using available resources, which is usually neither repeatable nor adaptable as it is. On the other hand, large companies tend to adopt ‘Technology Driven Innovation’ where products and machines are often over-engineered and therefore, uneconomical for widespread use. The SMEs usually tread the middle path of ‘incremental innovation’, which de-risks the business’s small improvements in products and processes. The challenge ahead for R&D institutions, like us, is to harness the technological need of Indian industries with customised solutions.

The luxury of doing something totally open-ended is being curtailed in R&D organisations. Today, researchers are expected to deliver tangible outputs leading to practical applications in the industry and/or society. Further, in national laboratories involved in applied research, there is very little room for failures. Under these circumstances, motivating the researchers is a great challenge for managers and heads of R&D institutes. But, there is no single answer to this challenge. In my experience, successful researchers set both short-term and long-term targets. While they work towards finding a suitable solution for the defined problem at hand, they also continuously look out for, learn and experiment with emerging technologies. There is a need to inculcate the practice of documentation, leading to IPR and research publications. These not only motivate the individual researcher but also benefit the organisation in the form of knowledge assets and technology licensing. Therefore, successful R&D in manufacturing is where machines and processing protocols demonstrate techno-economical viability to attract industry users. This is being gradually realised in India, the need of bringing the knowledge and value creators together for successful R&D, particularly in the manufacturing technology area.

The industry-institute partnerships in India are not as collaborative as in developed countries. What would be your recommendations?

In recent days, there is a lot of emphasis on networking between industry-institute partnerships. Most government departments have made it mandatory for such networks before R&D funding. However, such collaborations work only if there is belief in each other’s strength and limitations – instead of throwing many ideas at each other, more sincere efforts are needed at the problem definition stage itself. Besides, there must be willingness to work for a common cause. Every R&D initiative does not indicate quantifiable benefits. On the other hand, no shortcuts work if the focus is on long-term sustainability. Collaborations work only if the partners keep their doors open for their collaborators’ views.

Plus, keeping high standard business ethics always goes a long way. Most collaborations end with rough patches only because of poor ethical standards. Clarity in the definition of problems, responsibilities, credit sharing and liabilities in the collaboration initiations are important. Above all, connecting as individuals is more instrumental for the success of any industry-institute collaboration.

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