Sunday, April 14, 2013

Is Poor Engineering Design Capability at the Root of India's Problems with Technological Innovation?

I recently read a hard-hitting article titled “40 Years of Innovation” written by Harshwardhan Gupta, a Mumbai-based engineer designer (many thanks to Professor S Rajeev for sending me this article). The crux of Mr. Gupta’s argument is that India has failed to build engineering design capabilities, and, as a result failed to embrace technological innovation since “technological innovation and engineering design go hand-in-hand.” He goes on to argue that we are becoming more backward technologically, and have lost out on this count to practically every other significant country one might think of.

There is a good degree of commonality between what I wrote in From Jugaad to Systematic Innovation, and what Mr. Gupta argues in his article. But there are a number of new points as well in Mr Gupta’s article, and I would like to highlight these and comment on them.

Engineering Design Capabilities in India – Improving or Declining?

Mr. Gupta makes the contentious point that more engineering design happened in India pre-liberalization than after – even if it was based on imitation – because of the import controls that were in place at that time. The outcome of this activity was old-fashioned and over-designed, but good machines. There is probably some truth in this assertion, but it’s difficult to quantify. There were certainly pockets of engineering design capability in that era – my father’s own antenna company was a good example of that. Using locally-based engineering and design skills and the policy support provided by the import substitution policies of the government, he and his colleagues built a whole range of antenna designs that enabled all local requirements of antennas in the UHF and VHF bands to be met. Some other companies across sectors and ownership did develop their own products – I can think of BHEL, Thermax and HHV (that I wrote about in an earlier blog post) as examples – but I wonder whether we really have less engineering design capabilities today. The counter-evidence is the engineering design skills that we provide to the world through companies like QuEST and TCS.

Has CAD hindered rather than helped Engineering Design Capabilities?

A second interesting point Mr. Gupta makes is about how the advent of CAD may have actually weakened our engineering design capabilities. He attributes this effect to a false belief that the possession of CAD skills means that you have machine design skills. This is certainly an intriguing notion. It appears to be true in at least one domain – engineering education. When I joined IIT Kanpur as a student in 1981, I remember our senior batch talking enthusiastically about an engineering design course that they had done in their first year. I also heard about how tough the final year Mechanical Engineering projects could be, and how if students failed to make a working prototype they stood a good chance of failing in their projects. Well, the new core curriculum introduced from our batch onwards did away with the introductory engineering design course; and by the time our batch graduated, the requirement of a working prototype had been removed from the Mechanical Engineering curriculum (a disclosure: I was not in ME, but learnt this from my friends in that discipline). While at that time the reduction of emphasis on design in engineering education was attributed to problems in the institute workshops, by a few years later most engineering design had shifted to simulation and CAD. Few engineering colleges in India today require their students to get their hands dirty. [Interestingly, Mr. Gupta, a graduate of IIT Bombay, mentions that he designed his first machine as a student in 1975. Few contemporary IIT graduates will be able to claim that accomplishment!]

Machine Design & Commercialization of Innovation

Mr. Gupta underlines the importance of machines in commercializing innovation. He has an important point there. Ironically, Indian policy-makers recognized the importance of the machine goods industry way back in the 1950s. Companies like HEC and HMT were set up to provide a strong base in the capital goods industry. However, both HEC and HMT were not able to upgrade their engineering capabilities fast enough over time, and they lost out comprehensively once machines made the shift to CNC platforms.

Attitude towards Automation

Mr. Gupta criticizes the widely prevalent notion that automation is evil, and argues that only automation can provide products at the economic price points that will serve the needs of our people. He points out that mass produced products from China are rapidly pushing out locally produced products because we have not embraced automation effectively. I am quite sympathetic to this argument.

In India, there has been a lot of discussion and debate on frugal innovation. If you go back in history, the most successful frugal innovations were the result of mass production, whether you look at the textile industry of the British industrial revolution or the automation of the automobile assembly line by Henry Ford that democratized the motor car. In contrast, by failing to embrace mass production in the textile industry, we undermined the competitiveness of what was once a very successful industry in India.

In fact, at the core of the industrial revolution (which was the trigger for modern industrial growth) was automation.

Jugaad, IPR

I was delighted to see Mr. Gupta’s reference to our pride in Jugaadbazi as misplaced vanity. And, his view that complaints about lack of IP protection are just a cover-up for inadequate engineering skills.

Failure to Scale-up

Mr. Gupta’s other observation that I found thought-provoking was that we as a national are collectively incapable of scaling-up betterments but that we scale up bad things extremely fast and efficiently. He doesn’t provide an explanation for this, though he does point out that we as a nation seem to be subject to a naïve optimism that things will get better even when there is no objective reason to believe that this will be the case. He believes that we can’t solve problems unless we first recognize them as such.  My friend and co-author, Vinay Dabholkar, on the other hand usually argues that it’s better to focus on bright spots. I wonder who’s right. 

1 comment:

  1. I liked Mr. Gupta's article as well. I feel that acknowledging the problems as Mr. Gupta suggests is definitely a good first step. In fact, as we write in the step-2 of our 8 steps to innovation book, how we frame the problem is very important.

    Where I like to use bright spots is in the step after defining the challenge - where we move from the problem space to the solution space. Like Sudhir Kumar of Indian Railways and Gyanesh Pandey of Husk Power Systems found out, what is already working in the *same context* may provide a seed of an idea. I like bright-spots approach because of its nature to be culture-friendly. However, I don't know if one can always find a bright spot as a starting point.