Financial Daily
from THE HINDU group of publications

Thursday, November 23, 2000



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Engineering industry: IT has a whole lot of things

R. Krishna Kumar

THE FINANCE Minister, Mr Yashwant Sinha, was rather forthright and refused the industry's plea to reduce the taxes `for the next few years'. But, interestingly, he had a piece of advice to the industrialists on how to function in the liberalised era. He urged them to use information technology to enhance productivity so as to compete not only with the West but also with China and other economies of the Far-East.

Today, IT is increasingly becoming the mantra to ward off all ills -- the panacea for all the problems. Admittedly, IT has come as a breath of fresh air, especially for the country's employment scene. But will IT give the ailing engineering industry the elixir of life? B2B, B2C, ERP and the newest Product Data Management (PDM) are expected to get the engineering industry up and running. No doubt, they help. But do they address the real issues facing the industry? And what actually separates India from t he West?

This is no diatribe against IT for there is no doubt about the crucial importance of computers. Confusing? That is because that is the crux of the problem. In the IT hype, its raison d'etre -- the computer -- has been forgotten. Had only the Indian Indus try concentrated on the role of computers it would have opened a whole new vista for it. Unfortunately, IT is seen to be closer to the heart of the management (and, hence, to the bosses).

So what can computers do that is not covered by the term IT? A whole lot of things, but which have not been the forte of India's engineering industry. Science can be brought into product and process development. Though many scientific principles are well -understood, their application to practical engineering problems was complex. Computers have made it possible for an engineer to flirt with the elite -- Newton, Euler, Gauss and Hilbert.

Thanks to the powerful hardware and software, mathematical modelling of complex manufacturing processes is a reality. Product design optimisation can be a routine exercise. Virtual prototyping can be a part of the design cycle. The West and the East have acknowledged, assimilated and implemented them.

But India has hardly begun, why? The reasons are plenty. First, the country has never had a culture of scientific product development. Ironically, many engineers are sceptical about the application of computers, in fact, of any theory, to engineering act ivities and this mindset has not helped the discipline. Thus, even a layman's lament: ``When we can launch a satellite and harness atomic power why can we not compete with the engineering industries of the West or the East?'' The answer may be rather cru de: The fraternity does not believe in science. Why, and who is responsible for this?

The boss -- the so-called champions or captains -- of the industry head the list. Many believe that their only job is to make money. For them, any investment must be quantified immediately and hence they understand ERP, B2B and various other jargons. Sci ence needs an incubation period and being `dynamic' these `bosses' have no patience. As a bright young engineer who returned from the US to work for an engineering software company said: ``When the going is tough, research is the last priority and the in dustry does not invest. During an upward swing it sees no reason to invest in R&D. Over the years, the country has suffered by this attitude, and now, with the open economy, it hurts.''

Next on the list is the top management -- the directors. Many consider themselves as specialists on every subject covered by them and strongly believe that theory is different from practice. (But, if this were so, then we need ITIs and not IITs.) They ar e ill-equipped to handle specialists and modern computer-based tools. Most have no clue to lead a R&D team in a highly competitive environment nor the inclination to update their technical knowledge.

Third, the middle management -- an unsure, hesitant lot that understands most problems, but unofficially. Their only source of information is trade literature. Insecure, they are firmly of the view that ``there is no substitute for experience''.

Finally, the youth. Worried only about their career path, engineering has little meaning to them. Computers, or rather IT, are merely a route to a lucrative career and not exciting tools to do engineering. Their constant switching of jobs has only made t he scene murkier.

South Korea woke up long back. So also China. News is that an engineering software company sold 3,000 copies of a high-end finite element software (a mathematical tool with immense potential for product/process development) in China, but it might have so ld a maximum of 20 in India. India's industrialists must wake up before it is too late. The weakness is not processing information but lack of knowledge. But the powerful tool it is, the computer, brings knowledge within your reach. Use it.

Having said that, it must also be acknowledged that things are not easy. There are some genuine problems to overcome. Application of science through computers cannot be done in isolation. The merits of cooperative product development must be recognised. Today, many engineering products are an assembly of specialised components, designed and developed by ancillaries. For example, the tyre is a highly intricate engineering product, with its own set of design rules, that has to work on a particular platfor m. The designer needs to know design details of the vehicle. Here, again, it is worth looking at the West. To enable a healthy interaction between these two groups, a consortium of international tyre and vehicle manufacturers has been formed in Europe. U nfortunately, there is no Indian company in this group, called Tydex. The SAEs, ASMEs and ASMs and IEEEs have done that job admirably in the US. The key to success is D2D -- Designer to Designer interaction.

There is no proper forum in India for such an interaction. Companies are still unsure of what design data can be shared with their suppliers though there is the constant refrain about supply-chain management, portals and so on. The designer is left in th e dark and yet he is the wealth producer of the company. Companies must nurture him.

This is an era of specialists. Their role is recognised in medicine and even IT. Yet, in engineering they are termed to be `overqualified' when, in fact, they must be driving the R&D effort. Unfortunately, many companies do not even want to touch them an d the few which do employ them do not have a well-defined role or a growth path for them. The result is that they have become an endangered species. Today, there is the sad situation of an engineer with a doctorate trying to sell his C++ skills to get a job. There is a sharp drop in Ph.D. registration in engineering -- a serious issue in a larger perspective though it does not seem to affect the industrialists.

In today's changed environment, periodic technical training is required at all levels. With a very tight hierarchical structure, many decisions are still taken at the very top. The situation may become pathetic when the Technical Director does not unders tand the technical language of the youngsters, especially when computers are used for product and process design.

IT is called the `Knowledge Industry'. But the engineering industry still relies on information and does not acknowledge the difference between knowledge and information. If at all the engineering industry is to survive the onslaught from the West and th e East, it should churn the ocean of knowledge and not just process information.

(The author, with vast industry experience, is professor of mechanical engineering at IIT, Madras.)

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