Steering in the right direction

by 24 Apr 2006


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Burgeoning business opportunities in the component industry have led to many manufacturers revising existing plans, expanding operations and diversifying into new products. But it takes a forward-thinking company like Rane (Madras) Ltd (RML) of the Chennai-based Rane Group to foresee profits in a hitherto slow area of activity.

This maker of critical components like steering linkages, ball joints, axial joints, suspension joints, manual steering gears and, more recently, hydrostatic steering gear, is uniquely placed to benefit from the expansion projects it has already implemented.

With the recent boom in the tractor market, RML is busy catering to the hugely increased demand from its customers. Furthermore, its efforts on developing new high-efficiency import substitute products have paid off handsomely. The company’s Mysore unit has conceived, designed and developed a hydrostatic steering system, which is still being imported in India.

Despite being located in a somewhat less industrially developed place, RML could manufacture this critical component due to the Mysore plant’s inherent strengths. These include its ability to speedily develop new products from concept through to final stage. While the complicated hydrostatic steering system came to life in less than two years, standard products take less than three to six months.

Rane (Madras) will be manufacturing three different types of hydrostatic steering gears including reactive and non-reactive type at Mysore in a dust-free environment. Additionally, it has also inducted few special purpose machines for high-pressure washing, right angle cross-hole drilling, dedicated ID grinding, higher accuracy surface lapping and shrink wrapping for dust-free packaging.

##### Interestingly, a few tractor-makers are also testing hydrostatic steering gear systems. This product gains significance primarily because it is an import substitute. Other than being cost-competitive, service support will be an added advantage for the OEMs. At present less than five percent of Indian-made tractors (from Mahindra, New Holland, SAME and TAFE) are equipped with the hydrostatic steering system and that too only in their top-end models where the key ‘steering control unit’ component remains an import item. Now with RML's localisation of this critical component, tractor-makers could introduce it in a majority of their product range.

RML also banks on its capability to meet customer requirements, be innovative designing and developing of new products or even ramping up production sizeably. For instance, it augmented output of ball joints in its steering system linkage plant from 1.45 lakh to 1.8 lakh and subsequently to 2.3 lakh pieces per month within 15 months. By December 2005, production had reached the 2.5 lakh- pieces-per-month mark. It is this that enables RML to meet new business requirements, whether it is for the newly-launched Tata Ace commercial vehicle or for the fast turnout of tractors from TAFE.

RML's Mysore plant is a versatile one. Not only is new product development a fast-paced process but modifications can also be effected to meet customer specifications. Such flexibility allows the company to factor in shorter lifecycles for low-volume products, ramp up production when required and also phase out certain models. Clearly, a customer-focussed approach — for Tata Motors’ variable steering gear, RML began production, ramped up output and phased out the gear in a short span of three years.

The Mysore plant is broadly divided into two sections – the steering gear and steering system linkage plants. While the steering gear plant has three modules such as box line, rocker shaft line and worm and nut line, the second facility houses individual modules for Maruti, Tata Motors and lower control arms. However, heat treatment, phospating, gauge/standards, maintenance and quality departments are common for both. The new line to manufacture the hydrostatic steering gear system has been set up in the steering gear plant.

Among the initiatives undertaken at Mysore, RML has introduced a single-piece flow concept in most of the manufacturing lines in both the plants. This, according to Shrikant Bhaskar Manel, vice- president (operations), will help reduce the workforce in the manufacturing operations and also enhance productivity by at least 15 percent.

##### RML’s strengths in technology have received a boost with improved quality levels. The Mysore plant is certified for ISO 9001/2001, OHSAS and TS 16949 and has also bagged the Frost & Sullivan award for manufacturing excellence. This plant has implemented a TQM programme since 2001 and plans to go in for Deming diagnosis in April this year. At present, the average rejection level from customers is less than 100ppm and the warranty return less than 150ppm. In May 2005 the company kickstarted a programme called ‘Steer 100ppm’ with an aim to reduce rejection level, including manufacturing, to less than 100ppm. To achieve this, it has introduced PFMEA (Process Failure Mode Effective Analysis) and statistical process control, which will provide inputs for process capability analysis. Following the results, RML will take corrective measures to plug the gap.

Also, in a bid to increase overall productivity, the company has appointed the National Productivity Council as an independent consultant. And, from April 2005, RML has utilized SAP to help maintain lower inventory and also provide a fillip to overall productivity. All steps in the right direction. RML today is a leading supplier to a large number of original equipment manufacturers and provides steering gear and linkages to a host of tractor-makers including Case New Holland, TAFE, Escorts, Indo Farming, Mahindra Gujarat Tractors, Mahindra Tractors, and SAME.

On the export front, the company caters to BSB in Canada, Case New Holland, Dana Corporation, John Deere, Piaggio in Italy, SAME group, Siam Kubota and SGS in Iran. At present about 12 percent of the products manufactured in the Mysore plant are destined for export markets. This figure is expected to snowball in the near future as RML’s existing clientele are expected to sizeably increase their component sourcing. Now, with the recent success in indigenisation of hydraulic steering gear for tractors, RML is in line with its goal to position itself as a global supplier.

RML’s Mysore plant will soon commence commercial production of hydrostatic steering systems targeted at tractors. Designed, developed and tested by RML, the product is first headed for Mahindra Tractors, which has thoroughly tested it and is satisfied with the product, according to Shrikant Bhaskar Manel, vice- president (operations). Steering systems are of three types — manual, integral power steering and hydrostatic steering. While there is no hydraulic cylinder in integral power steering, it has regular steering gear with hydraulic assistance. Off-road vehicles like tractors, dumpers, bulldozers and loaders, which run at much lower speeds, constantly demand power assist for steering operations.

A hydrostatic steering system is suitable for such vehicles since steering is always supported with power and requires less than 10 percent of the steering effort in manual systems. However, it needs high precision manufacturing in terms of metallic sealing. Rane developed it in less than two years, thereby becoming the first company in India and among the few manufacturers worldwide to do so. Hydrostatic steering gear consists of a steering control unit, pump, reservoir with in-built filter and dip stick, hydraulic cylinder besides piping and hoses. The steering control unit (also known as hydraulic steering unit) has about 28 components, all of them requiring micronic level precision and necessitating top-class manufacturing capability. Except for fasteners, bearings, seats and springs, all the mechanical components are manufactured in-house at RMLto maintain quality.

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