'A company's brand cannot grow in isolation of the India brand.'
Dr PawanGoenkaspeaks to Sumantra B Barooahon how the Baja SAE India inter-collegiate contest has become a nurturing ground for automobile engineers and why brand India needs a push.
Dr Pawan Goenka speaks to Sumantra B Barooahon how the Baja SAE India inter-collegiate contest has become a nurturing ground for automobile engineers and why brand India needs a push.
How would you describe the evolution of the Baja event over the past seven years?
I would like to put this in a bigger context. Why did we start this event? We first thought about it in early 2007 when I was SAE India president.
Looking at the future, we could foresee a great shortage of automobile engineers and that most engineering students would prefer to make a career not in the auto industry or hardcore engineering but in software, IT, banking and finance. Therefore, we needed something specific to create excitement in college campuses about manufacturing generally and about the automobile industry specifically.
SAE International had the Baja, so that’s how this whole idea came about. Take this event and start creating something that students look forward to every year. Then probably we could start making a difference.
The event has gone beyond our expectations. When we started in 2007, we had 28 teams participating. From there to now, when we have 325 teams keen to participate though we took only 125 (with each team comprising 30-35 students), that’s fairly good progress. It’s a 10X improvement. If any company does 10X growth in less than 10 years, that will be quite good. That’s the primary thing.
What Baja SAE India is doing is not just making automobiles. It’s about teaching students teamwork that they don’t get a chance to learn elsewhere, and teamwork is very important in their careers. It’s teaching them programme management, which is important for product development. It’s teaching them cost management and marketing because they have to go find sponsors for their teams. It’s teaching them leadership because someone takes responsibility for the entire team. Managing a team of 30-35 members is like running a good product development unit.
So, it’s really helping to make these 30-35 students full engineers, having gotten their hands dirtied. Today, the engineering curriculum unfortunately has taken out most of the stuff that we used to have in a five-year curriculum that allowed us to do things with our hands.
I think in terms of graduating a ready automobile engineer, those who go through a Baja experience certainly have an advantage over other students who have not gone through it.
Companies are now realising this. They are not just looking at grades but whether or not a student has participated in Baja, which is an indication
of his/her interest in the automobile industry.
So, is a Baja team member a better bet than someone who hasn’t participated in a Baja event?
Absolutely and these people are quite passionate about automobiles. The automobile business, as I have always been saying, is about passion, not
just engineering. It’s about something that you have to thoroughly just want to do.
How would you rate the average calibre of engineering students in India? Do you see certain areas where perhaps they score more over engineering students overseas?
Honestly, we haven’t quite reached the level that you would see in a Baja event in the USA. But having said that, I don’t think we should in any way feel embarrassed about it. Baja India is only seven years old compared to the US where it has been running for about 40 years.
A very big difference is that American students, right from when they are six years old, grow up with almost a love affair with cars. They have a car in their garage, they work with their father under the car and stuff like that. I don’t know how much of that happens now. An American student has a lot more attachment to cars than an Indian student.
Most middle-class Indian students’ parents probably never owned a car or never had an opportunity to work with a car. Therefore, we don’t have that kind of passion about automobiles as a natural course among Indian students. Thus, there’s a disadvantage that they have going into the college or when they go to Baja. For many of them, it may be the first time they have touched an automobile part, which for an American student is routine. What I am hoping is that someday India will get there.
I hope that this event will make a small contribution to almost changing the way kids grow up with their cars, or their dad’s cars, the way they look at the profession of an automobile engineer.
In the 1970s and earlier, the dream job in the USA was to work with the Big 3. If you got that job, your life was made. I would like to see that happen slowly, to see that if you get a job in the automobile industry – any company, Indian or multinational – you say “Wow, that’s what I want to do.”
It should not be about an automobile company paying more or less. It should be the excitement. If you are an engineer, there’s no other product range that involves all areas of engineering – chemical, metallurgy, civil and mechanical. You have to know almost little bit of everything to become a good automobile engineer.
That’s what will make India a great auto producing nation. Today, outside India, there certainly no brand India for automobiles. Even the MNCs who manufacture here and export, these products are not something that is a highlight. Can a company proudly advertise that its car is ‘Made in India’ or 'Designed in India'? It won’t happen in five or seven years. It will happen in 15-20 years.
An exercise like Baja can be a beginning. Just being a low-cost manufacturing base will not give us the brand status in automobile engineering. The brand status will come if India becomes a country where we have the best of engineers who want to work for the best automobile industry. The best of designs and the best of technologies are getting into an Indian-designed product here and the best of manufacturing quality is happening here at an affordable cost.
If we can get there, that will be the real dream for anybody who is really passionate about this industry and wants to see this industry become the crowning achievement for India.
I am sure you would want Mahindra & Mahindra to attain that brand status before you retire?
I would love to. But the goal has to be bigger than Mahindra. The goal has to be bigger for anyone who is looking at the country as a whole. Obviously, working for Mahindra, I would like to see Mahindra attain a very high level of brand status and be a very successful company. But Mahindra is part of India. And the Mahindra brand can only be as good as the India brand. It is very difficult for a company to build a brand which rises above the brand that the country has. You are connected to your national brand.
There’s always a perception, ‘companies from India are like that’. So, if there’s a German car company, without knowing anything about it, you create an image about that company. Likewise for a Chinese carmaker. So, therefore, a Mahindra brand or a Tata brand cannot grow in isolation of the India brand.
Therefore, all of us who are in the industry have to work towards building the India brand as much as we work towards building the Mahindra brand or any other company’s brand.
Does such an event also help OEMs address the growing challenge of a reducing product lifecycle?
I think it’s too early to connect. The product lifecycle development does not depend on the individual expertise of engineers. That is to do with the overall product development process, the whole ecosystem that you have in the country. For example, in Korea nothing has to be sent outside Korea in the development phase. Whether it is dies, tooling, presses, body shop, everything’s done in the country.
Therefore, there’s a time compression in the whole process. In India, a lot of things need to be done abroad. There are no places in India where we can do class A panels – either we do it in-house or send it overseas. Also, there’s no complete weld shop except for low-end products. Also, there are no large presses available in India. We have to buy machine tools from abroad because machine tools quality in India for precision is just not there. So, all of these things add to the overall time cycle. It has nothing to do with the students or designers. For that, the whole ecosystem has to develop.
Does SsangYong lend Mahindra an opportunity to polish its brand image in the global stage?
As far as the individual engineering skill is concerned, I don’t see a problem. The problem is the overall ecosystem for putting the product together, validating it, getting all the manufacturing facilities ready. That has to do with the overall ecosystem available in India which needs a lot of development and a lot of effort from individual entrepreneurs as well as the government.
We need to set a goal that 10 years from now we don’t have to step outside India to design, develop, validate and manufacture an automobile. Korea, Japan, China, Japan, Germany and France do it. Why not India?
At a later stage, do you also see an EV version of Baja in India?
We have tried to do e-Baja this year but couldn’t develop enough traction because there have to be 20-25 teams that are interested. We are planning it and we hope that we can do it sooner than later. The problem in e-Baja is that the cost of making a vehicle is much higher than the diesel vehicles. And there’s lot more safety concern and safety work that we need to do because in an electric vehicle, with very high voltage, the students are doing it without having complete understanding of what safety precautions are required in design and manufacturing it can become a little bit risky.
So, therefore, we need to tread with care and be confident that we can manage the safety part of it and be confident that the higher cost of making the e-Baja vehicle can be managed by the students who have to handle their own funding for making these vehicles. SAE does not provide the funding.
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