Tata Motors' Rajendra Petkar: 'Pandemic paving the way for significant collaboration opportunities.'

by Nilesh Wadhwa 12 Apr 2020

The outbreak of coronavirus has seen OEMs and suppliers shutter their manufacturing plants right from the last week of March, something which must be having company think-tanks worried. But Rajendra Petkar, President and Chief Technology Officer, Tata Motors, sees the lockdown, now extended in Maharashtra to April 30, as a time to introspect, strategise and also connect better with company personnel.

As one of the four panellists in Autocar Professional's webinar on 'Rising to a Challenge: Business in the mist of a pandemic', held on April 11, Petkar said the pandemic coming on the back of a difficult year has increased challenges for industry manifold. Already dealing with a difficult business environment including a dynamic regulatory regime, BS VI transition, liquidity crunch, subdued demand, mobility disruption, high acquisition costs, multiple fuel choices and GST evolution, the coronovirus impact it set to hit industry hard. It also means that the Indian auto industry is moving towards uncharted territories and one should expect a sales decline of 25% in FY2021.

Sharing his perspective on the subject of ‘Engineering in times of a crisis’, Petkar said OEMs have swiftly responded to the shutdown call but it is important that organsiations tackle immediate priorities in a structured and phased manner, while also protecting employees, IPR and ecosystem.

While the pandemic has disrupted the usual way of life across segments, many business practices are being carried out through ‘Work From Home’ (WFH). However, the situation is rather different for engineering, R&D and manufacturing practices.

Engineering challenges
Speaking on the unique challenges an engineering organisation has to face, Petkar dwelled on the many roles involved in the process. These roles can be categorised into Design; Testing & Development; and Management, Support & Central. Some of these functions have almost no prior experience and policies for such roles in a WFH scenario, which means companies have to “face and deal with the unknown.”

He said the R&D engineering departments in automotive are currently the worst impacted, and have contended with continuous challenges for the past 3-4 years, and especially in the last 3-4 quarters.

Adopting a structured approach during a crisis
While every industry stakeholder faces different challenges, Petkar believes it is imperative that a structured and collaborative approach will remain the best way forward. He advises a four-pronged, phased approach: Preparation & Execution; Shutdown phase; Restart protocols and Ramp up. If properly implemented, each phase can help ensure a sustainable practice for both the employees’ health/welfare and organisational stability. He outlined how certain initiatives in each phase can deliver optimum results.

As Tata Motors’ CTO, Petkar’s thought process can be said to be backed by his  engineer-first approach. During his presentation, he outlined how organisations can employ the best engineering practices during the shutdown phase. Right from reviewing and taking decisions to supporting employees with health issues with HR and administration guidance. “A structured approach during such a crisis can help address and make things easier. Once the shutdown is lifted, not everything will restart on the first day, we will need to still continue to maintain certain learnings such as social distancing,” added Petkar.

Summarising his thoughts, Petkar said that OEMs have swiftly responded to the shutdown call amidst the present scenario. It is important that organsiations tackle immediate priorities in structured/phased manner, while also ensuring protecting its employees, IPR and ecosystem first. He believes it is important to prioritise long term engineering deliverables and initiatives in near term, but understand that not everything can be delivered.

People-first approach
"Industry is in the process of discovering the WFH culture. The safety aspect is the topmost priority across industry from manufacturing to warehousing. The challenge is to come up with ways to engage with employees while they are working from home."

He pointed out that while the Coronovirus has impacted our present, it will undeniably have an influence on how the society and jobs function in the future. Petkar says that we need to prepare for a changed world: Prioritised, new and faster ways of engineering work. “Engineering activities should not be compromised, we should look at what are the best way to continue work from home. The lock-down is also proving to be a great learning experience for engineering. Thanks to digital tools and connectivity, we are able to harness the potential of technology. This is a good time to strategise and prioritise projects for the future."

A well informed and digitally connected engineering fraternity will pave the future. And the current scenario presents a good opportunity to upgrade and learn something new. Work From Home is an opportunity to learn and upgrade and also a good way to conserve cash and cut down discretionary spend.  Companies should and will look at more collaboration with external partners. Going forward, collaboration is going to be key. People have realised the importance of supporting and working with each other. This pandemic is paving the way for significant collaborative opportunities across the value chains,” concluded Petkar.

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