Lessons in frugality from India

Written by Ajay Sukumaran | Updated: Nov 26 2012, 10:23am hrs
Low-cost innovations from General Electrics technology team in India was the key that helped the American conglomerate gain entry into the countrys potentially large market for healthcare products and medical devices. Now, as cost-control emerges as the primary concern in a world caught in the economic doldrums, the lessons in thrift learnt by GEs Indian technologists are coming in handy for the $147 billion company.

GEs 4,500-strong multidisciplinary research and development centre in Bangalore and its teams in cities like Hyderabad are currently on an expansion mode, aiming at a larger say in the companys R&D activity besides also working on a greater number of homegrown products for the India market.

In cost, I think we have an advantage because a frugal approach to engineering is something which will come more naturally to us here, so we are being given a very important role, says Gopichand Katragadda, managing director, GE India Technology Centre. One of the core programmes which has been picked up by GE on how to do things differently is called Litespeed. This is one of only four programmes across the company which is being used to develop knowledge and to teach the rest of GE how to do it. We have a leadership role from that standpoint.

In the frugal engineering business, the India arms breakthrough product launched four years ago was a portable electrocardiogram built to work in rural areas. The machine, along with other products such as an incubator and phototherapy systems among others, has since found a market in over 70 countries. Katragadda says the target is to develop 30 new products over the next three years and getting at least 20% of his workforce of 6,000 technologists to contribute to India-specific programmes.

The world is in a new normal. There are going to be new ways of doing things. Two primary aspects of this, including for GE, is much bigger focus on costs and environment, says Katragadda. So for the engineering teams, it is to think about cost up-front, not after the product is in the market.

The company has also recently added more senior-level positions in its centres in a bid to raise the level of expertise and drive more projects, says Katragadda. It now has two chief engineers to head the aviation and energy segments while 30 principal engineer positions have been added recently. Globally, the company has about 15 chief engineers in the aviation vertical and 20-25 in energy. On the technology side, we want to bring more decision-making roles into the country and we have started doing as well, he says. As we grow that, the ability to completely own the things that we are doing will increase.

Working on high-end engineering technology for the global markets is also what gives the India arm the capability to innovate at the low-end. In the healthcare sector, the Indian teams are focussed on products and medical devices in the areas of cardiology, infant care and ultrasound imaging, with recent products including a pocket ultrasound machine among others. Besides, the company has so far sold about 200 wind turbines built for Indias low wind conditions. Katragadda says that his teams also recently designed locomotives for the UK and Indonesia markets besides developing track-optimising solutions to achieve better fuel efficiency on long distance trains. Some of the ongoing R&D areas include all-glass wind turbine blades, biomass gasification plants and rural water purification solutions.

When its $200 million plant in Pune becomes operational in 2013, GE India also plans to start manufacturing components for sensing equipment, gas engines and aircraft engines besides co-locating an R&D centre with the plant.