Dialogue on “The Future of Technology”
The panel discussion was moderated by Mr Magesh Panchagnula, Dean, Alumni and Corporate Relations, IIT Madras. The other panellists were TT Ramgopal – Global Head, Android Partner Engineering, Google; P Kanniappan, Managing Director, WABCO Limited; R Velusamy, Sr Vice President, Head – Automotive Product Development, MRV, Mahindra; Dr Radha Rangarajan, Chief Technology Officer, Health Cube.
I had the opportunity to come to India and work for Google in India, setting up some of the operations and development in 2006-2007. I was very much focused on supporting the global ad operations. That was the first foray we had. Similar to many other international companies, we had back office operations based out of India and that eventually graduated or morphed into customizing products for India. One example was Google Maps. We had Google Maps for most of the world. But developing maps for India was a challenge. So we started investing a lot of time, developing a unique technology and I am proud to say that Google’s approach is not taking products and customizing it for India but our philosophy is: ‘Build for India and you will be building for the rest of the world.’ So India has become a first class citizen and a priority market, where we invest a lot of resources.
Mahesh: Radha, you are in a space where you are trying to solve a problem for India, which would solve the problem for the world. Can we hear your thoughts on that?
I will talk about the healthcare space. I’m a physician. After almost 15 years in the US, getting all my higher education degrees -PhD, Post Doctorate, etc.- I came back to India to put my training to work in the Indian context, on problems that matter to India. I initially worked at Dr Reddy’s in the drug discovery division where we were developing new drugs to treat cardiovascular disease, diabetes and so on.
I eventually left and started my own drug discovery company. This was very much like swimming against the tide, because in India, we were not traditionally focused on R&D. After running that company for almost eight years, developing very, very novel compounds, securing multiple patents, grants and recognition for our work, we sold the company in 2019. I now work for a medical devices company called Health Cube where we are developing devices to deliver diagnostics across India, particularly in rural and remote areas.
We are turning the corner and a lot of innovation is happening in the technology space. We are moving away from hardware per se to algorithms, software and connectedness. That’s really where this entire field is now moving. ~ Dr Radha Rangarajan, Health Cube
So the problem we’re solving is how to get even simple tests like blood glucose and blood pressure test done in India’s rural communities, where it takes a very long trip to get to a center where such a service is available. Instead of solving the problem through a completely hardware approach, we have developed digitized devices and also devices which are multi parametric. You can do many tests with one box. It weighs less than 2 kgs and the data are on an app. You can track and understand trends on an individual basis or on a community basis.
In the 2000s, especially in the medical devices space, we had a large dependence on imports. We saw a small number of companies starting up and trying to establish products and build products in India, entering the space in a relative vacuum. They developed products like PCR machines and molecular diagnostics. They developed fundus cameras for examining the eye. Around 2012, the department of biotechnology took a very proactive approach to support innovation. This led to an acceleration of innovation in India in the medical field, in the healthcare space, allowing investors also to gain confidence in investing in Indian companies. Rather than working on import substitutes alone, we’re now working on products which also address problems that affect Indians more specifically. Products similar to what we do at Health Cube are not available anywhere in the world. But our products do not fit European or American markets. We are turning the corner and a lot of innovation is happening in the technology space. We are moving away from hardware per se to algorithms, software and connectedness. That’s really where this entire field is now moving.
Almost every sector in India, in the early 50s, had a public sector company. The auto sector, for some weird reason, did not have a public sector parent. So, how did we start off on technology development back then? How far have we come?
We had a customer problem and we wanted a solution. It could be through an empirical model or a theoretical model. Empirical model means you do some lab work, find a correlation and a solution and you establish that. But you don’t know how it happens, like Newton found out the gravity. He wrote the gravity equation and it worked. That allowed us to take off and land the plane. That’s one kind of innovation. Einstein found the general theory of relativity. The theoretical background predicted black holes and many things. The equipment was built to identify black holes. That is called the true innovation. Both empirical and theoretical formulae lead to innovation.
At the end, some top-notch innovator comes with an idea. You need to perfect it, to make it into a product. That’s called technology. That takes hardship. As much as Einstein took 10 years to write the equation, it took a century to build telescopes to find the black holes. A technology sometimes can take so many years and you have to put in billions of dollars into it. A product is a culmination of a powerful idea that is coming out of these innovations and technology. Product development must happen at affordable cost to the customer. A product uses multiple pieces of technology.
We started in 1991 to look into the technology development from productionisation to technology development and from technology development to innovation. We are working backwards. Today, we are probably taking a fast copy of what is happening in China, Japan, Europe, and the US, but in the next ten years, innovation will happen in India. We can see those seeds. I’m the chief engineer of Mahindra 700 program and we have been on this program for four years. It took us tremendous amount of courage to bring such a highly futuristic product but we have to depend lot for doing the innovation on Korea, China and Europe. So to overcome those dependencies, we need to work on atmanirbhar.
Kanniappan, you have also been in the auto industry for a long time. Can you add your views to this?
I represent the commercial vehicle industry. I worked most part of my career in TVS. I would like to explain the evolution of the product development in the industry and categorize into three stages:
- Upto 2002
- 2002 to 2012
- 2012 to now
Phase 1: Upto 2,002, we got the technology from a joint venture partner and focussed mostly on manufacturing excellence and quality management. In the 90s, the auto industry had some influence of the Japanese manufacturing practices, because by then Maruti set up its production in India. Many of the two wheeler companies had JV with Japanese companies. TVS also launched the TQM practices. Till 2000, we were more like a manufacturing company. When we got the Deming prize in 98, we decided we should move to a product development company. We drafted our own new product development process.
Our core modes of technology development are seeing a revolution. That cuts across all sectors of technology. ~ Magesh Panchagnula, IIT – M
Phase 2: From 2002 to 2012, the focus was to build a robust product development process and focusing on the robustness of the design, design quality and developing products in India for India market. The challenge in Indian companies in the commercial vehicle segment was to deal with the ecosystem. Technology was not a big differentiator till probably 2010. Then some global companies came to India. There was a strong pressure in the market to bring in new technologies, then the pressure to develop, adopt and manufacture those products in India to suit the market demands. We had even invested in a test track in Chennai, developing some 200 acres of land with all the capabilities to certify ABS, etc. It was a huge investment and it had strong focus on development.
Apart from developing a technology, you need to have the ability to deliver the product to Indian market requirements at reasonable cost. ~ P Kanniappan, WABCO Limited
Apart from developing a technology, you need to have the ability to deliver the product to Indian market requirements at reasonable cost. We had to work on frugal engineering design to see that technologies were implemented at price points, which the market would accept.
Phase 3: In the third phase from 2012, the commercial vehicle industry in India became more global. By then, many global people set up shops here and the focus was to align with the global technologies and trends in terms of regulations, etc. ABS and emission standards like Euro 4, Euro 6 were mandated. We had to upgrade and develop the products to India market.
We are in a position today to develop products for global markets from here. It maybe mechanical products, as in our case. We have emerged as a Centre of Excellence for mechanical products, from where we produce and release products for global markets. We are also a very key element of the global development through software development, as Indians have become leaders in writing software, for even the most advanced global products. Now, we are moving to digital. India can become a hero. There are huge opportunities. That has been the evolution.
Our core modes of technology development are seeing a revolution. That cuts across all sectors of technology. Today, we talk of startups, much more than having our own captive R&D. Even many large industries want to interface with startups. What sort of modes of engagement are we looking at, looking into the future? What technologies are on the horizon that will cut across different technology spaces?
In automobiles, there is a migration of internal combustion engines to electric vehicle. So there is a Battery Technology. Within the Battery Technology, there is a forward movement from nickel, manganese, cobalt batteries to lithium ion battery, sodium ion batteries and solid-state batteries. So one team needs to constantly focus on battery. The government is helping you to jumpstart the battery electric vehicle with reduced GST.
Safety: The second focus in on safety. We have radars and cameras; the fusion of information that is coming from radar and camera is the need of the hour. For instance, during night time and foggy weather, the camera alone does not work. So the fusion system is being developed at a fast rate. We also need to monitor the vehicle 360 degrees. That also helps autonomous driving and you are able to monitor the vehicle.
Infotainment: The third technology that’s coming up in a big way is in the infotainment area- music systems, entertainment, gaming, bringing connectivity into the system, voice assistant, gesture control, text conversion -you speak and it is converted to text and the messages are sent to your relatives- vehicle-to-vehicle connectivity and vehicle-to-infrastructure network connectivity.
It is impossible for an OEM to develop all these technologies simultaneously and you do not have the bandwidth of R&D people to do this development. What is more important is you need to know what the customer wants. There is no point in developing something that customer does not like. Then we can integrate with a network of Apps. Like what Google does, you can source the technology development from the public.
I have seen Android move from phones to TV to watches to automobiles. The development cycle across all these is different. It takes 4 to 5 years to plan a car and launch it with safety in place, whereas with software, we push out updates every week. The development methodology is so different.
We have in Google a lot of the ‘not invented here.’ But everything we build early on. ~ TT Ramgopal, Goolge
Google methodology is default to open. Android is a completely open source platform and we get tremendous contribution from the entire development ecosystem, which gets integrated back into the Android. Also since its open, we have people who are white hat hackers and who look at all the vulnerabilities and point out what is broken, so we can continuously keep fixing them.
The second thing is, we have in Google a lot of the ‘not invented here.’ But everything we build early on. We had our own mail system and our own databases. The top 5 tech companies including Google have invested heavily in startups in India.
I was in India recently and impressed by concepts like Dunzo-getting things shipped from anywhere to anywhere, because people are mobile and there are hundreds of scooters. Such innovations are coming from markets like India. So, listening to your customer, figuring out their unique needs and being open are the best ways to move forward.