New Delhi: As the man responsible for the research and development (R&D) efforts of Maruti Suzuki India Ltd in India, Keiichi Asai has a ringside view of the company’s plans for the country’s market. In a rare interview, he spells out the company’s plans for its R&D centre in Haryana, how he rates Indian engineers and Maruti Suzuki’s plans regarding diesel and alternative technologies in the local market. Edited excerpts:
What are your plans for the Indian market, given that Maruti Suzuki is investing a huge amount (Rs1,200 crore) in a new R&D centre?
We are supposed to go into a vehicle building exercise. The cars would be developed by local people so that we can reduce the time taken for designing cars. Our aim is to have a vehicle that suits the taste of the Indian customer. It has to be launched at the right price for this market.
Focused approach: Keiichi Asai, head of India R&D at Maruti Suzuki.
How would you compare Indian engineers with their Japanese counterparts?
The (ability) level of a person would depend on his ability to learn. The fact is that we’re already sending 100 people every year to undergo training and those people that undergo training spend two years there, and when they come back, we ask them to take the onus of educating their juniors.
If we quantitatively measure it, we’d see that people here are at half the level of Japanese engineers. But here, there is a lot of effort going on to gradually improve that level every year.
What specific steps are you taking to improve the competence levels of Indian engineers?
When we move from 50% to 60-70%, there is a paradigm shift. Initially, when we used to have work in India, we used to get a vehicle fully made in Japan and add local features here. But now, we have gone one step ahead—we’re also trying to do facelifts (facelifts change features such as the front grill, etc.). Now we’re trying to go one step further. Now we aim to build the concept, do the design, make the models, do testing and finally carry it all the way to mass production.
At Suzuki, how do you see the Indian market evolving in the years to come?
I cannot divulge details, but in general terms we need to have global products for the Indian market. At the same time, we need to bring in whatever we can—including completely built up units (CBUs) of cars. To maintain our market share, we need to make sure we understand local requirements better. Our R&D will work not only for the Indian market, but also for the Asean (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) region.
What are you going to do differently from what other car makers such as Tata Motors Ltd are doing?
Local manufacturers are doing local development, but I am not aware of the details as I am not part of the process. All I can say (is) that there has been a globalization of the auto industry in the Indian market and so the requirements of quality have tremendously increased the expectations of Indian customers. We are utilizing the Indian R&D resources to meet the requirements of Indian customers, but at the same time the vehicles have to meet global requirements.
Suzuki Motor Corp. is not known for its diesel engines. But these are becoming increasingly popular in the Indian and European markets. Maruti Suzuki sources its engines from Fiat Automobiles in India. Do you see yourselves developing your own diesel engines?
Developing an engine is not only huge in terms of cost, but also the time it takes. We have to take a careful view of what resources are available with us. When resources are not available with us, we need to bring (the engines) in from other sources. We’re working with Maruti to understand the requirement for the Indian market and what customers need.
Do you see Maruti plugging the diesel engine gap in its portfolio?
Now we do want to work on it. We entered into a tie-up with Fiat that resulted in us manufacturing one diesel engine. If we have to expand our total product range, we have to expand our diesel engine portfolio—that is what the company feels.
Maruti Suzuki plans to step up CBU imports in the years to come. Do you see Maruti Suzuki as a company that straddles the full product range or one that remains primarily a small car company?
We have to wait and watch with pleasure what the response of the market is. I’m sure people like you would want to know more, but I can’t (elaborate)...
Apart from petrol and diesel, the Indian market has got various competing propulsion technologies such as compressed natural gas, liquefied petroleum gas and electric vehicles. Do you see all of them co-existing or would one emerge as a winner?
Very difficult to predict, as it depends a lot on government policy and depends on what investments the energy sector makes. We would compete on whatever vehicles we need to compete with. We’ll compete with our competitors on whatever terms we need to compete.
What are the top two things about the Indian market that keep people at Suzuki awake at night?
The reality is we have a lot of competitors who are coming with new small cars. The only way to handle this is to make products that look fresh in the Indian marketplace. We have to maximize our resources to introduce vehicles at the right timing and with the right flavour in the Indian market.