Big money, attention do little for sporting goods companies

Big money, attention do little for sporting goods companies
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First Published: Sat, Mar 24 2007. 04 36 PM IST
Updated: Sat, Mar 24 2007. 04 36 PM IST
Sat Pal sits hunched over a small tub of glue, dips in a cylindrical
mesh, rolls it over the head of a hockey stick, then presses firmly
into the wood. Finally, just to be sure it holds, he slips a condom
over the whole thing.
For the past five years, Pal has worked this specialised job at R.K.
Sports Pvt Ltd., a Jalandhar-based hockey equipment maker: unraveling
condoms over sticks. Even with a cumbersome protective rubber glove
on, he does it with elan. His employer says he can do up to 250 a day.
Despite crores upon crores spent on advertising and branding of sports
and their stars, the making of equipment--cricket bats to hockey
sticks--has largely remained the same low-technology affair for
decades. As the ICC Cricket World Cup wages on, scientists and
manufacturers in this city so linked to sport are hoping to change
that, under the premise that better tools might make better teams.
R.K. Sports, which sells its products under the ”Rakshak” brand name,
has made a small breakthrough of its own. It is believed to be the
only Indian company that manufactures composite hockey sticks, moulded
of synthetic fibres so the stick feels lighter and shoots faster. The
condoms, however, are used for its wooden sticks that fetch up to
Rs900 apiece at retail outlets.
”We are talking of a tech gap,” director Sanjay Kohli says. ”This is
an example of trying to bridge that gap.”
Scientists at the B.R. Ambedkar National Institute of Technology (NIT)
have begun collecting data for a report that will identify such
technology gaps in the sporting goods industry. They also plan to
recruit researchers across the country, including from the prestigious
Indian Institutes of Technology, for the effort. They say improved
processes and technologies will help transform Indian sports-equipment
makers from cottage industries into manufacturers that can better
compete globally, especially from low-cost centers as China.
At a programme here on Friday to award exporters who excelled in
2005-06, minister of state for industry Ashwani Kumar, too, said the
greatest challenge before the Indian sports goods manufacturing sector
lay in producing high-quality products, but still at a low cost, if it
is to catch up with China.
At Kohli’s factory, the finishing of a hockey stick head is a
three-week affair that ends with the condom treatment. First, layers
of mulberry wood are boiled for several hours to soften. The pieces
are then bent into a curve at a mould. Seven pieces are then glued
together to make one stick head, then heated over a wood fire in a
furnace for two to three hours a day for 20 days.
Finally, Pal and his box of deluxe condoms take over. He slips a
six-inch tube mesh of fibre glass dipped in glue over the hockey stick
head. This is to ensure that the seven layers of curved mulberry
pieces are bound together even after the heat treatment. The condom,
kept over the mesh for anywhere from seven to 24 hours, depending on
the season, is removed when the workers are certain the fibre glass is
firmly glued in.
Such innovations, NIT director Moin Uddin said, are common in
manufacturing sectors. ”It is forward looking,” he said, adding that
such low-tech measures might remain intact even after study.
At the Beat All Sports factory, from where premium cricket bats are
often supplied to Indian cricketers, similar methods are used. For
instance, workers manually shave and shape pieces of wood into regular
bats, and it is his 24 years’ experience that Sanjay Kohli’s uncle
Somi, the director, puts into use to judge the quality of the
products.
”I test each and every bat that are made for players,” he said. ”I
became old testing bats.”
To test, no technology is involved--only experience. He weighs the
bats, then checks the alignment of the edges with his eyes, feels the
smoothness of the blade with his fingers, and finally takes a stance
with the bat as a batsman would and sees if he can swing with ease.
The Kohli family history is linked to sport. After the partition of
India and Pakistan, they joined many Punjabi families in migrating
from Sialkot to Jalandhar, bringing with them their skills of making
bats, balls, hockey sticks and other gear. Since 1947, they and other
sports equipment makers have helped turn this city into India’s
largest sports manufacturing hub, generating an estimated Rs300 crore
annually.
Today, large sporting goods companies, such as Adidas, Reebok and
Mitre, outsource production to Jalandhar. But those giants also make
sports equipment in China and Taiwan--and manufacturers say India
needs to keep up to compete. Businesses also say they have long been
asking the government for support of an industry that churns out the
equipment needed for India’s cricket craze.
NIT’s dean of research P.K. Chatley said India’s sports goods industry
relies on more on traditional skills and less on technology. That was
fine for the 1950s, but no longer, he says.
R.K. Sports’s Sanjay Kohli said he’s eager for new solutions to the
stop-gap measures he employs. He worries that his composite sticks
have not been that successful in the market. Developed with a secret
technology he devised, the sticks are made in a factory that doesn’t
allow visitors. With the retail price of each composite stick about
Rs4,000, buyers are few, he said.
For the wooden sticks, Sanjay Kohli said he heard about the condom as
a helpful finishing method from German buyers--and says the Rs4,000 he
spends monthly on the Deluxe Nirodh brand of condoms sent production
costs soaring by 15%. Kohli makes about 3,500 hockey sticks a month,
but needs the extra supply--Pal often tears a few, after all.
”I am a manufacturer, not a scientist,” Kohli said. ”For years we have
been asking for a research and development centre, where is it?”
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First Published: Sat, Mar 24 2007. 04 36 PM IST
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