Should it be called Design in India?

The Make in India programme needs design in order to succeed in its fundamental endeavour of positioning India as a global manufacturing destination


Design can be characterized as a handmaiden to innovation; a powerful engine of economic growth
Design can be characterized as a handmaiden to innovation; a powerful engine of economic growth

The NDA government’s flagship Make in India campaign is generally construed as a mission to bolster India’s manufacturing sector, by attracting large-scale foreign investors. For example, General Electric chairman Jeff Immelt endorsed India’s manufacturing potential, in a visit this week. “Manufacturing can happen here and be much bigger for us than what it is today” and today “making things in India is as productive as making things in China”, he said in an interview to Mint.

Yet, I was surprised to discover, on the Make in India website, that the mission aspires to do more. “Devised to transform India into a global design and manufacturing hub, Make in India was a timely response to a critical situation,” it states. ‘Design’ appears to be a deliberate and important, even if somewhat underplayed, inclusion.

Design can be characterized as a handmaiden to innovation; a powerful engine of economic growth. For design evangelists such as Nick Talbot, the UK-based head of global design at Tata Elxsi, one of India’s largest design companies, the Make in India programme needs design, in order to succeed in its fundamental endeavour of positioning India as a global manufacturing destination.

“The government has a much better chance of creating the right industrial infrastructure and landscape, in order to deliver very high-value goods, if it invests in design. The single best example would be South Korea, where the government has connected big industry with the design community, leading to the creation of several global design-led consumer brands,” he points out.

Susmita Mohanty, a spaceship designer and CEO of Earth2Orbit, India’s first private space start-up, reiterates the role of design in exploring new frontiers of manufacturing innovation. “Make in India should take into account the fact that multi-disciplinary design matters—so it’s not just engineers, but about engaging with industrial designers, colour theorists, human behavioural scientists, architects and psychologists to create new products, services and new types of organizations.”

Two companies—in different stages of evolution—highlight why Design in India might be a better idea.

Melorra, a Bengaluru-based online jewellery start-up, integrates design and manufacturing to “disrupt the jewellery market from a fast-fashion schedule, with a vision of being the Zara of jewellery. “We launch a new collection every Friday. I am keen to build a global consumer brand out of India,” says Saroja Yeramilli, founder and chief executive of Melorra.

Innovative manufacturing technologies—such as 3D printing—allow minimal product quantities, and unlimited varieties, to be made in shorter manufacturing times, than traditional techniques. “We have integrated design and manufacturing with processes, and people working in manufacturing are involved in product design concepts,” says Yeramilli. As a result, “our delivery times are almost half those of our competitors”, she notes.

Investing in design has given a bankrupt air-cooler manufacturer a new lease of life. Just over a decade ago, in 2002, Ahmedabad-based air-cooler maker Symphony Ltd was bankrupt, having lost its way after expanding unsuccessfully into unrelated product categories, where it could not compete. Over time, Achal Bakeri, Symphony’s chairman and managing director, managed to resuscitate the company by investing in design. Today, the company’s sales and profit margins have propelled its market capitalization to more than Rs8,000 crore.

“We changed perceptions of the air-cooler category through scores of innovations which have differentiated our products from what’s available in the market. Design is deeply integrated into our business model, it has helped us grow top line and bottom line; it gives us our premium. If it were not for design, we wouldn’t have been where we are today,” Bakeri explains. Manufacturing is entirely outsourced to OEM partners who possess greater domain expertise, Bakeri says, underlining that “with an asset-light, variable-cost business model, one is able to focus on design and innovation”.

Design is not sufficient on its own. A thriving design-led manufacturing culture must be buttressed by sound business practices, such as respect for intellectual property. Gauri Tandon, co-founder of Mumbai-based Isharya, a global high-end costume jewellery brand, initially outsourced designs to certain Indian manufacturers, only to discover that “intellectual property was hazy, we would see other people making the same designs. It was very discouraging, as it is not easy to sue people”, she says.

She then turned to manufacturers in Thailand, “who completely understood that some pieces were not to be shown to anyone, with an airtight non-disclosure agreement”, she says. However, in order to get design and manufacturing to work closer together, she is now exploring a new set of manufacturing options in India.

Aparna Piramal Raje is the author of Working Out Of The Box: 40 Stories Of Leading CEOs.

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