Helping materialize Nano dreams into reality

Helping materialize Nano dreams into reality

As India engages with processes that will take it from emerging-market status to that of a developed nation, an enormous effort will be required. In this next phase, setting goals won’t be overly difficult, less easy will be doing the things that need to get done. One of the themes of the World Economic Forum’s India Economic Summit this year is India’s Implementation Imperative. We showcase some of India’s implementers who surmounted the odds to make the change agenda work in their respective fields.

Mumbai: On the eve of 10 January 2008, when the Nano was to be unveiled in public, Ratan Tata wasn’t leaving anything to chance, visiting Delhi’s Pragati Maidan at 2.30 in the morning for a last-minute check. He was back as day broke at the venue of the Auto Expo making changes to the sequence of the programme that would introduce the 1 lakh car to the world, recalls Girish Wagh, head of passenger car operations at Tata Motors Ltd.

Wagh, credited with turning Ratan Tata’s dream car into reality, joined Tata Motors as a campus recruit in 1992.

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He reiterates the impetus behind Tata’s Nano dream— the common enough sight of entire families on Indian roads riding on a two-wheeler, undeterred by rain or shine.

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Touted as the world’s cheapest car, the Nano may not have lived up to that original vision yet, but it has definitely put the global spotlight on Tata Motors for having made a $2,500 (Rs 1,11,500) car a possibility with its frugal engineering capabilities that sent other automakers scurrying to the drawing board to try and emulate the strategy.

In the 15 months to September, Tata Motors has delivered 70,000 Nanos in one of world’s fastest growing auto markets.

Prakash M. Telang, managing director for India operations at Tata Motors, isn’t discouraged by the numbers thus far. “The Nano is a big promise. The story has yet to be unfolded," he says. The car hasn’t reached the people it was targeted at, which is what the company is pushing towards.

Telang, meanwhile, has been surprised to see Nanos being driven by chauffeurs, and the cars even sharing garage space with BMWs and Mercedes Benzes. Higher volumes, more variants and newer markets hold the key. “We won’t do justice to the product if we don’t sell at least 500,000 Nanos in five years," Telang says.

The company’s Nano development programme was kicked off in June 2005. The very nature of the project was iterative, evolving over a period of time. Typically, a new model is benchmarked against the best in the segment. But “in this case, we didn’t have any benchmarks," Wagh says. The reference points were a two-wheeler at one end and the cheapest four-wheeler at the other.

To the outside world, the Nano’s development may have revolved around the price tag but, internally, the team had three key targets—cost, meeting current and future regulatory requirements and designing an all-weather, safe mode of transport. The team kept checking for all the three requirements at various levels—components, aggregates and vehicles.

In the absence of a benchmark, one of the biggest challenges was figuring out what the customer wanted. That was soon sorted out.

“(Ratan) Tata himself wore the hat of the customer. He got fully involved with the programme," says Wagh. Taking their cue from him, members of the engineering team did the same, asking themselves what they would want from such a car.

The product innovations associated with the Nano were in two areas—the layout and the engine. After experimenting with several options, a rear-engine layout was chosen for maximum space, minimum footprint and easy manoeuvrability in crowded cities. “This was one of the innovations at the car level," Wagh says.

Having failed to find an engine that could be bought off the shelf, the team decided to design its own power unit. Keeping the overall weight of the car to the minimum was essential to ensure fuel efficiency.

The team had the freedom to stretch targets. “They didn’t think, ‘if I fail what will happen?’ " The risk-taking abilities of the team members led to innovations at various levels.

Developing an engine indigenously wasn’t easy—there were several failed attempts.

“When the chairman drove it for the first time, he said it doesn’t have the power, it can’t meet the requirement. We upgraded the engine from 545cc to 583cc. Tata drove the car again and said, there’s improvement but still not there. So we upgraded it to what it is today. The engine finally could balance all the three—cost, regulation and requirement."

Wagh says the close involvement of Tata and Ravi Kant (then managing director) ensured that the failures didn’t bog down the team. The engine, power and transmission system were developed over a span of 18 months.

Every area received close attention—for instance, the wipers went through nine to 10 design changes, with Ratan Tata coming up with a sketch and asking for alterations to be made.

“The chairman was the part of the problem and part of the solution," Wagh says. “He wasn’t just demanding that he wants to do a one lakh car."

Wagh, also a key part of the Indica and Ace projects, says the company deployed learning from those two programmes in developing the Nano. “If you ask me personally, it was a great experience to see a product from conceptualization to launch stage."

A big hurdle, Wagh says, was to get people—from within and outside the organization—to believe in the Nano. However, perceptions changed as soon as the first mule (working prototype) of the car got ready.

“When you see something physically running around, you start believing in it," says Wagh. The team working on the project started expanding gradually. “Needless to say, for people in Tata Motors, the biggest pull for the programme was Mr Tata himself."

Ravi Kant took charge of getting external stakeholders such as parts suppliers on board. He adopted an approach that was atypical for any car project. “He showed a styled model of the car to some of the key vendors," says Wagh.

They are usually shown the model after it has reached a certain stage of development. Kant decided to show the Nano even to vendors of parts such as the steering assembly who usually don’t have much to contribute on the styling front, says Wagh.

But the move paid off as the vendors were ‘influencers’ and led to many more joining the project. “They started feeling it was possible," says Wagh. This belief was reinforced when they saw Tata Motors putting its money where its mouth was and began investing in Singur in West Bengal where Nano was to be produced originally. “They were convinced and it had a multiplier effort," says Wagh.

With the prototype ready to be productionised, parts vendors lined up and a site finalized, Tata Motors was ready to put pedal to the metal. But violent protests led by Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress forced Tata Motors to abandon the Singur site on 3 October 2008. Four days later, the Nano plant got a new home in Sanand in Gujarat.

But given that this factory would take until 2010 to start rolling out the Nano, Tata Motors had to make interim arrangements to produce the car at its existing facilities in Uttarakhand and Pune. “It was indeed a challenge to design the car at one location, productionise it at different locations and amalgamate the teams," says Wagh.

The changes also posed logistical nightmares for the families of those associated with the project. In order to hold together the flock of 600 or so core employees the company had recruited by then, Tata Motors engaged them in various “non-engineering challenges", which included working with the Ramakrishna Mission.

“The pains that the family members have gone through perhaps was one of the biggest challenges in the story that will not get recorded," says Wagh.

With sales having begun since June 2009 and the Sanand plant having begun production in June 2010 this year, the project has stabilized, although the instances of some cars catching fire have taken the sheen off the Nano somewhat.


To develop the world’s cheapest car—which would be affordable even for Indian families that otherwise don’t look beyond scooters


There was no benchmark for a car that would cost so little and still meet regulatory and safety behchmarks


Tata Motors’ top executives, including Ratan Tata, as well as vendors, became personally involved in testing out the car at every stage of development