A free market of homespun technologies

A free market of homespun technologies

New Delhi: Inelegantly named the “Yo byke", the colourful electric scooter hides its secret heart well—a cheap battery that can be recharged in 4 hours and gives it a claimed range of 75km. If true, the Yo, sitting in a tent outside the 10th Auto Expo’s main halls, will have one of the best street creed for an Indian electric vehicle.

Behind the glam and flash of the Toyotas and Tatas, hundreds of innovative small companies from Wazirpur in north-west Delhi to Wuhu in Central China have streamed in with homegrown technologies to what is now one of the world’s most important auto fairs.

Some hope to be the next big thing or ramp-up business. Others just hope to be noticed.

Electrotherm’s main line of work is making furnaces, which it has exported to 20 countries over 28 years. Three years ago, it realized the power electronics used in furnaces could just as easily be adapted to improve conventional lead-acid batteries.

“We have a strong hold on electronics and that has helped us design a better battery," said B.K. Vaishya, an Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, graduate who as senior vice-president (research and development) at Electrotherm heads a team of 40 engineers, many poached from Tata Motors Ltd, Bajaj Auto Ltd and Mahindra and Mahindra Ltd. “With more awareness of new technologies, it’s easier now to get talent."

More than 75,000 Yo’s have been sold, and its latest lead battery, which is 400-500% cheaper than the lithium-ion batteries that the world’s car giants use.

Outside the Toyota pavilion under a wan winter sun, Rajendra Joshi is demonstrating what looks like a skinny Segway, a two-wheeled, self-balancing US electric vehicle.

Look closely and you will see that the Rs20,000 Emmel keeps its balance with two smaller wheels hidden under the rider platform.

Street creed: Electrotherm’s Yo, which runs on a cheap battery that can be recharged in 4 hours and gives it a claimed range of 75km, at the 10th Auto Expo in Pragati Maidan, New Delhi on Tuesday. Ajay Aggarwal/Hindustan Times

Inside the assembly line stalls that television crews find too boring to explore, you will find small companies from all over the world—but mainly India and China—selling everything from gaskets to ignition wires to rubber mats.

Some people manning the stalls, such as Arvind Singh Chandock, chief executive officer of Styr, are too busy to talk. A banner said Styr (head office in Mumbai and factory in Belgaum, Karnataka) is India’s “No: 1 crankshaft".

On his first trip to India, international sales representative of the Wuhu Hefeng Clutch Co. Ltd, Elbert Shi, also finds it hard to carry on a conversation as prospective clients drop in, grab Chinese sweets and talk to him about clutches.

“Do you have clutch for Middle East market?" asked a swarthy Punjabi whose shirt spilled out of his belt. “Middle East, I have," said Shi in halting English in a darkened tent without electricity. “I give you very good price."

With India and China recording the highest growth rates among the world’s auto markets, it was only a matter of time before smaller manufacturers sought out one another.

In this freewheeling free market, there are some such as Jaspal and Satbir Singh, brothers who manufacture “replacement" plastic fans, or grey market duplicates.

These they sell across India and to exporters who pack them into any container with space left over and ship them to markets from South Africa to Saudi Arabia.

“Now...India is the biggest market," said Jaspal, who recalled how he learnt to make and transport fans on his scooter 18 years ago. The family now has three cars.

As the Singhs speak, a smart, young woman stops by. “Aapko hostess chahiye (do you want a hostess)?" she asks.

Bemused, Satbir shakes his head. She moves on.