The Indian Space Research Organization (Isro) has successfully launched multiple space initiatives in recent times—including the country’s heaviest rocket on 5 June and a record 104 satellites in a single mission on 15 February. Yes, we are so proud. These and other feats such as Mangalyaan (the Mars Orbiter Mission, or MOM) are proof points of India’s fantastic engineering and technical talent and expertise.
But this also gets us thinking. Despite all these feats, Isro and India still wouldn’t feature on the list of leaders and innovators in space missions. Reliable, yes. Commendable, yes. Inspirational, not yet.
Why? Because we didn’t do it first. We never seem to—when it comes to actually making or building things. The Germans led the last Industrial Revolution—and are today the doyens of precision engineering along with the Swiss. The Chinese, too, are world leaders in other kinds of manufacturing.
That said, India is unarguably the back office of the world—a software economy, after an agricultural one. Information technology/IT-enabled services is the biggest source of foreign exchange income for India and it is difficult to find a major consulting or software firm without a strong base in the country. But signs for IT have been flat for a few years now. With the uncertain international environment, pegging our continued hopes on foreign income from that quadrant would be a risky bet. Besides, if all that talent (Indian scientists and researchers are considered Silicon Valley’s biggest assets) were to come back to the country, would we have enough jobs for those bright minds?
We need a new growth engine—a revival battle cry—now more than ever. My argument is that we should build on the success of our technical firepower and talent, and transition into a product economy from one relying solely on software. This means we need to make finished products. Every export and GDP (gross domestic product) statistic in the world points to the economic advantages of a country adept at making finished products.
Is this even possible? Yes, it is. First, because we are a country of 1.3 billion people which gives us immediate capitalistic motivation to produce end products and not just raw materials. Second, the efforts and liberalization in the past few years have allowed India to be considered Asia’s Silicon Valley ahead of the manufacturing mecca, China. Third, courtesy the “Make in India" campaign, India is fast becoming one of the largest recipients of foreign direct investment: at an annual rate of $75 billion, India is perhaps poised to be the world’s favourite manufacturing investment destination. I believe we have the opportunity to lead the world. The time is right, but we need one more thing.
Need to embrace automation
The world is at the cusp of the fourth Industrial Revolution—fondly called Industry 4.0—which envisages smart factories in which cyber-physical systems will monitor the physical processes of the factory and make decentralized decisions. The physical systems will become the Internet of Things, communicating and cooperating both with each other and with humans in real time via the wireless Web. Fact-based decision-making, peak productivity and clear understanding of commercial impacts are just a few of the central factors that will underline the concept.
Industry 4.0, in its very construct, envisages that both hardware and software will work hand in hand, stitched together seamlessly and powered by analytics. We are good at software and analytics. We know how to stitch up technology—thanks to our system integrators. With this “unfair advantage", we already have half the mission accomplished.
Besides, world-class manufacturing using advanced technology and robotics is not a virgin territory for us. The Indian automotive sector has caught the world’s attention and has attracted many global brands to set up manufacturing units here. The automotive sector alone contributes more than 45% to the country’s manufacturing GDP (and about 7.1% to India’s GDP) and employs 19 million people.
Clearly, there is opportunity for India to move from a lethargic manufacturing outfit stuck somewhere between Industry 1.0 and 2.0 to Industry 4.0 and beyond.
The country is recognized as the breeding ground of some of the most sought-after technology start-ups and visionaries, developing solutions in the industrial automation space. We have the wherewithal to transition into a modern, connected industrial economy, curtailing the technology adoption life cycle.
Can India undergo this ambitious sea change? Yes, I believe so. India has the uncanny knack of surprising the world in terms of technology adoption. We leapfrogged generations in telephony—moving straight from fixed line to 2G/2.5G to 4G/LTE (long-term evolution). Today, besides being the biggest market for smartphones, we are also having serious discussions on the introduction of 5G, ahead of many other countries.
India needs to swiftly but convincingly invest in the right infrastructure to adopt Industry 4.0—the most tectonic shift in industrial production—to be able to manufacture everything from a pen to an airplane at global quality standards.
Akash Gupta is co-founder and chief technology officer of Grey Orange Pte. Ltd.