Pumping up the world

Pumping up the world

Bangalore: As he stares down the smooth, steel barrel of the cylinder, Srikrishnaprabhu (44) explains that he’s looking for the perfect circle.

“Getting the tube right is critical," says Srikrishnaprabhu (he uses one name), general manager of the factory, as he continues narrating the fine details of making hydraulic cylinders, a largely unknown but critical component at the core of the infrastructure boom in India and beyond, used in industries, airports, ports, mines, forestry, construction and earth-moving equipment.

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The weld needs equal precision, from the mix of argon and carbon dioxide gases to the 1,200 degrees Celsius temperature at the junction of the weld. Then there’s the five-stage washing of components with high-pressure jets, sound waves and chemicals.

At its heart, the modern cylinder is a glorified cycle pump. But it’s a very sophisticated pump. Its biggest enemy is an oil leak, a common-enough problem if manufacturers don’t get that high-precision grinding, welding and washing right. After all that, if even 15 micrograms of dust—tinier than the sharpest eye can spot —is found on a cylinder, it won’t make it to the customer.

This reputation for quality has made Wipro Infrastructure Engineering, or WIN as it’s internally called, the second largest independent hydraulic cylinder manufacturer in the world. WIN is a part of the global software giant formerly known as the Western India Products Ltd. Wipro made—and still makes—vegetable oil, soaps, bulbs and hydraulic cylinders.

The non-information technology (IT) part of its business comprises no more than 10% of Wipro’s Rs2.71 lakh crore turnover. WIN also sells clean energy and water-treatment products, but its mainstay is the hydraulic cylinder, a rare Indian-made precision-engineered product with global standing.

Evidence of that standing comes from the customers visiting WIN’s factory on Bangalore’s booming southern edge, where the company has handed over some of its land to a new Metro line, soaring above the noisy, chaotic national highway outside the gates. Today, a team from Kubota, a 120-year-old Japanese tractor and heavy equipment manufacturer, is on a “quality audit". Tomorrow, customers from Singapore will drop by.

From 1978 to 2003, WIN was a small, holding operation, blossoming only after chairman Azim Premji’s young turk Anurag Behar (41) took over as chief executive officer. Riding the demand for construction and transport equipment, turnover shot up 10 times to Rs1,000 crore by 2008, before plunging into recessionary depths that no one at Wipro imagined.

As Behar—a slim, affable electrical engineer, a master in business administration and runner once recognized as a “young global leader" by the World Economic Forum—puts it, March to August 2009 “saw us living through the heart of darkness".

The crash was so debilitating that when the colour started returning to their cheeks in 2009 and orders started coming in again, the company found many suppliers had shut shop permanently. Production at the Bangalore factory fell by 600%, from 1,200 cylinders a day to 200.

Revenues have recovered since—Wipro won’t disclose figures for individual businesses—but Europe is still depressed. Most of the growth is coming from the Asia-Pacific region, with China, after India, the next great hope.

In May, WIN formally entered China, where it’s building its ninth global factory, overseen by a now international workforce.

The China operation is run by WIN’s Global Engineering head Jan Nilsson from Sweden (his deputy is Chinese). A 52-year-old skier, motor enthusiast and mechanical engineer, Nilsson has overcome “some cultural differences" with his team in Bangalore—“keeping time is one issue where we have different behaviour," he observes—to forge a global engineering team that now works with ease across time zones, markets and new challenges.

Nilsson became a part of WIN when it acquired his company Hydrauto in 2006.

WIN’s engineers are now spread out across a wide age band: The Chinese engineers are typically 20 to 30 years old, the Indians are pushing 40 and the Swedes are in their 40s and 50s.

The hard times are making WIN leaner and meaner. A designer who previously just made a part must now think how to make it using “less steel, less heat and less carbon dioxide", as Bangalore research head Govind Manohar puts it.

The company has also tapped India’s cheap manufacturing talent, getting engineering firms in small towns from Dharwad to Vadodara to custom-make machines for their factories.

Global sales head R. Vasudevan, based in Sweden, indicates the ferocity of competition and the skill required for an Indian company doing core engineering on a global scale. “If we were not ahead," he says, “we would have been out of the market."

Behar moved on last month to head the group’s non-profit arm, but the company retains his ambition of some day becoming “the Intel of the hydraulics business".

That’s a grand ambition in a fragmented business where the top three hold no more than 15% of the market and shakeouts are common.

Intel or not, WIN is on a good track. “With their technological skills," says Samir Bansal, manager at Off Highway Research India Pvt. Ltd, a global firm that tracks the industry: “The company has very good prospects as it makes its move into China."


Wipro Infrastructure Engineering

Started operations: 1978

Made In India:

Makes high-precision hydraulic cylinders, used in everything from construction equipment to borewell drilling

Turnover shot up 10 times to Rs1,000 crore in four years before downturn

Now the world’s second largest independent hydraulic cylinder maker