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Guest Column

Published on: July 13, 2020, 8:06 a.m.
A golden opportunity
  • SMEs: backbone of Indian manufacturing

By Kishore Jayaraman

India is at the cusp of metamorphosing from a major regional player to one with global strength. As the country prepares to ride out and rise from the effects of the current pandemic, all eyes are on the country’s manufacturing sector and the larger role it can play as a driver of economic growth.

India can well become the destination of choice for global manufacturers in the post-Covid era as it offers tremendous opportunities in engineering, services, supply chain sourcing, digital ecosystem and a rich and diverse talent pool. It is no surprise, therefore, that the government has put in motion an ambitious vision of an ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’.

In the last two decades, the services sector witnessed strong growth, led by infrastructure, responsiveness, processes, entrepreneurship, government incentives and industry collaboration. The result has been the rise of India as a services hub that has grown exports as well as provided large-scale employment. We must look at ways to replicate this success in manufacturing, and today, as we look to repeat this success in manufacturing, three factors will be most relevant – Technology, Adaptability, and Resources.

Investment in futuristic technology a decisive step: The manufacturing industry has been using automation, robotics and analytics in varying degrees over the years. As we emerge from the pandemic, the future of manufacturing will be defined by enhanced data and connectivity, manufacturing innovations related to automation and artificial intelligence, digital disruptions and access to resources augmented through global value chains.

Technology adoption has become a norm now and the future will be about developing a more digitally connected world. The current times are testimony to this as technology is the thread binding us all when physical interactions have become minimal. We must look at technology as the differential – a tool that can help us make a quantum leap in elevating the sector quickly to become competitive on the world stage.

As India seeks to build its local manufacturing capabilities, there is an opportunity to skip the legacy systems and leapfrog to technology which is futuristic. Investment in disruptive technologies such as AI-enabled machine learning can improve productivity, create cost benefits and even help improve production speed by increasing predictability for downtimes and transition times. The data and insights gathered across manufacturing operations can also help in predictive problem solving by identifying issues that may not be easy to spot. 

Small and medium enterprises (SMEs), which form the backbone of Indian manufacturing can also leverage Industry 4.0 technologies to become more agile, enhance productivity, streamline costs and reduce risks. In addition, the solid measures announced by the government to facilitate liquidity for SMEs will make them well placed to cater to future demand and build long-term sustainability.

Larger SMEs can also play a strong role in the creation of a manufacturing ecosystem if they use their resources wisely, adopt futuristic technologies and tap into opportunities with a long-term vision.

Wider integration of technology with manufacturing can facilitate more cost-effective customisation, and enable a real shift in competitiveness as we aim to position India as a global manufacturing hub.

Adaptability is crucial to sustainability: Economic activity across the globe has been impacted by the pandemic. The fall-out from the pandemic will test the adaptability of businesses and effectively their ability to sustain into the future. Since change is constant, the ability of a business to adapt to a fast changing environment has always been one of the fundamental pillars for growth.

It is never more relevant than today when we are dealing with a high degree of unpredictability and instability. Disruptions in supply chains and offline buying channels have also made it crucial for businesses to not just adapt, but adapt with agility in order to survive.

Adaptability with pace will help companies read the signals of change quickly, implement short-term and long-term operational changes, and access opportunities faster, thus giving business a much-needed competitive edge. For example, in the short term, adaptability may mean changes to how companies work with partners, but in the long-term, it would mean new partnerships and enhanced collaborations.

Health and safety will assume greater significance for building trust among consumers, customers as well as employees in times to come. Businesses will need to put in processes in place to ensure safety checks for products as well as at production units to ensure safety of products and people.

Uncertain times also make room for unimaginable possibilities. The pandemic may be accelerating some impending changes, which may have faced resistance earlier but are now widely becoming acceptable, like the shift to remote ways of working or virtual meetings.

Therefore, organisations must prepare for different outcomes of the pandemic and recognise that the recovery should be adaptable to different solutions.

As Charles Darwin said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent; it is the one that is most adaptable to change.”

Human resources – the only way to growth: While being tech-enabled is essential and adaptability is the need of the hour, it is our human resources that will drive change and help lead an organisation to success. We must create the workforce of the future that feels empowered with technology, rather than threatened. We must create a culture of outcome focus and growth mindset, and eliminate complacency and loss of productivity.

As one of the youngest nations in the world, with around 250 million young people expected to join the workforce over the next decade, India needs to ensure that its future talent pipeline is prepared for the fast-changing needs of the industry. Emerging technologies are demanding an entirely new set of capabilities such as problem-solving and creativity, resulting in new needs for relevant and practical skills that were previously non-existent.

While India’s talent availability is unmatched by any other country enabling this talent to higher levels of employability through infusion of appropriate skills is a must. To become the world’s skill capital, we need to recognise the gaps in skills and work towards increasing our base of skilled manpower by sufficiently and efficiently addressing the gaps.

India’s core sectors are moving fast to develop and deploy advanced manufacturing technologies such as additive manufacturing and robotics. It is increasingly leveraging big data and analytics to perform predictive and prescriptive maintenance and create new value-added services for the customers.

Going forward, we need a highly-skilled workforce that can work with advanced technologies to enable companies to carry out critical research and development (R&D) and bring out innovative products and aftermarket services.

Up-skilling and repurposing our existing workforce will also be critical as businesses adopt new ways of working and implement operational changes to adapt to the new normal. India’s skills and competencies in areas like precision engineering, quality production, etc, have been well recognised and harnessed by foreign automobile companies outsourcing manufacturing work to India. A lot of this success can be replicated by focusing on right-skilling our resources – for the present and future.

Never waste a good crisis – adapt and grow: Governments all over the world are struggling to find ways to keep their people safe and at the same time keep the economy from sinking. When an economy has been shocked into a lower level of activity, it could well remain there, unless aggregate demand revives for which focused effort has to be put in to bring out the demand.

In order to bring out the demand, it is imperative that there is trust created at all stages of the demand curve bringing back the growth factor for the industries to open and thrive again.

Execution and enablement are essential to bring the confidence back and build on the same. With a calibrated approach, India’s manufacturing sector will be able to leapfrog traditional phases of development and achieve our country’s self-reliance ambitions.

This burning platform has presented India with a golden opportunity to establish as a self-reliant manufacturing base that can provide for itself and the world. The government’s flagship initiatives of Make in India, Skill India and Digital India, etc, can be given a new lease of life. This will propel smart manufacturing in the country to truly reap the full benefits of Industry 4.0.

We all must envision a new India with greater strategic autonomy and technological far-sightedness to anticipate and respond to the challenges of the future. 

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