By T Murrali
Ashok Leyland, the second largest Commercial Vehicle (CV) manufacturer in India, has been on the growth track for the past several months. Its comfortable order book position and the technological edge in meeting the BS-VI emission norms from 2020, make the next couple of years even more promising. Still the company faces threats from several fronts. Is it necessary to gear up to mitigate the impending risks from the technology point of view? Dr Seshu Bhagavathula, Chief Technology Officer, Ashok Leyland, said yes and no and he reasoned out his position to AutoParts Asia in an exclusive interview.
Ashok Leyland gathers a lot of inputs for new product development from various sources like conferences, public forums, bankers, technical papers, suppliers and many others not directly connected with the industry. Some of the suppliers have presented their roadmaps for new products and solutions. Technical teams from the OEM having studied them plan the next new products based on these supplier roadmaps. This information flows into a long-term product plan. It is like a strategy paper that gets reviewed many times a year at the top level. The company has many such sources and touch-points of information.
“We have 20,000 touch-points within the country that keep giving us information or some signals. Some are very concrete and some indicative; we also get information from service. Whenever our Chairman comes here he meets those who are not satisfied with our products. He goes to drivers who drive our competitors’ vehicles and tries to meet those who have switched from us. Our MD has started an initiative where we use Artificial Intelligence (AI) to see if the sales call we make really leads to a purchase decision, based on many indicative parameters that come in. Depending on the service pattern we can find out if he is going to switch. This was started about two years ago; as you collect more and more data it becomes better and better. This is one of the tools we use to attract customers. It’s still a work-in-progress, added to which is our modular business programme,” Bhagavathula said.
With modularity a company can offer more variants with less number of parts. Before Ashok Leyland began this programme, it carried out a market survey. The company spoke to all its touch-points to see if the market could change over the next five to six years. “We got many indications from this. This information helps us to have a product roadmap which is taken care of by the Modular Business Programme (MBP) that flows into it. We get more technology information from symposiums, meeting of suppliers and others. From the touch points we get lot of information about customer behaviour. That is how we came up with the idea of lifting the axle; why do you require all the axles all the time? This became a big success. The idea came from small indications we observed in the market,” he said.
This process is getting more organised now with all the input coming in, he said. This helps the company to become a real player in the CV segment for a long time to come. The company collaborates with its suppliers on various issues since MBP requires the vendors adapting to the modular philosophy, which is all about fixing the interfaces. They supply with the interface; if they cannot Ashok Leyland does it. That is the reason for the OEM to have this kind of intensive interaction with them.
“In this programme we have a super bill of material that shows all the possible combinations that are theoretically buildable; not all are really buildable but it’s all in there. On the top of it we put the supplier road map so that suppliers can deliver them. Others may be theoretically possible, but you cannot choose them to build a truck. Of course, they can be built one day if suppliers start offering those combinations that do not exist now. We choose what they can supply. We are good at getting these technological changes into our organisation but we can’t do anything about them when natural calamities or disruptions occur. Other than the Supreme Court decisions on BS-IV that took us all by surprise, we are very well equipped to react to market data. This is what helps us mitigate risks; it’s a process that I think will take some more time to be more organised,” Bhagavathula said.
There is always a surprise element in everything. It requires a certain amount of flexibility in the organisation. To make a major platform that satisfies different needs which were not foreseen would take very long, between two to four years. “Here, we are looking at a two-year period, which is the most important development. Once we have the platform, we can pick up most of the changes much faster and apply it within six to 12 months. This process is well settled now because MBP is done much faster. Ultimately, one day, the organisation will become a made-to-order company; the base is being made right now with everything being connected. Once we have time and money, it will be just assembly, design, service, repair – all to order. Made-to-order would mean that we can make every customer’s requirement, like in the US and Europe. At Ashok Leyland this is being put in place now,” he said.
However, there is a challenge in made-to-design rather than in made-to-manufacture because there is a gestation period. Agreeing to this fact he said, “When I say we can do, we don’t actually do it, but we can. We are improving the organisation to bring it to a level to get ready for the future. The change will not take place tomorrow, but internally we will be able to do. The first change would be in product development – R&D followed by production. By 2020, both BS-VI and MBP will be combined at the launch of the BS-VI compliant vehicles. We have about 500 people working on this, with suppliers not yet included here. It’s a programme that started in late 2016 and we are more than midway through it; the first modular vehicles, the prototypes, are being built right now in this campus,” he said.
Ashok Leyland has a system called 3D-experience in which the suppliers have their channel with which they can, during the development phase when a component or aggregate is getting ready from the supplier side, push into the system so that the CTO can see the progress. Would the suppliers be apprehensive about this? Bhagavathula said, “Initially there will always be apprehension, but you make products, as seen in the West, much faster because of that. Today suppliers have issues on getting approvals, it takes very long. In future it will become easier and faster.”
With more axles getting in, the space under the chassis is becoming premium posing a challenge in packaging the vehicle. Bhagavathula said space is a challenge. “It took us months to clear just three cm of space for a bus. The problem in BS-VI is that the longer the vehicle the more the temperature falls; in other words the longer the exhaust treatment system, less temperature available for regeneration purposes, which is not good. It’s an eternal challenge. Finally, a supplier comes up with using some material to keep the temperature stable. It’s never easy but that’s where experience comes into the picture in its dialogue with the supplier. Truck and bus making has never been easy; it’s getting more complicated now,” he said.
Bhagavathula said any organisation needs to take up the challenge by increasing the competency of its people. “You wait for indications from your suppliers because my suppliers not only work for my competitors, but they are also global with some having many divisions. They give us a lot of good leads. That’s why most successful companies treat their suppliers on an equal footing, like an extended family. Without suppliers you have no chance. Take care of your suppliers as well as your employees,” he said.
Leveraging Disruptive Technologies
Ashok Leyland has begun working with AI, IoT etc., since it has been generating huge quantity of data from aggregates for the last 15 years. Data from every suspension built into the trucks are available. “In the components lab we test for reliability of these aggregates. We are trying to find out when a fault will occur and whether we can pick it up earlier for predictive maintenance. We believe 20 percent may be possible at some point. Actual implementation of AI is very difficult because you have to bring your knowledge into the algorithms so that they can see things that you are unable to. AI is an application of the mind to go beyond human capability; it can do things that an individual cannot do. When there are many parameters and you are aware of only a few, an AI algorithm will alert you about the presence of others and detect a pattern there. We are training our people on how to use a particular algorithm to solve a specific issue; which one is used for what. This is something we want to be expert in, in this organisation,” he said.
Talking on IoT he said the technology has already been embraced in the company. For instance, there are 25 parameters in ‘i-alert’ for trucks today and with BS-VI there would be 80 more. It is also used in multi-level bus architecture. Encryption, safety and security, prevention of hacking, all come into the picture. In Europe they already have authorisation of the driver; if the wrong guy comes in, the truck doesn’t move.
“Regarding infotainment in our buses, one day you will see kids using the internet with Bluetooth for communication. At the same time the bus will have emergency braking and driver assist systems with focus on accident prevention. They will all be part of IoT. On the factory side it would not be easy as all the present-day equipment is old; we need machines that can ‘talk.’ We need something in-between for seamless transformation. There is always an age difference from one factory to the other. The trucks that come out of Ennore and Panthnagar are going to be different; managing synchronisation between them is a big thing. In factories, Industry 4.0 which is IoT for manufacturing has already started but we do it where it makes sense like, for example, replacing the human being to improve quality. Industry 4.0 will be used in AL only to improve quality. Our ‘ServiceMandi’ connects all the workshops and the dealer with our truck wherever it is located so you know how long it takes to get help; we are very advanced in this,” Bhagavathula said. (APA)