The US-based Allison Transmission is the world’s largest manufacturer of commercial-duty automatic transmissions and hybrid propulsion systems. Allison Transmission India Pvt Ltd has its manufacturing facility at Oragadam, near Chennai. It is also a base for exports to Japan, SE Asia, China, Australia and Europe. Consistently for over a century Allison has been developing and delivering transmissions with its core values of quality, reliability and durability. In an exclusive interview, Salil Gupta, Director-Commercial Operations, Allison Transmission India, told T Murrali that “we have been focusing on automatics for buses with substantial presence in more than 30 cities in India. Now we are supplying them for military trucks and tippers also; in a few months there will be some more launches in the marketplace”. The excerpts:
Q: How do you try to improve your working in India?
A: The same way as we do around the world, with the core values that a customer can get from an Allison product – unrivalled reliability and durability- while helping to protect the vehicle driveline. That is the difference an automatic brings to the vehicle, far more than any other transmission system. For example, the first batch of DTC buses with automatics was sold in late 2007. Some of these buses have run about 600,000 km. Still the automatics continue to deliver exceptional reliability. The buses continue to leave the depot every morning for their city duty, with reliability and frequency. That is the way we improve.
Another example is a fire truck with an automatic – it can reach the site of an emergency, faster than a truck with a manual, automated manual transmission (AMT) or any other transmission system. If you reach the rescue site faster you would probably save a few more lives. In an airport the truck has to reach the emergency site on the runway within 40 seconds; Automatic is the easiest to drive and the fastest to reach. The driver need not worry about shifting gears, he has only to focus on the road.
Q: How has been the journey for Allison Transmission in India?
A: It has been a robust journey. We have been focusing on buses with substantial presence in more than 30 cities in the country. Now we are focusing very much on military trucks and tippers; in a few months you will hear about some launches in the marketplace. Globally we have good business in military trucks and CVs – now we are starting to get into that in India.
Q: On an average how many transmissions are at work in India?
A: There is a wide range. About 10,000 buses, in more than 30-35 cities and about 10,000 in off-highway dump trucks and energy segment. We started direct sales in India only from 2008 but much before that the global OEMs were already selling through direct imports into the country. We also had a licensed manufacturer, AVTEC, which sold a lot of Allison Automatics at that time. So we do have a very large number in operation today. In the oil sector, cementing rigs are used by ONGC in Bombay High, Gujarat, Arunachal, the North East and many other places – in the energy segment a lot of automatic transmissions are used for pumping and drilling.
Q: What has been the perception of customers about automatics? What makes them to look at it?
A: Customer perception has been changing very rapidly due to the very high reliability of automatics. Customers who see buses operating in the big cities like Mumbai and Delhi are saying that if automatic transmissions can live so long without any problem, then this is the right technology to use in other types of buses and trucks too. People are beginning to recognise that these transmissions have less hassles and longer productive life, for which they are now willing to invest. OEMs too are seriously considering automatics as they contribute a lot of reliability and productivity to their vehicles.
Q: Some fleet operators feel that automatics affect productivity. Is this is a myth and how do you clear it for them?
A: Myths are only cleared by experience or by hearing from somebody trustworthy like a friend or business leader. We are already seeing this happening. Even private players, who are sensitive to cost, now buy automatics as they recognise its inherent value. So it is definitely going to happen over a wider range. When you think about why customers invest significant amounts to buy a premium truck/tipper for mining application, reliability is a very important factor in their decision-making. It is extremely important to deliver positive experience to the first few customers, who then become your ambassadors for other potential customers. That is how perceptions change, supported by positive experience. We are also delivering superlative experiences to our customers, which is resulting in their increased confidence in us.
Q: Do you still see pain points in India for Allison to take-off in a big way?
A: Indian engines are still to come up to the level of sophistication prevalent worldwide. Our products work with the latest engines around the world. We have very sophisticated capabilities of software integration between the transmission and engine. The software packages available to enhance vehicle performance and fuel efficiency are of a very high degree, which calls for engines with extensive communication capabilities. Such engines are not easily available in India, but this is steadily changing with the BS IV standards.
Q: How do you overcome this?
A: It certainly takes time and consistent effort. We keep educating the OEMs that make plans linked to a time frame and we keep in touch with them to upgrade step by step.
Q: Do you see any other challenges?
A: In India, value for money is very important to customers. But the sensitivity to initial acquisition price(vehicle purchase price) is substantially higher than sensitivity to ‘Life Cycle Value.’ But in recent days, with increasing understanding of application specific requirements, this is changing for the better, and customers are willing to invest in better products.
Q: I’m sure you will be convincing them on the Return on Investment (RoI) factor / how to amortize etc. Is there any case study this?
A: We do work on case studies. Customers do refer to experiences of others but always like to make their assessment based on their own operational parameters.
Q: What will be the RoI for the incremental cost?
A: Based on the application, you will recover the investment put in for an automatic transmission in about two to three years. And then, consider the immense benefits over the long- term, the remaining life of the vehicle.
Q: Coming to manufacturing, you have a plant in Oragadam – how many varieties do you make?
A: In the Chennai plant, we make Allison 1000 and 2000 series transmissions, for the domestic market as well as exports. Our plant is a large export base. We ship from here to Japan, SE Asia, China, Australia and Europe.
Q: Transmission is a very sensitive piece of equipment that calls for utmost care in assembling, sourcing, etc. How have you developed your manufacturing and supply base at Tier-3 and 4 levels?
A: Allison has such a strong name in the industry as we have developed this technology over the last hundred years – 101 to be precise. We have developed an extremely robust and trustworthy supplier base to cater to our manufacturing systems. Our checks and counter checks, error proofing, are of an extremely high order. We have very stringent guidelines on adding a new supplier; we will not allow any compromise on our build quality. This is essential for us to be able to deliver our core values of quality, reliability and durability.
Q: Do you see scope for manufacturing the other series in Chennai?
A: There is always scope and potential but when that will happen is very difficult to say. It depends on market growth, demand and other factors.
Q: The concept of smart cities; how will it help companies like Allison to scale up in the future?
A: When we talk of smart cities, it means there is a thrust to create more liveable, better cities; cities that are neat andclean with better systems in place. When all aspects of the city starts improving then you also want to have a reliable and efficient transport system; which will then call for better aggregates that will provide a fillip to buses in general, and in turn bring up opportunities for products like ours. When you talk of Euro-6, it means that better engine management systems are going to come in that will work much better. Bharat Stage IV to be implemented soon is significant because a lot of vehicle sophistication and electronics would be introduced.
Q: The present boundaries between the engine and transmission are getting blurred due to advances in technology. . .
A: Yes. More so, because customers (vehicle operators) increasingly want a vehicle tailored to their duty-cycle, and are looking for solutions for their specific applications. Many customers do appreciate the value of high- powered engines, automatic transmissions, retarders, etc. Some examples of such applications are city buses, tarmac buses, Fire trucks, municipal trucks (refuse, sweeper), and Military trucks.
Q: What are the other drivers for your growth?
A: As I have mentioned, customers are becoming more conscious about what they want in the vehicle for their job. And OEMs are responding to these emerging customers by bringing in new products designed for them. Take the example of Ahmedabad Janmarg BRT, which specifically asked for an automatic transmission in the BRT bus. Responding to the customer requirement, Tata Motors developed a bus for BRT operations. Given the value of a ‘BRT bus,’ other BRT operators have also purchased more of these buses.
This is testimony to the value of designing a vehicle made for today’s emerging customers with specific operations.
The niche areas are getting focused. As the Indian industry and customers evolve, people want products suitable for their environment – a customised product. Wherever you have frequent start-stops, safety issues, acceleration requirements or challenging terrains (off highway) with bad roads – wherever the manual system becomes difficult to operate and sustain, they will evaluate a switch from manual to an automatic.
Q: Globally, how suitable are these transmissions for automated driving and autonomous vehicles?
A: In my own opinion, the more autonomous you make a vehicle, the more essential an automatic will be.
Q: Is there a way for it to be connected to IoT (Internet of Things) and still improve efficiency? How is Allison prepared to support this?
A: Well, technology is something that can provide you with an answer to almost any need today. Engineers have all the tools in the tool box. The real question to be asked is, what should be given that will make sense to the customer– at the right time, right place and the right price.
For example, as a bus or truck runs, the automatic changes gears based on need. Now, should this information be communicated back to the owner on real time? Will it be of value to him? That is the point to be considered. Or will it be better to do a data download at the end of the journey or visit to workshop? Or may be temperature monitoring is something to be considered on a real time basis? So, technology is something you can do anything with, but the question is how to use it meaningfully and effectively.