Ashok Leyland designs its trucks to be adaptable to different markets. From a base version they are customised and fine tuned. It is also building up software competencies that will be applicable to the new and futuristic alternatives like hybrids and fully electric vehicles. “We are investing much money and resources to be and to remain a reliable player in the next 20 years in electric technologies,” Dr Seshu Bhagavathula, Chief Technical Officer, Ashok Leyland, told T Murrali of AutoParts Asia, in an exclusive interview. The excerpts:-
Q: The commercial vehicle manufacturers have to innovate to be competitive and eco-friendly in the developed markets. They must also find ways to enter high-growth, low-cost markets by adjusting to their operating models and product concepts. How do you meet these diverse requirements as you plan to expand exports to different countries?
Bhagavathula: A truck in India costs 4.5 times less than the one we make in Europe, with almost the same features. The difference is in the manufacturing cost in terms of people, the quality of the material etc. The direct labour cost in Europe is about 23 percent. Here in India it is four to five percent. This is a major difference. The trucks in Europe are over-engineered. Here trucks are frugal, coming in often for repair. There, people talk of life cycle costs; here it is all about first time costs. The price sensitivity here is about how much I pay now rather than about the overall life cycle.
Therefore, modularisation is the answer. We are driving a programme to have two companies in one. R&D is the meeting point for both. The designing itself is with different philosophies to operate in different markets in different countries. We take a base version and fine tune it as required. All our new products are made keeping this in mind. We have at least one variation for a particular market. We try to get the best of both worlds.
Q: A truck is made up of several modules. You buy aggregates and assemble them. As an integrator, where do you see options to enhance the cost of ownership for the end-user?
Bhagavathula: The philosophy in Ashok Leyland (AL) is overall reliability, that is optimisation between the limits. For example, the drivetrain has to be optimised with the engine as also in translating engine power with the drive line. This is where the OEMs play a role, in the interface between parts, testing the vehicle for a particular application in extreme conditions and the like. Our core competency is in meeting the overall vehicle specification based on the design intent and to get suppliers to deliver what we want. This is the process that we have to master. We call it GenMode-2. This is to make sure that the truck goes out with predictable failures; failures will be there but they should be predictable. GenMode-2 is a typical AL process, evolved over the years, which can pick up every failure mode before the truck goes out into the market.
Q: Some suppliers come out with products that end up in 0.8 to one percent fuel economy. What they say is that when the integrator aggregates everything, the energy saved by one company gets nullified by the other. What do you have to say on this as a vehicle manufacturer?
Bhagavathula: There are many philosophies here. Suppliers do quite a bit of warranty as well. OEMs are integrators which means I have to take care of hundreds of components. Very often it is possible that one of them is lost, not all. But the overall equation or the energy link, which is the fuel efficiency, is never lost at the vehicle level. The common thread is that all the suppliers come together and ensure overall vehicle optimisation.
Q: With you in the driver’s seat what kind of technological changes can we expect at AL?
Bhagavathula: Getting a truck into the market with BS-4 or BS-6 legislation standards will be different. How do you differentiate while respecting the legislation? I will have to do the same thing with less. It has to help the customer in terms of reliability with less maintainability. We will have to look at frugal techniques and their effect on the life cycle; it has to be simpler. How can a BS-6 be a less serviced part though it has lots of electronics, controls and sensors? We do have frugal innovations coming into these technologies to smoothen in-service conformity. BS-6 is all about life cycle conformity, so the tests have to be different.
Q: Does India have the capability to do these tests or will you have to develop the capability on your own?
Bhagavathula: Yes, completely. There is no other way. Europe has taken 10 years to advance from Euro-4 to Euro-6 but we have done it in three years. We are ready for it.
Q: One significant thing about the interface is that there is no end in sight of the differences in opinion over legislation, fuel consumption and greenhouse effect. Should it be calculated over the whole vehicle or only the engine? How do you work on this in AL?
Bhagavathula: The engine itself does not help. If I give you a fantastic BS-or-Euro-6 engine with the rest of the truck not measuring up, it will not work as it is not optimised. There are three modules working here – the truck, the engine and the after-treatment. The best engines cannot directly give you Euro-6; Euro-6 is only done after treatment. Only companies that have complete control over the truck and engine are in an advantageous position; that’s where AL is. We are able to tune it much better.
Q: With all these constraints, where do you see green shoots? How do new products evolve? What is the direction you see for AL to come out with new products?
Bhagavathula: AL always has the customer as its focus. If you look at our performance last year, we grew with new products and highly-improved channel profitability. The number of customer channels we have built up in the last four years is dramatic. The growth of AL came from a few products combined with very efficient channels. Our focus was ‘aap ki jeeth, hamari jeeth.’ We are a B2B company as well as a B2B2C company. So you look typically at trucks with very less downtime and as much uptime as possible – that’s where you concentrate. You cannot completely eradicate failure modes because you do not have everything under control. So what you have to do is turn it around as fast as possible. That is where R&D can help, from design to repair. We have to reduce mean time between repairs. The other one is reliability engineering – use reliability techniques in such a way as to boost your statistical confidence level – doing maintenance before any breakdown. That is what we spend a lot of time on.
Q: In passenger cars, new models are introduced based on customer aspiration levels. For trucks it is the cost of ownership. What is the driving force for you to bring out new generation models?
Bhagavathula: Bringing back the driver as the main focus. Drivers are the ones who go back to their owners and say they want to have the same truck again. There is no other way. The driver has to feel safe; his social image has to be improved as the driver’s profession is not well respected. That’s what we do. This will be the driving factor for our future products.
Q: Coming to aggregates like bell crank and slippery suspension which reduce about 100 kg of weight – is AL working on those things?
Bhagavathula: Yes, absolutely.
Q: When can we see it?
Bhagavathula: We make use of new R&D introductions or changes in our new products. You introduce not just one but do many things at one time. It is typically driven by market forces.
Q: Is it a conscious decision to introduce a product with many features at one go or is it a gradual progression to make people get used to it? Like the slippery suspension that would enhance half-a-tonne to the payload.
Bhagavathula: Now we have Euro-4 and Euro-6. Two major technological changes are happening. You make use of them to introduce lots of things to optimise all the aggregates; you try and reduce the complexity. That is the GenMod-2 philosophy that helps you keep track of many things.
Q: Tell us about the technological innovations in overall vehicle design; what are the directions taken on the power and performance, fuel consumption and enhancing the uptime of vehicles with longer service intervals?
Bhagavathula: Whenever you get two plates together you will have new kinds of joining technologies coming in. Here, trucks rattle up at 5,000km, which means that performance goes down. New technologies will make the metal joints better which will result in improved performance; the driver’s comfort level goes up, with consequent increase in productivity. You define the modules in such a way that you co-develop with your supplier.
Today, the truck is developed based on market requirements but in future you will keep developing modules with suppliers well before the market requirement comes in, so you will have enough time to introduce and industrialise it. This philosophy change would give you more quality over time. If I can make the supplier give me a better part, the life of my vehicle will go up. In future you are going to see more and more of pre-industrialised modules that are already tested for life cycles coming into trucks. We will use telematics in the future. Since you cannot reduce the failure modes all the time, you can prevent them by calling the owner for maintenance much before the failure happens. You will see more and more of innovation coming in this area, bringing in new technologies.
Q: What is the inspiration you get to design a good cab – the interior, exterior and other add-ons?
Bhagavathula: The Indian market still does not look at aesthetics much. It is more inclined to functionality. In Europe and US the truck has to be beautiful, it should be designed for minimum movement (35cm) of the driver. That is their design philosophy. Here it is not yet, but will come in time. There has to be a distinct brand that you should be able to see and recognise standing in front of the truck. At the same time it should comply with all regulations and performance requirements.
Q: At present are you using anthropometric data for the cab in India? Over a period of time (five decades) the cab profile has changed a lot but will it make the modern driver comfortable?
Bhagavathula: Yes, it will. What we see in the factory now is that most of the concepts (line configuration & balancing) have come from Europe and Japan. They have been adjusted to Indian conditions. There are no aesthetic products as the demand is low.
Q: Is it because of the lack of awareness among the drivers?
Bhagavathula: Yes, but drivers here are not an essential parameter of the whole truck. Goods are much more important here than the driver. So ‘driver’s ignorance is the OEM’s bliss’ but this is changing.
Q: Are you working on any technology that can reduce driver distraction or for sleep recognition and action?
Bhagavathula: Yes, you will see uptime increase and downtime decrease. It is all about avoiding an accident as drivers tend to become drowsy over long distances. So we have the driver assist system to give him a warning. You will see improved technologies coming in and our fleet owners are already geared up to accept and use them. For example, we have the ABS now but soon there will also be an additional radar system that will take over control of the vehicle before the accident happens. Over time certain functions in the truck are going to be autonomous; a nine-gear truck will require automatic shifting – a human being (driver) will not be able to do it properly.
Q: Are all these done in-house or do you work with agencies?
Bhagavathula: As an OEM we are more of an integrator. We will never work with a supplier on control algorithms but will do so with our group companies. Of course, I can get the hardware from anyone but the software and algorithms that go in will be ours. Algorithms are basically the logic of when to use which function at what dosage. We are building up a lot of competencies on this at AL. You will also see this being applied to alternative vehicles like hybrids and fully electric vehicles. We are investing much money and resources on technologies for alternative drives. To be, and remain, a big player in the next 20 years, we will have to become a reliable player in electric technologies as well.
Q: Coming to alternate materials, what are the challenges you see as the entire eco system has to change right from manufacturability, serviceability, etc?
Bhagavathula: This is where I see a big challenge. Information is coming in so fast that when you see an innovation in Europe you want to have it here but the eco system is not there to support it. So we want it but I can’t make it; this is the biggest challenge that all OEMs will have to face. I can make a truck completely free of everything but it will cost a million dollars. Who will buy such a truck? So how do you make a truck like that for India – that is the conflict? That’s where the challenge is. We formulate our strategies at AL keeping this in mind.
Q: Ashok Leyland Defence Systems (ALDS) has selected US-based Lockheed Martin’s High Mobility Vehicle or Common Vehicle Next Generation (CVNG) platform for defence applications. Do you see some learning that you can apply for trucks?
Bhagavathula: Yes, it is for the military, specifically meant for a particular application. That is why we now have a CTO for the company, to handle defence to truck to power solutions etc. To get into alternative drives, partnerships are the only answer; intelligently managing partnerships with our own control software on top of it. Energy conversion is minimised. Minimising cost will be the toughest challenge in India. Parallel and series hybrids with complete electric vehicles are the future; fuel cells will also be coming in. Our strategy will depend on market needs, which are difficult to predict.
Q: When it comes to passenger application (buses), India is way behind. Where do you see the opportunity?
Bhagavathula: Most of our government representatives go abroad, see the beautiful buses there, and want them here. This is where the pull comes from. In the future all the ‘smart cities’ will be emission-less. So you will see hybridisation, full electrification coming in pockets, typically in city bus areas of 10-12km radius. That’s where infrastructure can be managed, and you will see pockets appearing in India, for which we will be ready.
Q: Do you also work on helping the manufacturing operations to optimise productivity?
Bhagavathula: Today, for example, there are 3,000 steps that happen in a factory. Can I do it in 2,000 by changing the design here? I would design for assembly by doing many things. One of them is to reduce assembly time by giving pre-assembled parts to make sub-assemblies. So I will have to change my structure of suppliers; or bifurcate from the main line, to make those sub-assemblies that consume more time, in batch mode. The philosophy here is to have the assembly in mind at the design stage itself.
Q: When you make these changes, will it also manage the fluctuations in consumption, considering the cyclical nature of the market?
Bhagavathula: Yes, it will. Cyclical nature basically means you have to have a buffer; there is no other way. The buffer can be at the suppliers’ side or here, or a combination of both. OEMs have four to five techniques at hand to manage this.
One is this, and the second is the increase in TAKT time; that is, your product design has to allow four types of TAKT times. Multiple TAKT times will be the order – that is the fundamental design principle for auditing.