Technology And Innovation To Guide NextGen Manufacturing

By Sunjay Kapur

Sunjay Kapur is the CEO of SONA Group, and Managing Director of SONA BLW Precision Forgings Limited. Prior to taking over the current executive role he was the Managing Director of Sona Koyo Steering Systems, a joint venture company with JTEKT, Japan, and Maruti Suzuki, India, where he successfully guided the company to be India’s largest steering systems manufacturer with about 60 percent market share and consolidated revenue of $250 million. He has always been passionate about encouraging entrepreneurship. It was this pursuit that led him to be elected as the Global Chairman of the Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO). He was the first (and so far the only) person from India to hold this position.

Modern mobility thinking is poised to change urban lifestyles. New manufacturing systems, product, process innovations, and sophisticated design thinking are making waves in a dynamic automobile scenario. Consequently, there is a radical overhaul not just in the way we look at automobiles, but even the way we make them. Industrial IoT and the concept of smart vehicles, and fleet management through cloud platforms is already knocking at our doors with a connected, integrated supplier chain, and digitised factory environment and assemblies. The concept of digital twin is on the global horizon, and big data is playing a pivotal role with the emergence of data lakes and specialised professionals like data scientists. AI is set to redefine the way we manufacture with cobotics, additive manufacturing, and predictive maintenance. Edge analytics is poised to reshape vehicular safety and traffic management landscape.

Naturally, OEMs are under tremendous pressure to embrace agility in business solutions or perish under the onslaught of modern mobility demands. Business strategies are being reformed; some to focus on innovation, and others to focus on refining their product offerings. For example, we have already seen developments in flexible robotic body assembly framing system to improve vehicle launch quality; or the selectable one-way clutch for efficiency in a nine-speed front wheel drive transmission system.

This implies that the future-ready companies are gearing up to equip themselves to face constant changes and challenges in the industry. Key decisions for business strategies are hinging upon intelligent investment in human resources, infrastructure, technological innovation, and R&D. Also, I perceive non-auto companies shifting towards automotive; so, for us, it means competing or collaborating with non-auto companies on the technology front. The crucial objective here is to deliver value-added service during the product design cycle as well as after-sales; and work on a collaborative business model that is a win-win for all stakeholders.

Challenges, Opportunities

I see the future moving towards autonomous driving and electric mobility. E-mobility is a challenge, an opportunity, and a solution. The challenge is to bring about a transformative change in mindsets along with scalability and an investment in infrastructure, considering the sheer size of our country. It is a hurdle not only for us, but also for the entire industry. However, I believe that with partnerships working steadfastly towards common objectives, all of us can make significant headway, and eventually bring about the desired change.
At Sona BLW, we take our environmental responsibilities very seriously, and are looking at e-mobility. We have already developed the electric-axle for auto-rickshaws. An integral part, and often called the ‘spine of an automobile,’ the e-axle is designed to allow retro fitment in existing fossil fuel-powered auto rickshaws already plying in the markets. It gives the owners the flexibility to adapt to different motors from various manufacturers, which is an added advantage.

We are also customising the e-axle to cater to the three-tonne vehicle segment; and are currently in talks with many of our OEM colleagues and partners to cater to different target vehicles. In addition to this, we supply our existing products (case differentials) to electric vehicle manufacturers, globally.

Being an early adopter of technology is always an advantage. We see our efforts to create a future ready business paying off in the long run. As the automotive industry moves toward electrification and Level-4 autonomous vehicles, we will continue to evolve our technology offering to cater to the increasing demands of the industry. We will do this through either developing technology on our own or investing in it.

Sona BLW will continue to invest in the future. While we will forward integrate our existing product line, we will also look at new materials. I feel that with electrification will come a need for light-weighting. For this reason, we will have to look at new materials. Understanding new materials and their properties is going to be a key driver for success in the future.

We are working on product innovations to introduce new components to cater to the evolving engine requirements in the domestic market. In this context, the plans are to up investments and augment our manufacturing capabilities in India. We have acquired land in Maharashtra to cater to automobile makers in that part of the country. The objective of expanding and enhancing our plant capabilities is to increase production capacity and attain cost-efficiency across the production lines. Our plant in Hungary is expected to double our production capacity to 7.8 million pieces a year. Sona BLW is gearing up to keep pace with the movement towards hybrids and electric vehicles. We are currently working on a shift in technology. There is huge potential in the off-highway segment. We will continue to stick to our traditional technology and traditional business in terms of net-shaped bevel gears, though the material may change to be applicable for EVs. We are continuously undertaking R&D to see how we can move with the industry and its changing trends.

Thrust Areas

The thrust areas are definitely e-mobility and innovation. We always encourage innovation and are working on developing the e-axle technology further. The technology has been developed in-house, and at present we are working on offering additional products including battery technology and charging station. Our focus is on research and innovation in electric vehicles and upgrading and expanding existing manufacturing capacities.
I staunchly believe that technology and innovation will guide NextGen manufacturing. Very clearly, our thrust is on innovation as the primary driver, leading to customer satisfaction and overall business growth. We are investing majorly in R&D and cost-effective strategies; and this will eventually drive product technology, people, and other industry- related aspects.

We are working with our German counterparts and exploring ways to develop most automobile technologies in-house, especially in the sphere of Green technology, as we aim to create proprietary technologies. We are focused on harnessing talent, as we move forward on the path of progress and growth.

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