Thursday, November 24, 2011

Why Japan's R&D scores over ours

 Article published in the Hindu Businessline, 23 November 2011


Why Japan's R&D scores over ours

Indian industry has shown little interest in overtures from public sector R&D labs.
Indian industry has shown little interest in overtures from public sector R&D labs. 

 Unlike in Japan, India's ivory-tower scientists are wary of working closely with private companies and factory workers.
Institutions dedicated to public research & development (R&D) activity often exist in a world far removed from the rough-and-tumble arena of private enterprise. To some, the very idea of using taxpayers' money to enrich the business class goes against the notions of equity and social justice.
One can, however, learn from the Japanese, who have created interesting institutional mechanisms to deal with this issue. Take the case of Koguchi-san, a young, mid-level scientist and troubleshooting ‘scout', working with the National Institute of Material Sciences (NIMS), a government-funded research lab located in Tsukuba Science City, 60 km north of Tokyo. On most days, you will not see him in his comfortable NIMS office, but on a factory floor elsewhere. Dressed in overalls and boots, he rubs shoulders with workers, technicians and scientists at a private manufacturing firm — usually an SME — trying to understand their technical problems, to make their manufacturing processes more efficient and their products more competitive.
Typically, discussions continue after office hours. Koguchi-san and his counterparts hang out together, share a drink or a game of baseball during the weekends. In the process, they build a camaraderie that is very valuable for their parent organisations. Jointly-funded projects emerging from such friendships have resulted in better alloys, stronger adhesives, superconducting magnets, super-capacitors, dye-sensitised solar cells, and a host of other specialised products that Japan's SMEs supply to the bigger keiretsu conglomerates as well as global markets.


Koguchi-san is a fictitious character. But NIMS is very real. So are the kind of working-level R&D partnerships that exist between Japanese public-funded labs and private-sector companies described above.

NIMS employs nearly 50 Indians. Most of them are post-doctoral fellows from our own premier universities and research institutes, with whom it has inked MoUs, and also offers ‘joint graduate' programmes.
Researchers from India and other countries spend a few years here working on focused research projects. The intellectual property rights (IPRs) resulting from this, of course, belongs to NIMS and the Japanese companies.
What is of interest for us here, though, is not ownership of IPRs or even the Indian connection. It is about public-private partnerships (PPP) aimed at meeting the needs of the domestic and international markets, that can be useful for Indian industry as well.


The Government has a critical role in this process — not by establishing newer institutes and perpetuating a bureaucratic paralysis — but by acting as a facilitator and catalyst. Another fine example to quote here is the case of Hiroden in Hiroshima.
Hiroshima — long before it was devastated by the atomic bomb codenamed ‘Little Boy' — was home to a tramway network run by this company called Hiroden. Their network was among the first utilities to be rebuilt after the attack. The city gradually became famous as a ‘living museum of tramcars'. In 1999, the local manufacturers got a rude shock when Hiroden decided to replace its aging fleet of single-car trams with the latest imported German models.
Manufactured by Siemens, these were the sleek LF-LRT (Low Floor-Light Rail Transit) Combinos. Their modular, barrier-free, interconnected and low-floor design not only had a much bigger capacity, but also made passenger movement easier and faster.
Japanese tram makers had refrained from improving their designs for several reasons till then: Overseas manufacturers held patents for many of the basic technologies and the low domestic demand increased development risks.
This changed in 2000, when a new Barrier-Free Transportation Law was brought in by the federal Government. It provided tax relief and exemptions to compensate for the price difference between conventional cars and the more expensive barrier-free designs.
In 2001, two years after Siemens had won the Hiroden contract, Japan's Ministry of Land Infrastructure and Transport got together a group of eight manufacturers to come out with a 100 per cent Japanese product. It eventually led to three of them — Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Kinki Sharyo and Toyo Electric Co. — forming a consortium, JTRAM, for creating an improved tram better suited to Japanese conditions. MHI produced the bogies, brakes and inner/outer riggings; Kinki Sharyo focused on the design, car body, articulations, and driver's cabin; and Toyo took responsibility for the electrical parts and control drive units.
The result was ‘Green Mover Max', a vehicle that had more seats, wider aisles and lower dependence on foreign technology and component-makers than the Siemens Combinos, which, meanwhile, started developing problems.
In 2004, the German company admitted that their body-shells were developing cracks after high mileages (15,000 km-plus). By now, JTRAM was ready and waiting. In 2005, Hiroden accepted the first LF-LRT built entirely in Japan. And today, JTRAM not only dominates the local market, but also gives Siemens a run for its money in the international markets.


In India, the Japanese PPP model — which we have seen at work even in the more recent period — would be looked upon with a mixture of suspicion and disdain. Our scientist-administrators are wary of working closely with private companies or discussing technical problems with mere factory workers. What is the point in soiling one's hands, when promotions are linked to more ‘intellectual' activities like filing patents or publishing papers — preferably in Western journals!
There are, of course, exceptions that are often the result of one-off individual initiatives. The rice miller, Anil Mittal's chance visit to the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in Delhi turned a promising basmati strain called Pusa-1121 into a commercially-cultivated variety that now earns India more than $1 billion in annual export earnings.
But in many cases, it is industry that has shown little interest in overtures from public sector R&D labs. When the Central Mechanical Engineering Research Institute at Durgapur found no takers for its indigenous tractor design in the late 1960s, its own scientists led by Chandra Mohan took the lead to commercialise ‘Swaraj' tractors through Punjab Tractors Ltd.
On the other hand, a CSIR laboratory tried to collaborate with the cashew industry in Kerala, to jointly develop a better technology for mechanical roasting and peeling of raw nuts. But high-level discussions yielded nothing, as the industry was happy working with cheap labour. Today, high labour costs have forced mechanisation and cashew makers import the necessary equipment — from Vietnam!
A top-down approach has been a characteristic of our public-private interactions in R&D. It is high time we created incentives for our middle-level managers to seize the initiative. If, as with Koguchi-san at NIMS or the people at JTRAM, our R&D institutions make concerted efforts to build relationships and to understand the industry's needs, India too, can emerge as a hotbed of innovations.
It's time we stepped out of our institutional silos and stirred an inter-disciplinary cauldron of ideas. Our academics need to step down from their ivory towers, roll-up their sleeves, and empower their younger colleagues to bridge the yawning gap between ‘research' and ‘development' in India. 

(The author is an independent technology transfer consultant.) 

(This article was published on November 23, 2011)

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