All aboard the Nano

January 15, 2008
By: Tim Heston

My brother-in-law, Chris, is spending the year in Mumbai, India, as a part of a fellowship program that helps for-profit humanitarian enterprises find better ways to do business--that is, if he can get to work in one piece.

Last week he took a ride on Mumbai"s commuter trains. Call it herding, human style. On a typical rail platform during rush hour, people squeeze in and push out of railcars as if their lives depend on it. Come to think of it, their lives do depend on it. Reuters has reported that almost 4,000 die annually on Mumbai"s regional railway system. Yes, die. Thankfully, Chris wasn"t one of them, but the experience did leave him thinking what he"s thought of since he arrived last fall: So many people, so little space.

With a booming economy, Indians now have less time to get from point A to point B, and that"s no small task with some areas of Mumbai having more than 1 million people per square mile. Now, imagine giving just a small percentage of those people a car? Last week Ratan Tata, CEO of Tata Motors, seemed to take a step in that direction with the introduction of his Nano, the world"s cheapest car.

For me, both the Nano and my brother-in-law"s experience exemplify two sides of India: incredibly entrepreneurial businesses operating inside a country with a government that's anything but.

The entrepreneurial spirit comes out in Tata Motor"s soft-spoken automotive engineer, Girish Wagh. According to India"s The Economic Times, Wagh graduated from MITthat"s the Maharashtra Institute of Technologycame onboard at Tata, and eventually headed a 500-person design team to come up with ways to make the Nano safe, reliable, and cheap. (Of course, the jury's still out on the first two.)

According to sources, the car has such a low price tag in part because of a highly efficient supply chain using local vendors, many adjacent to Tata"s manufacturing campus. But sources also said the car has some real design innovationsno copycat engineering here. Instead, said The Economic Times, Wagh and his team challenged all traditional auto engineering concepts. To do this required collaborative engineering that involved vendors early on in the design stages. Wagh called it concurrent engineering in real time. What they came up with may raise a few eyebrows, even within metal fabrication circles. The Times of India reported that the car has a ribbed roof structure, adding strength while using thinner-gauge metal. Designs in the tailgate assembly eased stamping and blanking processes as well.

India's other side shows up on Mumbai"s government-operated commuter rail lines, which are finally getting a $2 billion overhaul, the first significant improvement since 1947, according to Reuters. Here's how my brother-in-law (and blogger) put it: As the world"s cheapest car was rolled out in India & it"s hard not to wonder what the money and ingenuity that went into developing the car could have accomplished had they been spent on improving public transportation here: maybe save 4,000 lives a year?

Put another way, the Indian government could learn something by looking at Indian companies. Indeed, the Indian economy has become home to some of the world"s most progressive businesses. Yes, the government has thrown plenty of tax breaks toward many, Tata included. But employees at those same firms still have to ride to work on a train system that the government hasn"t bothered to update in 60 years.

Talk about resiliency, and, for manufacturers stateside, that kind of resiliency is worth watching.

Tim Heston

Tim Heston

Senior Editor
FMA Communications Inc.
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