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Sky-high ambitions

Ben Sampson

The aerospace sector in India is growing apace, with private firms becoming global players and an ambitious program to develop the country’s first indigenous large commercial civil aircraft

Dr Ramaseshan and his employees at Tech Mahindra have a problem. They find it hard to say no.

“It's a kind of cultural thing,” he says, “We say yes, we can do that, even when we know it can't be done. We have to train our people to say no.”

He's only half-joking, and the half that is true illustrates the can-do enthusiasm that characterises the Indian aerospace sector.

Ramaseshan is head of aerospace and defence at Tech Mahindra and is attending the Farnborough Air Show to meet with existing and prospective clients. The company carries out design work and provides support for certification and documentation to several major aerospace OEMs, including Airbus. It employs some 1500 engineers in Bangalore, around 800 of whom are mechanical engineers.

A recent project saw a team of engineers design the fuselage for a development programme, run computer simulations on the design and help the aircraft through the certification process. “We proved not just competencies, but also our ability to project manage and meet timelines and metrics,” he says proudly.

“Our ambition is to be one of the world's most eminent design houses, not just an outsourcing company. At the moment we are trying to expand our aftermarket services, things like e-learning and certification support, because we may not have any major design programmes coming up. Our business follows the big OEMs and is cyclical.”

A growing part of the massive Indian conglomerate Mahindra, Tech Mahindra started out as an IT outsourcing company and has diversified into engineering design and documentation, a move that has been rewarded with substantial growth. Certainly Ramaseshan seems accustomed to the hurly-burly of the Air Show and is well-known, several people greet him while we talk in the show’s cafe.

Tech Mahindra is part of an emerging trend of keen, commercially-focused aerospace firms in India, based around two hubs - Bangalore and Hyderbad. The country’s aerospace industry has traditionally been defence-focused, primarily centred around the government-owned Hindustan Aerospace Limited (HAL). However, recent government initiatives to grow the sector have sought to open it up to private investment and move into the civilian market. The newly elected Narendra Modi government has aspirations to create an Indian Airbus or Boeing, says Ramaseshan.

“There is a huge boom and a drive to develop the right eco-system for the design and manufacture of aircraft in India,” he says. “There is a vacuum between OEMs like HAL and tier one suppliers. A lot of emerging private companies are trying to fill that vacuum.”

Where a company lacks the requisite engineering skills and expertise, the common tactic in India is to acquire them from established companies elsewhere in the world. Ramaseshan is no stranger to this practice: “We have a lot of the skills in modelling and design from military aircraft programs, but there are different skills and competencies we need for the civil market. I recruit people from the UK and the US and position them within our teams in order to develop those skills.”

The other tactic the firm uses to increase its knowledge of the civil market is opening offices and delivery centres around the world. Tech Mahindra operates in 30 countries, with 17 sales offices and 13 delivery centres. The aerospace part of the company recently announced it is to open a regional head office in Montreal, Canada, that will employ 300 people to provide design and engineering support. The aim is to create a business that competes on the world stage, says Ramaseshan.

Nevertheless, even with keen firms like Tech Mahindra soaking up skills and knowledge, the step-up required to indigenously develop, test, certify and provide support for a commercial civil aircraft is considerable and cannot be done without government support and structure. The government support that Airbus and Boeing both controversially receive through various obtuse funding mechanisms is evidence of the level of investment and complexity aviation requires.

The Indian government therefore created a public private partnership (PPP) with HAL and the Indian R&D firm National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL) in 2007 to design and manufacture a 70-90 seat regional aircraft. The aircraft, which is called  India’s Regional Transport Aircraft (RTA), is expected to enter commercial service in 2022. The RTA, which would reduce the country’s reliance on importing entire aircraft, was initially intended to have turboprop engines but will now use turbofans.   

The request for proposals for the engines for the first tranche of RTAs is expected to be issued soon and is attracting a lot of attention because of the size of the Indian domestic market.  Some 11 bidders have already expressed interest to supply the engines for the RTA. Speaking at this year’s Farnborough Air Show, Suvarna Raju, director of Design and Development at HAL, said:  “In the initial period we expect around 400 aircraft to be produced. This is a conservative estimate and the potential is much more, considering that India has 450 airstrips and more cities would be linked with air travel in future.”

Ramaseshan has a healthy scepticism of his own government and believes that the devil is in the detail.  “How the PPP will be implemented, how it will invest into development programmes, how it will be managed to bring into being key partnerships is vital. Doing that and then meeting timelines and schedules is the real challenge. There has to be a blend of the government’s perspective and the commercial perspective. But the government is heading in the right direction. The capability is there, it just needs to be harmonised.”
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