June 2007 | Sujata Agrawal

Partners in progress

In the West Midlands region of England is a city that is further from the coast than any other British town. Coventry is also famous for the legendary exploits of Lady Godiva, who is supposed to have ridden unclothed through its streets in the 11th century. But Coventry’s real claim to fame is that, historically, it is the centre of the British motor industry. And on its southern outskirts lies the University of Warwick, home to the Tata Motors European Technical Centre (TMETC), set up in 2005 by Tata Motors (TML) to establish a centre for excellence and to accelerate the company’s technical capabilities.

TMETC engineers have considerable cutting-edge automotive experience gained from major European vehicles' original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), first-tier suppliers and engineering consultancies. They have complete vehicle skills, from concept to production, and have worked on designing and building cars from scratch for several major European auto companies. Now, they provide state-of-the-art engineering competence for TML and are bringing in a new quality-cost effectiveness for the Indian automotive industry.

Working on what Tata Motors has identified as ‘critical gap areas’ in its R&D skills, TMETC’s focus areas are powertrain and driveline, systems integration and electronics, legislation and homologation, manufacturing and production engineering, chassis, ride and handling, styling, body and trim craftsmanship.

partners_in_progressMuch of this work had, until recently, been done partly inhouse at the company’s Engineering Research Centre (ERC) in Pune, and at group company Tata Technologies — and partly by hiring consultants. A technical engineering centre located in Europe, the company found, would actually be cheaper than outsourcing, produce better quality products, and save time. TMETC now leads strategic developments and provides responsive tactical support to the indigenous team. TMETC engineers are now an integral part of Tata Motors. Their experience of global best practices in automotive product development is helping the TML team to refine processes, and they provide benchmarking data and parts as required.

A passage to India
One major challenge for TMETC was having their engineers work effectively with colleagues located nearly 4,500 miles and a 10-hour flight away, in India. “In our second year of operation, we have come to understand that there is no ‘optimum’ way of working. So we have now implemented a variety of working practices and communication channels to ensure that the needs of the business are met in the most efficient way,” says Leigh Carnes, corporate affairs manager, TMETC.

There is regular traffic between the UK and India, as UK engineers spend time in Pune working on joint projects while Indian colleagues work out of TMETC’s office in the University of Warwick. “As many of our engineers cannot work full time in India, we find video conferencing an excellent tool for integrating the two locations. Not only is it invaluable for senior management to meet ‘face-to-face’ regardless of where they are, but also for project reviews and team meetings,” says Carnes.

The work TMETC is involved in ranges from ad-hoc technical troubleshooting to overseeing ongoing development projects. Depending on the specific need, different approaches are adopted to address the need in the most effective way.

Cutting-edge craftsmanship
One of the first projects that TMETC is taking the lead in, is a programme of craftsmanship to ensure the consistency of product quality; to ensure that each and every car that rolls off the production line is exactly the same as the previous one. “We are using world-class tools and techniques designed to improve the internal and external quality of the vehicles to the standard of European ‘best in class’,” explains Cliff Aitken, the chief engineer responsible for body engineering.

The spearhead of this craftsmanship initiative is the new Indica. Teams comprising a combination of TMETC and ERC engineers have been established to drive this forward. The project teams include representatives from the engineering, manufacturing and tooling departments, thereby facilitating effective inputs from all those involved in working towards creating a ‘best in class’ vehicle.

The whole package
Another area that TMETC is helping in — not only to increase quality but also make significant cost savings — is modelling. Using a number of computer-aided design techniques, the entire vehicle and its systems are modelled electronically before starting to build a prototype.

The advantages that this technique provides are significant — the whole vehicle infrastructure can be modelled, enabling the eradication of misfits and allowing identification of potential problems well before the prototype stage. It also coordinates the efforts of many departments, reduces engineering costs and improves build quality.

In addition to the proactive, structured and planned approach in project and programme work, TMETC engineers are also making a significant contribution in terms of troubleshooting, identifying and quickly responding to solve specific problems. TMETC has online access to engineering data available at the ERC, and engineers in both locations exchange data and ideas on a number of different projects. This enables each engineer to be more productive and effective, regardless of location. For instance, an engineer in the UK and an engineer in India can view the same animation in real time on their individual computers, enabling sharing of ideas and efficient use of time and resources. This means that engineering development work can be done in the UK in parallel with the development and testing being done in India.

The best minds
“The problem-solving process works in different ways depending on the situation,” says Carnes. Engineers working in India and the UK can discuss and arrive at an optimum solution. The Indian engineers can then implement this, and provide feedback to their UK counterparts. Another route involves the UK engineers working in India on potential solutions with Indian engineers, and then agreeing on a joint implementation process.

TMETC is aware that its ability to facilitate technology and knowledge transfer will depend on the effectiveness of its teams, both in the UK and India. Jules Carter, chief engineer for chassis systems comments, “At TMETC we place great importance on attracting the right people. We have recruited very experienced engineers from some of the best global automotive OEMs, first-tier suppliers and consultancies.”

Many of the people TMETC has recruited in Europe had never been to India, but now an increasing number of TMETC engineers are spending extended periods of time in different Tata Motors plants in India, in addition to the Pune ERC. “This provides them with a unique opportunity to experience the Indian way of life and also to form friendships outside of the immediate work environment,” says Carnes.

For TMETC engineers, working with TML offers a fantastic opportunity to work on a very wide range of vehicles, from the ‘one-lakh car’ right through to heavy truck programmes. Nick Fell, VP, engineering, sums up the relationship neatly: “Tata is one of a very small number of global OEMs that can provide this opportunity to influence the development of such a diverse range of vehicles. We aspire to deliver our vision of ‘one team, two locations’ by developing ever-closer working relationships with our Indian colleagues.”