[op-ed snap] Make it the Indian way: Why the country must adapt to additive technologies

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Mains Paper 3: Economy | Effects of liberalization on the economy, changes in industrial policy & their effects on industrial growth

From the UPSC perspective, the following things are important:

Prelims level: 3D printing

Mains level: Prospects of additive manufacturing and how can India leverage it


Context

Upcoming manufacturing revolution in India

  1. We are fortunate to be in a historic moment when the manufacturing sector is about to go through a transformation wrought by disruptive technologies
  2. If ‘Make in India’ is to succeed, it needs to encompass ‘Make it the Indian Way’
  3. It need not emulate mass production technologies, fuelled in Detroit by massive capital investment or in Beijing by cheap labour

Lacunae in traditional manufacturing

  1. Traditional manufacturing of mechanical parts involves making a mould and then stamping out parts by thousands every day
  2. The equipment to make these parts and moulds is expensive, thus the cost of the first hundred units is high
  3. Per unit costs decline only when they are mass produced\
  4. Because of limitations of how this technology works, one typically builds many small parts, which are later on assembled on an assembly line using unskilled labour or robots to build an entire system
  5. Traditional manufacturing leads to high inventory costs of multiple parts that need to be produced and stored before being assembled
  6. This makes the design phase complex and costly, rendering it expensive to redesign to correct initial mistakes or innovate to meet changing consumer needs

Prospects of 3D printing

  1. Industrial 3D printing has begun to transform manufacturing in Western countries
  2. Although it began as a quick and cheap way of developing prototypes, additive manufacturing has now gone mainstream in developed countries and is beginning to replace traditional manufacturing for many different applications
  3. In additive manufacturing, the physical object to be built is first designed in software
  4. This design is fed to computerised machines, which build that object layer by layer
  5. The technology is suitable for building the entire system in one go, with hollow interiors without assembly or interlocked parts
  6. Changing features or tweaking shapes is a simple software change effected in minutes
  7. A retooling of machines is not required and each unit can be customised
  8. By eliminating the need to hold a large inventory of parts, set up an assembly line and purchase costly machines, adaptive manufacturing reduces capital and space requirements as well as the carbon footprint

What does this mean for developing nations?

  1. This technological nirvana carries dangerous implications for developing nations
  2. It decreases reliance on assembly workers and bypasses the global supply chain that has allowed countries like China to become prosperous through export of mass-produced items
  3. This may well lead to the creation of software-based design platforms in the West that distribute work orders to small manufacturing facilities, whether located in developed or developing countries, but ultimately transfer value creation towards software and design and away from physical manufacturing
  4. This would imply that labour-intensive manufacturing exports may be less profitable

India’s strengths

This manufacturing paradigm has several features that play to the strengths of the Indian ecosystem

  • It eliminates large capital outlays
  1. Machines are cheaper, inventories can be small and space requirements are not large
  2. Thus, jump-starting manufacturing does not face the massive hurdle of large capital requirement
  3. The traditional small and medium enterprises can easily be adapted and retooled towards high technology manufacturing
  • The Indian software industry is well-established, and plans to increase connectivity are well underway as part of ‘Digital India’
  1. This would allow for the creation of manufacturing facilities in small towns
  2. It would also foster industrial development outside of major cities
  • It is possible to build products that are better suited for use in harsh environmental conditions
  1. Products that required assembly of fewer parts also implies that they may be better able to withstand dust and moisture prevalent in our tropical environment and be more durable
  • In a country where use-and-throw is an anathema, maintaining old products is far easier because parts can be manufactured as needed and product life-cycles can be expanded
  • Maintaining uniform product quality is far easier because the entire system is built at the same time and assembly is not required

What needs to be done?

  1.  The “Make it the Indian Way” approach we advocate will need public-private partnership and multi-pronged efforts
  2. On the one hand, we need to accelerate research at our premier engineering schools on manufacturing machines and methods and encourage the formation of product design centres so that the products built to suit the Indian environment and consumers
  3. We also would need government support to provide incentives for distributed manufacturing in smaller towns, and for the IT industry to work on creating platforms and marketplaces that connect consumer demands, product designers and manufacturers in a seamless way

Way forward

  1. A combination of science and art, with a pinch of Indian entrepreneurship thrown in, will allow us to develop a manufacturing ecosystem that will not only allow India to compete with global manufacturing, it will also create products that are uniquely suited to Indian conditions
  2. The Industrial revolution somehow bypassed India, but we have a unique opportunity to catch the wave of the manufacturing revolution if we can learn to surf
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