When Pawan Goenka, former Managing Director and CEO of Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd., newly arrived from the US in 1993 to join Mahindra’s R&D function, was shown the 800 sq. m. shed in Nashik. He asked, “Yes, but where is the R&D building?” And he was told, “This is it”.
A small two-storied building in one corner of the Nashik plant, housing a workshop with some drafting tables, prototype and fabrication shops, and the engine development centre – all rolled into one – was the sum total of auto R&D at Mahindra in the year 1993. But even that humble shed turned out to be a crucible of innovation – all-time hits like the Bolero and the Scorpio emerged from there.
The success of Scorpio gave us faith in our own abilities. It grew out of a desire to prove ourselves. For an Indian automobile company, developing a vehicle from the ground up was an outrageous ambition. It was also a big risk because it involved what was then a massive investment of INR 550 crore leading up to its launch in 2002 – the equivalent of close to three years of profits. But it was a risk that paid off handsomely – not just in terms of profits but also in terms of demonstrating the value of R&D and bolstering our confidence that we had the innovation skills to be world-class. If an Integrated Design and Manufacture and a humble R&D team could produce a Scorpio, what could we not achieve with more state-of-the-art facilities and better infrastructure? It was time to make the great leap forward from the humble beginnings to the Mahindra Research Valley – the jewel in our crown. The Scorpio’s success convinced sceptics that innovation was the key to future success and that indigenously developed next-generation R&D was the pathway to that success.
Setting up a new R&D facility in 2012 was a bold step. At an investment of INR 650 crore, it was a big bet. 60km from Chennai, in the heart of the Mahindra World City, the 125-acre Mahindra Research Valley was born. An architect’s delight, it was to be a state-of-the-art jewel in the crown, a blend of art and technology, with 35 cutting edge facilities that would make MRV ‘the heartbeat of our company that consistently churned out world-class new products’.
It was a bold move, and only India’s best architect would do. Charles Correa – world renowned architect and Padma Vibhushan recipient – came on board with a brief to create a centre that would not only be technologically awesome, but which would also nurture the creative potential of the people who worked there. At Anand Mahindra’s urging, Charles visited top-of-the-line R&D facilities abroad, including Chrysler USA, BMV in Germany and Renault in Paris. Based on the belief that the best ideas emerged from informal interactions between people, Charles’ brief was to design a facility that would combine the best of technology with the best of creativity, subtly encouraging collaboration, innovation, imagination and inspiration.
Charles ultimately created an architectural dream on the hub and spoke model. The hub is the design office, the creative heart connected to the workshops at the rim of the wheel through three glass bridges that serve as spokes. The engineering offices are situated directly above the technical workshops. All the technical elements are seamlessly connected. In the middle of this technological showpiece is a tropical forest thick with trees, showcasing water bodies and paths for walking and meditation. Benches and informal niches with colourful seating, inside and outside, encourage contemplation and conversation. The building is awash with light and air. The design office was built with floor to ceiling single sheets of landscaped glass panes. And the 6,500 trees on the premises blur the distinction between the indoors and outdoors, adding an element of nature to encourage fresh, creative thought.
The many firsts
MRV is notable for many firsts. It was the first R&D centre in the world that brought Auto and Tractor Product Development together under one roof, at a scale that mattered. The common ground between its systems, simulation, powertrain, and materials testing provided the basis for immense savings in the R&D infrastructure and synergies. Housing several functional expertise under one roof also ensured the exchange of creative ideas, the robustness of the product and the best value proposition to the customer.
It was also the first time that a project of this size and importance was led by a woman – who was not an engineer, not from the auto division, not from the tractor division but from the corporate office. Prochie Mukherji, Senior Vice President and Chief of Staff - Chairman’s Office, who led the 14-person project team, says, “I am a totally non-technical person – I can’t even change a light bulb. But I had a wonderful technical team under me, led by Commander Rajeev Vaidya, and I soon realised that my job called for managerial and organisational inputs, not technical ones. My job was to support my team, help them over bumps on the road, and most importantly, to ask the right questions. Keeping the project on track was an exercise in influencing without authority because it involved working with so many entities – architects, contractors, technical folks, government authorities, suppliers – most of whom did not directly report to me, and I had to ensure they were all moving in the same direction within the same timelines. It was a great learning experience, and the project came in on time, at the quality and slightly under budget.”
Goenka’s appointment as head of both Auto and Tractor divisions in 2010 was another first that ensured the smooth working of MRV. He has been the driving force behind shaping the MRV vision and direction and reaping the synergies.
And while there were difficulties in so many people having to move to Chennai, these were mitigated by a combination of flexibility, consideration and providing a first-world lifestyle within Mahindra World City as an incentive for moving there. The greatest incentive, however, proved to be the opportunity to work with the best brains. Sreeganesh Kanninghat, Senior Engineer at MRV, said, “There are so many teams across MRV that have amazing expertise. Pick any topic, and there's someone here who is knowledgeable and willing to help you learn more about it. I love MRV because I get to work with them to build the best products and learn continuously in the process.”
MRV has proved its value over and over again. It has birthed many successful and industry-first brands in recent times. The first project to come out of MRV was the inimitable XUV500. Other successful products included the All-New Thar, XUV300, KUV100, Alturas, TUV300, and from the tractor business Arjun Novo, Yuvo and Jivo, among others. Cross-functional teams integrate functions such as design, manufacturing, marketing, vendor development and R&D and focus on simultaneous engineering to significantly reduce the product development time. Mahindra’s 400-acre test track allows tremendous focus on testing and validation of the vehicles’ ride, handling, and manoeuvring capabilities.
The vision of MRV becoming a cradle of innovation is also coming to fruition. In the past ten years, Mahindra has filed 1,500 patent applications and been granted 180 patents totally, so far. In addition, it has been granted 450 design registrations. Cumulatively over 1,468 patents have been filed with 435 design registrations obtained in India and overseas.
“Mahindra is one of the first companies in India to have a full-scale R&D set-up, not just in MRV but an ecosystem spread across the world,” said R Velusamy, Chief of Global Product Development. “While other OEMs offer speciality services with adjacent products, Mahindra’s speciality lies in offering niche products across a full range product portfolio. From heavy to medium commercial trucks, to pickups to UVs/SUVs, three-wheelers, and even construction equipment, catering to such a diverse segment requires robust R&D capabilities. Best-in-class fuel efficiency, technology-packed features, imposing personality, longevity, driver refinement, industry best safety and highest value for money are just some ways our mobility solutions are ahead of the curve,” added Velusamy.
It is also increasingly focused on enhancing its design capabilities. Indian consumers are as design and style conscious as their western counterparts. Design as a differentiator is today a major area of endeavour. Mahindra went on to develop a global design ecosystem between MRV, Mahindra Design Studio in Kandivali, Pininfarina in Italy, MNATC in USA, and its latest addition to the list is Mahindra Advanced Design Europe (M.A.D.E.).
From merely 50 engineers dedicated to R&D in 1993, MRV grew to 3,800 engineers. MRV is the hub of a global neural network for auto and farm in the UK, US (Detroit and Virginia), Italy, Finland, Turkey and Japan. It is today an institution that can compete with the best anywhere is the world.
“In order to achieve excellence, our effort has been to create subject matter experts. This expertise leads to better understanding of the customer requirements on one side and connecting technology to meet these customer’s requirements,” said Vivek Gupta, Senior VP Global Product Development. “This promotes innovation, which is much more meaningful and easily adoptable by customers.”
The priority given to R&D and product development by the Mahindra Group reflects in its budget. In FY20 alone, Mahindra’s spend on R&D was INR 2,975 crore, which is around 6.3 per cent of the FY20 revenues. This is among the highest in the Indian corporate sector. The R&D spending percentage increased significantly in the areas ranging from safety to developing new technologies, to meeting new environmental regulations.
MRV was inaugurated in 2011 by President Abdul Kalam. As he was being shown around the premises, he pointed to a hill just outside the boundaries of the property and said, “Take the hill!” He repeated, emphatically, “Take the hill!”
Anand Mahindra didn’t quite understand at that time what President Kalam meant by this enigmatic utterance. But, as he says, “When I reflected on it, I realised that his words were an advice always to look higher and beyond your original ideas.” Inspiring words indeed. Words that will drive MRV, to always aspire to 'Take the Hill'.
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