Companies providing engineering services play a key role in OEMs’ and suppliers’ product development cycles. While most of these companies offer services to a number of industries, Satyam Venture Engineering Services (Satven) is a leading global player servicing automotive customers exclusively. Satven’s clientele currently consists of 75 active customers worldwide, including nine of the top 10 global OEMs and nine of top 20 automotive Tier-1 suppliers. We spoke to Rao S Vadlamudi, CEO, Satven, who took us through the complete product design and development environment, along with developments in the engineering services space.
Rao has held the position of CEO since the inception of the company. He holds a Masters Degree in Manufacturing (CAD/CAM) from the US and has over 26 years of experience in the automotive industry. He has strong experience in technical management of a CAD/CAM company, automotive tooling industry and Information Technology. In his previous role, he was the Vice President at Venture Global Engineering LLC, playing a key role in corporate business planning and development. He was instrumental in setting up the joint venture between Venture and Satyam. Established in the year 2000, Satven is a 50:50 joint venture between Satyam Computers Services Ltd, India (now Tech Mahindra), and Venture Global Engineering. It was set up to provide engineering solutions exclusively for the automotive industry worldwide. Satven adds to its Product Engineering solutions with Product Development, Manufacturing Engineering, CAE, Engineering Support Services, Mechatronics and Digital Manufacturing solutions.
ATR _ How does Satven help in improving overall product development activities?
Rao _ The main purpose of our business is to reduce the product development time, and also cost. For this, the company has a flexible business model, with teams present in customer locations (onsite), along with our own engineering centres near customer locations, as well as offshore models where the workforce operates out of India and carries out various engineering activities. These teams work concurrently to provide product development solutions for customers that result in reducing turnaround time. Satven supports customers’ global programmes, where engineering takes place in Detroit and supported by their locations that are usually in China, Germany, Australia or the UK.
Please tell us about the automotive megatrends that are require reduced development times and reduced costs?
At present, our major customers, as well as the industry are looking towards driverless cars or autonomous driving. The philosophy of one of our customers, which we are also following strongly, is in ‘creating intelligent mechanical systems.’ We are a mechanical engineering company, but we want to bring intelligence to mechanical systems. This can help a system see what’s happening on the road, then simulate the necessary scenarios using embedded software, and finally react accordingly through mechanical systems like actuators. For mechanical systems to see obstacles on the road, you need sensors, and to think, there is a need for algorithms and embedded software.
The industry is trending mostly towards two trends – zero emissions and zero accidents. These are the two areas where we want to support customers in line with the upcoming megatrends that we see in the future. While going emission-free can be achieved through the development of electric vehicles along with lightweighting, the accident-free aspect can be achieved only with a lot of knowledge gathering and processing. This is where the role of autonomous driving systems comes into play, with the need for intelligent mechanical systems. This is also a reason for Satven starting its mechatronics practice in the form of a mechatronics laboratory, where the company has transitioned from a traditional mechanical engineering services provider to one offering mechatronics solutions. We have software engineers working closely with our customers on embedded software and mechatronics.
Satven has also taken the initiative of Digital Manufacturing services, where we help customers in the manufacturing side using digitalisation. Traditionally, manufacturing has been carried out manually with experience with regards to the design of the assembly line and workflow studies. But now, with third-party software tools, the entire factory floor is simulated for workflow automation. This is a fairly new area of venture for the company, with its biggest project in Digital Manufacturing being for a large American OEM which has its older manufacturing facility in Chennai. This plant in Chennai houses over 100 engineers from Satven that focus exclusively on manufacturing engineering.
Another trend that is being seen in the industry, which is more relevant to the area of product development, is the use of model-based development (MBD) for mechanical engineering in the simulation side. Traditionally, product development has been a sequential process, but with model-based development (MBD) you can carry out processes in parallel. This enables the process of testing and simulation to be advanced early on in development, so that the cycle time and required manpower can be reduced. For this, Satven recently signed a long-term partnership with the Hiroshima University in Japan for the use of MBD in the area of simulation.
How has the increased use of electronics changed the process of development of components and vehicle models?
We see that electronics started becoming a major part of the automobile in the early 2000s, with the advent of entertainment systems, followed by the vision of safety systems that also rely heavily on electronics. Earlier, safety systems were passive in nature, meaning a safety reaction was activated after a collision had occurred. At present times, suppliers and OEMs are looking at offering active safety systems to customers that help detect an accident and act to avoid the collision. These systems are now connected to electronics, embedded software and mechatronics, and that’s the reason more R&D budgets are being spent towards electronics.
What kind of collaborations do you foresee in the industry, and how do you see these partnerships helping the parties involved?
One area where collaboration will take place in the engineering space is with regards to software development services. For an engineering services company like us, we can actively collaborate with them to develop tools that are necessary for achieving the objective of reducing the product development cycle time. In fact, this is one of the company’s long term strategy and Satven is working extensively with a Professor from the London School of Economics in building a three-box strategy plan for the company. The first box is for short-term period of up to 12 months, where the focus is on operational excellence, followed by the medium term strategy covering a period of 1-3 years that focuses on the search for growth. The third box involves the long-term strategy covering the 4-10 years period, towards creating the future.
We also want to tie up with software companies to reduce the time taken to perform repetitive manual tasks. While software tools are automated, there is still further scope for improvement of these systems. Just as in the case of the IT sector where testing is carried out in an automated form with the necessity for fewer testing engineers, a similar form of automation can be adopted for engineering service. In a small way, Satven has already begun such work internally, with a small team focussed on writing macros and other scripts that help in reducing the design or calculation time. For example, we used to take about 1,000 hours for meshing in simulation but with scripting it now takes only about 100 hours. We are currently looking for a right partner in helping us set up such solutions in a larger scale.
Could you tell us about the state of affairs with regards to the collaboration between the industry, academia and government in terms of automobile product design?
Satven is working more towards offering solutions for global OEMs and suppliers at their captive centres, since that talent is available in India, especially in the areas of embedded software and mechanical engineering services. I am very positive that we can use this talent for our own vehicle development programmes in India also.
However, we are lagging in offering courses in engineering colleges with automotive design-focussed curriculum, like those offered in the US and Germany. We need to develop courses that offer more curriculums in growing automobile areas such as mechatronics and embedded software. Additionally, from the perspective of the industry, companies also need to take an active role in promoting the newer upcoming technologies.
What are your views on new manufacturing technologies like additive manufacturing and 3D printing?
The automotive industry is segregated into volume-based vehicles, and niche, special-purpose vehicles. The latter, as well as prototype-making could make use of new technologies like 3D printing. However, volume-based products will continue to be manufactured using traditional manufacturing techniques. However, a few components, especially those that are small in size can be explored for 3D printing. But I am not so sure about the cost versus benefit equation for these new manufacturing technologies when compared to traditional manufacturing processes at this point of time.
What is the growth roadmap for Satven?
The company has been debt-free and profitable for the last 17 years, even when there were times of volatility in the industry globally. Our growth plan is to achieve at least 15 % organic growth per year, and we want to de-risk our business by expanding in all three regions of automotive presence – North America, Europe and APAC. Within APAC, we are focussing at increasing our share of business from China and Japan. Additionally, as part of de-risking the business, we want to increase our services and technologies in areas like mechatronics and digital manufacturing, to generate revenue. We aim to have 25 % of revenues coming from these new services and technologies in the next three years.
TEXT& PHOTO: Naveen Arul