Academia-Industry Collaboration: Imperative For Fast-Changing Auto Industry

Guest Commentary May 2018 Academia-Industry Collaboration BML Munjal University
Academia-Industry Collaboration: Imperative For Fast-Changing Auto Industry

BS SATYANARAYANA is Vice Chancellor at BML Munjal University

 

The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Competitiveness Index 2017-2018, which puts India at 40th place in a list of 138 nations, also ranks us at 26th on the index of industry-university collaboration on R&D. China is at number 28, while Switzerland, US, Israel, and Finland occupy the top four ranks. According to the Centre for Technology, Innovation and Economic Research (CTIER), “Industry-Academia research collaborations in India are dismally low, as indicated by collaboration output statistics. Collaboration in patenting is 0.4 % of the total volume of patents in India…”

Putting this in context of the 2013 World Bank observation that “collaboration between academia and industry is increasingly a critical component of efficient national innovation systems”, the undeniable link between innovation and collaboration is absolutely clear.

For the automotive sector, which grew at 14.41 % year-on-year between April-February 2017-18 to 26,402,671 vehicles and is now fast moving to e-mobility adoption and other environment friendly modes, disruption caused by innovation has arrived like an uninvited guest.

A VIABLE ECOSYSTEM

Today, there are about 2,500-odd colleges teaching electrical, communications, and mechanical engineering in India, and about 300 which teach automobile engineering. With the future in the automobile industry most likely to be all electric or at the very least hybrid, the country will need to drastically ramp up the quality and quantity of professionals to address this imminent explosive demand. The best way to do this is through collaboration between the academia and the industry, to further R&D efforts and create a suitable, relevant, and viable ecosystem for meeting the e-mobility market dynamics squarely.

With conventional components and conventional tools to integrate and apply the EV sub-systems giving way to altogether new devices and practices, change like never before is going to come to all aspects of automobile design – be they related to sensors, electronic control systems, power and battery management, material design, and so on. In fact, the potential of growth and therefore of commercial success is substantial in each of these factors. As a case in point, the auto electronics industry alone is estimated to reach $ 400 bn by 2024!

ADAPTIVE NECESSITY FOR INDIA

The first step towards self-sufficiency is specific-ness. The industry and the academia need to come together and work on what best suits the Indian market. Each collaborating party needs to approach the issue by keeping the other’s concerns and challenges in mind. For effective and marketable products to hit the roads, the absolute essential is the creation of an integrated ecosystem, where the many components of the next generation of vehicles enable a market to survive and prosper. This is where innovation will be effective. And, effective innovation will only emerge if the business and academic cultures together promote a multi-disciplinary approach. India has to do tremendous work in order to create an integrated ecosystem. Other developed nations have done much here, many global companies have benefited and grown as a result of participating in these re-constructions. It is high time that we in India also move ahead and claim the glory of change.

As a pre-requisite, industry-academia alignments will have to be looked at as a mission mode for skilling and R&D both. There is a compelling and huge need for professionals who can employ, deploy, adapt, and customise the best global technology for the Indian conditions. For example, R&D is of vital relevance as far as local road conditions are concerned in India. The vehicle control systems for drivers will be different and so will the components – mechanical or electrical, or any other. Hence, what needs to be done to adapt an EV suspension for India, as an illustration, will be different to what needs to be done in the same case in Japan or in Australia, or in China. No blind adaptations will work.

I believe that the automobile and all allied industries have to come together to create 15-20 functional blocks – roads, charging infrastructure, materials and components, distribution and storage, etc., to create a streamlined ecosystem and thus, in doing so in a shared manner come together to generically create a broad area of cooperation.

The relevance of industry-academia collaboration is also strongly reflected in the curricula development as far as the colleges and universities are concerned. By the time a new course is taught, a new tech comes in and the skill sets become obsolete. It is for this reason that in other advanced countries professional forums create curriculum and also provide accreditation mandates to education institutes. In India, unfortunately and for reasons best left alone at this point, we blindly follow many American professional-body norms. Consequently, MNCs only do implementation adaptation for the Indian market, while actual innovations happen elsewhere.

This has to change in favour of India and this is where the collaborations will deliver results. Also, we must keep in mind that any collaborative programme must keep the focus on fundamentals, on the student’s understanding of the key functional blocks of the new domains, and a direction on the new technologies, which have to be brought to bear together on the next generation solutions.

THE CHALLENGE FOR ACADEMIA: INTEGRATION

We must also look at the areas of improvement and change within academia to endure that both collaborating parties at least have the basics of their own house in order before embarking on this important journey. As we know, in any vehicle design, numerous sub-systems exist and have to be integrated. These range from ergonomics, design, safety, transmission, powertrain, control electronics, battery, power management, and many more. No single branch of engineering teaches us all these things.

Also, it is a sad fact of the Indian engineering education system that on one hand, electrical engineering is subject insular in most colleges, mechanical engineering students are not taught the basics of electrical engineering! Material science, the heart of automobile R&D, is not taught in any university in engineering.

A new engineer has to be able to work in a multi-disciplinary domain by translating his skills and knowledge for innovation and implementation. We do not want technicians, we need empowered and educated engineers. For me, an engineer is somebody who can design – this is the absolute essential. For this integration to work, we need to change the fact that most courses are taught independently of others. I have found that electronic embedded systems are merely touched upon in engineering colleges and instrumentation has become a very small minor subject. In fact, this is not taught in electrical and communication engineering streams at all. Everything is soon going to be electrically or electronically controlled.

For effective collaborative success with industry, embedded systems and instrumentation have to be part of the new electrical engineering curriculum. Many such modifications will need to be done in other courses as well to make inter-disciplinary engineering education work. Most of the times we create a new programme of study just for the sake of change but without enough focus on fundamentals.

THE ROADMAP

It is important that the auto industry as a whole look at adaptation and not blind substitution. A roadmap and a plan are very important commencement factors. We must cease following an external, global agenda and work towards creating our own goals, our own standards, and our own customisations. We must be prepared, for instance, to deal in modified composites, as this is where EV material is evolving to for reasons of its being lightweight, providing great insulation, and for good safety and charge storage properties. It is important that skilling and novel idea generation happen in parallel. Innovation emerges from the top and works out at the ground level. Industry and academia are two sides of the same coin. It’s high time they began working as one.