Automobile industry

Three Japanese words help Maruti Suzuki strike a balance between robots and humans

Kitanai (dirty), Kiken (dangerous) and Kitsui (difficult) sum up the carmaker’s philosophy for deploying machines instead of men.

For 16 hours every day, a serpentine production line coiled inside a 600-acre facility in Manesar shapes and slots steel, rubber, and plastic into shiny new Maruti Suzuki cars.

The largest facility of India’s biggest carmaker, some 55 m away from New Delhi, works at a prodigious pace. Amid a somewhat dystopian industrial township of glass-fronted buildings, boxy manufacturing units and dusty sidewalks, this sprawling factory typically spits out 3,100 cars in 960 minutes daily. The rate of over three vehicles every minute helps Maruti Suzuki, majority owned by Japan’s Suzuki Motor Corp, maintain its control over 47% of India’s passenger car market.

Inside the factory’s cavernous hangers, some 7,000 workers and 1,100 robots work in tandem. Around noon at the welding shop, where steel beaten into various automotive shapes is hauled in, there is a constant whirring of yellow robots fusing disparate pieces into the familiar frame of a car. Sparks fly as the robotics welding arms hit the metal, the action unfolding safely enclosed within secure pens. An array of green and orange lights blink intermittently, signalling to a handful of yellow-helmeted operators who watch over carefully.

At one point in the production process, some 20 half-built car bodies in a straight line are worked on by 250 robots, providing a display of robotic gymnastics that can prove bewildering to the untrained eye. But there is a method to the madness.

The company’s underlying philosophy for deploying robots instead of humans in certain operations is outlined by three Japanese terms, or the 3K, explains PK Roy, Maruti Suzuki’s senior vice president for the Manesar plant.

Kitanai (Dirty)

Kiken (Dangerous)

Kitsui (Difficult)

Once used to describe jobs that were shunned by Japan’s native workforce and usually taken over by immigrant workers, 3K has been adapted by Maruti Suzuki as the yardstick to decide where robots will replace human workers. “The idea is that where ever we have 3K operations, we will use robots,” said Roy. “It is practically impossible for a human to do that job consistently.”

Line ’em up. (Credit: Maruti Suzuki)
Line ’em up. (Credit: Maruti Suzuki)

At the weld shop of the carmarker, for instance, robots are gaining ground, especially as the company uses higher volumes of high-tensile steel in its vehicles. To cut and weld these thinner and tougher steel sheets into car bodies, Maruti Suzuki is deploying smaller, faster and more flexible robots. With 10,000 tonnes of steel consumed by the Manesar facility, the volumes involved are not insignificant. At the paint shop, too, the machines have taken over. And every one of them is imported.

Yet, there are large swathes of the Manesar factory where humans are simply irreplaceable – right now, and for the foreseeable future. On the stretch of the assembly line where doors are fitted on car bodies, young, uniformed men work in an unerring flow. As an endless procession of car bodies move along a conveyer belt, one worker reaches out to grab a backdoor fixed on a rig. In under a minute, he manoeuvres the rig to the right spot, pulls the door out, plonks himself on the back seat, fits the door into the body, tightens everything up and then steps out to prepare for the next car.

“Typically, where judgement is required, where the eye or some kind of sensing is required, we can’t use robots,” said Roy. “Delicate work needs hands.”

From seats belt to air-conditioners and light fittings to exterior trims, Maruti Suzuki can’t help but rely on experienced workers who can get the job done precisely and quickly. And as cars for Indian customers become laden with an ever increasing list of features, Roy reckons that a factory like Manesar will probably need more hands, not less. “In 1983, for example, we were predominantly producing non-AC Maruti 800s. But now, today all the cars have this as a standard feature,” he said. “If you add more features, you need more people to do assembly.”

At a time when automation seems poised to threaten millions of jobs in India, especially in the labour-intensive manufacturing sector, Roy’s prognosis is upbeat. It is also one that analysts agree with. “The content in a car is steadily increasing and we need a higher number of people to assemble the car as the production line would have a higher number of stops,” said Deepesh Rathore of Emerging Markets Automotive Advisors, a Gurugram-headquartered consultancy. “Looking across the supply chain [original equipment manufacturers and suppliers], I actually feel that the labour force would increase.”

For now, the current 3K-based formula for balancing machines and mortals is delivering the goods for Maruti Suzuki. The assembly lines at the Manesar plant work at 98% efficiency, which means that for every 480-minute shift, the company can afford a stoppage of only around nine minutes. For the workmen at the factory, that can be quite a pace to maintain. For the robots, it’s probably just good vibrations.

This article first appeared on Quartz.

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.