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Tata group cannot afford not to be disruptive: Gopichand Katragadda

Interview with CTO, Tata Sons

Raghu Krishnan & Bibhu Ranjan Mishra  |  Bengaluru 

Gopichand Katragadda

In one year since taking over as chief technology officer at Tata Sons, Gopichand Katragadda has identified four areas – energy, precision agriculture, consumer electronics and factory and fleet digitisation and may take up three more. “Seven is ideal number to get my attention, my team and Cyrus (Mistry),” says Katragadda, a former GE veteran, who was brought into the role by the chairman, to bring in innovation in the Tata Group. He is preparing the group for the merger of “Physical, digital and social” that is disrupting traditional businesses.

“I am finding the speed is much quicker than I thought. So, I can move fast. The decisions are quite quick. And I am enjoying that,” said Katragadda on the pace of change in the Tata Group in an interview with Raghu Krishnan and Bibhu Ranjan as he completes a year in office. Edited Excerpts:

Tata do similar research work. Is there any duplication?

Be it in a Tata Group-like structure or even in one listed fcompany with multiple subsidiaries, at a particular size, you will have some amount of duplication. It is okay to have a little overlap but not significant overlap. At a group level, we ensure collaboration is required, there is healthy competition, and teams should come together as required. So there is virtual collaboration and physical colocation. It is like a consortium approach, and in some cases there is competition which will enhance both the parties.

How does virtual collaboration and physical co-location work?

In fuel cells, Tata Chemicals is working with Tata Motors, both in India and the UK, and the Indian Institute of Science. So far, I have not seen them physically co-locate. I have one person who is bringing all of them together periodically to have a single strategy.

In precision agriculture, Rallis is the market-facing organisation. They have provided individuals, along with people from TCS and Tata Communications, who are working together along with external collaborators to deliver a solution.

Tata Group traditionally has vast in-house expertise? Are you looking t external setups and startups for building solutions?

Innovation is happening in smaller setups. Maybe the articulation also is not as vociferous as we would in terms of external collaboration, which I think it has been there in the past. IISc was set up in collaboration with the Tatas; there is Tata MIT centre to look at India side of problems from the Tata Trust. Where we are working now at a group level is to be collaborating on a commercially needed innovation.

We are in the process of identifying external partners. Like smaller which might have capability in drones. I do not want to rebuild them. I might just leverage their capability.

Use of drones in agriculture?

Yes, we are using in precision agriculture. We are already doing pilots. In September, we are looking at how best to do pesticide delivery with minimum use of water and pesticide with the same effectiveness.

Right now we are working with the regulators because the regulations are not (yet) in place. The thought process is to pilot it in Gangavati (Karnataka), it is closer (to Bengaluru) and also a significant base for Rallis.

So, if you are saying you will partner with the maker. You have built capability to effectively deliver the pesticide?

That is the focus of my team. What should be the size of the payload? How do you design the nozzles to effectively disburse the pesticides? How much wind tolerance should the have? From what height should the be at in order to deliver the pesticide? All those system level things are also part of our development. The regulators (DGCA) are working on the regulation. They want to enable the regulations which in a financial standpoint and from a nation building standpoint is important. Food security is an issue and we have the lowest yield per hectare of crop. And hence something we need to leverage technology to further our outputs.

And any other projects that you are piloting now?

Wearables for factory floor workers. It goes with the Tata philosophy for safety on our shopfloor and interest in our workers safety. But it also gives me a unique angle of developing a wearable which will be much more than any wearable in the market commercially. Because the needs in the factory floor are much more than any need anybody has.

Once I do that, I can bring it into the commercial world and productize which will be more featured than any existing wearable.

You will launch it through Titan?


Which are the other areas you are working on?

We are working on a fuel cell project. Graphene is an interesting material, first talked about in 2004. But the breakthrough came in 2009-10. has developed a low-cost option to develop it that will provide the ability to translate it into many other applications in protection coating, corrosion prevention, touch-screen monitors, and fuel cells.

Also, in the area of energy, look at reuse of output by products of Tata power or Things like fly ash, energy slag. The next is food. TCS has delivered advice in to farmers though Mkrishi. When to harvest, what is the coming weather, so on so forth. The idea is to productise service, so that it can be a commercial model, which then will receive much more energise it more used across the country. The idea is that farmers pay a fee for arbitrage. So currently, they are paying for fertilisers, pesticides and labour. Safety is an issue, (and it is) safer to use automated technology.

In factory and fleet analytics, this would be in the largely with Tata Motors. I am working with Tata Motors leadership, looking how we drive the next level of innovation

There are new app-based transport aggregated models such as Ola and Uber and such as Google are building automated cars, how would it impact the future of transportation in the Indian context?

In the Indian context, we need to prioritise a few things. One is we need to reduce the number of vehicles on the roads. It is not acceptable; it is not good for the environment. If you are standing in the traffic, if you are stuck and spewing co2 in the atmosphere. The priority is to reduce the number of vehicles on the roads. The way we get there is, multi-modality, there is no need for freight to go on the road, unless it is in the last mile.

There needs to be a better way of sending freight from one place to another. Public transportation should be much more convenient. Right now it is not in that frequency and also it is not convenient.

And, discussions on Uber and other models should encourage shared transportation. With all these models, we will be able to reduce the number of vehicles on our roads, which is critical need for us in India.

In cities, the cultural aspects that are aiding these are— the Gen Y is ok not owning a car. They can wait not owning a car before they buy a good car.

Are you planning to use these technologies?

We have spent a significant amount of time focusing on areas we need to work on. We will not be able to share. We are actively engaged.

Considering that we have a large installed capacity to make cars in this part of the world? And considering that Gen Y is comfortable not owning a car, what could happen to all those existing models that such as yours and others would have built?

Everybody has to disrupt themselves, including Tata Motors. The challenge is that if we are in the business of making cars and buses, how are we saying we will reduce the number of vehicles and still be profitable. You can, because the world is shifting in terms of where money is made. The physical versus the digital versus the social. If you think about it, since you are asking general question.

I can only talk about our team and not Tata Motors. I talk on technology side very freely. The way I think about the future. Even in digital and digitisation, what is the difference. In 1996, I was digitising, in those days, digitising the way the data is collected, the way data operators were looking at data. I started in the gas industry, and then power plants, digitisation is not new. The reason why it is taking off at this point of time, it is a merger of physical and digital, but also of the social.

I will give you an example. I used recently. Of course the physical is somebody’s home and the digital is the ability to connect with the owner, plan your trip on short duration. I am going tomorrow a city, place; the social comes in of your interaction with the owner. In some cases, you are staying with the owner, in some cases, anyways you are staying at his home with his family artifacts and you are learning a new culture. Similarly, Uber model in addition model, the digital and app, the people who are driving car for you are  not taxi drivers, they are housewives, students, in developed markets. The developed markets are where you are seeing these cultural shifts. In both these examples, you rate the driver who drove you or the place you stayed, and they get to rate you also, in your circle; they also get to see this in your social circle. The social impact is so strong, that is the reason why these are taking off. In all our models, we need to look at physical, the digital and social and that is where we are heading towards.

You think that model is being replicated, increased acceptance in India?

In some cases, more so. For e.g.: truck drivers, how can you think about social with fleet owners and or with truck drivers. I think it is needed more (here), with better engagement, training and conversations amongst themselves.

The conventional transportation model is individual driven, more of family oriented, than the model you are saying?

That is what I say. We need to disrupt all the models that exist there. And technologies that exist there. Because you agree with me. We cannot accept this situation. We are at 400 parts per million (PPM) Co2, consistently, previously it used to come and go in few regions. We cannot afford not to be disruptive. We are way behind sustainability. I think, we are not even thinking.

It is not acceptable for a person to take 45 minutes drive 3 kms stretch in Bengaluru. I cannot even walk because there are no footpaths and the pollution is high.

Is a $2.5 billion research budget adequate for the Tata Group?

I would like this to be more broad-based. Today, the bulk of the R&D budget is in mechanical systems from Tata Motors;  computing and information systems from TCS and Tata Communications; and materials from and Tata Chemicals.

Where I want to distribute the money is in the in-between spaces – of mechanical systems and materials or material systems and computing, Blue Ocean spaces where there is IP to be made.

First Published: Sat, August 08 2015. 22:45 IST