We live in an age where literally, anything is possible. In our lifetimes alone, we have gone to Mars (several times); electric cars have become such a success that all of us in India will be buying only electric cars from 2030 onwards; and we now have cheap and reusable rockets, where once going into space was cornered by a couple of super-powered governments.
This is truly the age of innovation, being propelled forward by businesses. If you have a solution to one of the world's big problems, you have a product. So what we're seeing now is a new sort of gold rush: one that works in everyone's favour. By bringing together breakthroughs in fields like AI, robotics, the Internet of Things, 3D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, and quantum computing; we could be looking at potential solutions for everything from clean, unlimited energy to complete recovery from spinal cord injuries.
This is being called the Fourth Industrial Revolution because of its capacity to usher in the same kind of change in our way of life, as the previous Industrial (1st), Electric (2nd) and Computing (3rd) revolutions did before.
Klaus Schwab, Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, first talked about this in an article he wrote in 2015, and insists that the future we envision, isn't far away at all. The technologies already exist, and the world is interconnected like never before, allowing for collaboration and sharing of ideas at an unprecedented rate.
And this time, we Indians have a front-row seat. The change is happening right here in our own backyard, by one of our most trusted companies: Tata Steel. Not only does its R&D function boast of over 200 highly skilled researchers, Tata Steel collaborates with over 40 institutes. At last count, it has applied for 107 patents of which 72 have been granted. In case you were wondering, that's a very impressive strike rate.
All of this comes from a culture of innovation within the organisation. It is one of the few companies in the world to boast of an Innovation Council, the main purpose of which is to generate ideas and provide support for collaborations and teams. This effort is further backed by several state of the art laboratories across disciplines: APERTA (Thermochemical Simulation), enGENE (Biotechnology Solutions), PEARL (Product Forming & Performance Research), SeFondre (Welding) and Reynolds (Mathematical Modelling). It doesn't surprise anyone that 114 new products have been launched across product lines.
It also means that Tata Steel is getting faster, smarter, more efficient and much stronger technologically, year on year. Take for instance the use of HGMS (High Gradient Magnetic Separators) and Carbon Composite Briquettes in the process of steel manufacturing: between these two changes alone, not only will the process use significantly less carbon (measured by coke rate), but will also be able to recover 50% of the runoff slime with an iron content of 63%. Think about what those numbers mean when the production of steel runs into millions of tonnes.
Or the Hisarna reactor which is going to be able to produce steel from steel scrap, and will give out concentrated CO2 as exhaust instead of the usual noxious gas mix. Taken together with carbon sequestration methods (which can be undertaken successfully as the output is just CO2), Tata Steel will be able to bring down CO2 emissions by a whopping 80%. Closer to home, Pravesh Doors and Windows promise to save millions of trees each year in wood costs and replacements, while also delivering solid value to the customer in terms of savings. And then, there are a number of industrial products that are coming out of the Kalinganagar plant that bring considerable savings and benefits to industrial consumers.
The most visible jump that Tata Steel has taken so far is in the area of new materials. Knowing its customers as well as it does, Tata Steel has forayed into new materials with the express aim of expanding the solutions it provides to its customers, beyond steel. Graphene doped plastic products for industrial use are showing a two-fold increase in life compared to existing products. This means, customers, buying these products, cut down their requirements by half. What's exciting about Graphene is its applicability: it's 100 times stronger than steel by weight, it's a great conductor of electricity, and it's transparent. The possibilities are endless, and the future is exciting. Here's an interesting fact: Indian scientists just worked out how to make magnetized graphene-based integrated circuits. If and when this becomes commercially viable, these chips are going to make our computers today, look like the ones that once ran floppy discs.
In the here and now, however, Fibre Reinforced Polymer (FRP) products are making waves in several industries and applications. From industrial bridges that take less than a week to construct and assemble, to smart electric poles that gather weather and pollution data; our industries and cities are stepping cleanly into the future, powered by FRP products. You can read more about that here (link to FRP article).
While it is culture that drives such large scale innovation at Tata Steel, what gives it a real push forward, is their digitisation effort. Today, the entire process from start to finish is digitised: Integrated Supply Chain and Logistics, Smart Asset Maintenance, Customer facing Digital Platforms, Smart Closure of Financial Accounts, Smart Procurement and Energy Management. By digitising the plants and processes, Tata Steel gathers enormous amounts of data, which is then made available for decision making as well as for identifying specific areas of improvement; all of which makes the business more agile.
By using predictive analytics, the company doesn't just maintain its assets better and drive operational and environmental efficiencies, but is also able to create more safety for the workers and reduce downtime. Customers see an improvement in output and delivery times. And of course, Tata Steel is able to set and meet, ever greater targets on waste reduction, emissions reduction and overall costs.
What makes them true to the innovation culture however, is that the people at Tata Steel don't hoard this information for themselves. There is a belief in the power of compounded knowledge: a cornerstone of the philosophy of the founders. Tata Steel works closely with the government and regulators to shape and drive policies for economic and environmental sustainability; and senior leaders dedicate a fair amount of their time to committees that engage in dialogue on issues ranging from environment, financial practices, to responsible social initiatives.
Internally, special Performance Improvement Teams from Jamshedpur, Kalinganagar and Tata Steel Europe work together to create greater synergies and capture best practices. This, in addition to annual fraternity meets where the community can swap notes on problems, achievements and solutions. This information is then funnelled outwards, to industry forums.
But what makes this effort really noteworthy, is the work Tata Steel has done in creating an ecosystem of sharing and growing knowledge between institutes, technology startups and Subject Matter Experts. Collaborative projects are undertaken between Tata Steel employees and research fellows at various universities. These projects range from emerging technologies, environment, AI, robotics to other long-term research assignments. The VAVE (Value Analysis and Value Engineering) generates awareness around effective use of materials, and disseminates the findings of simulations and modelling to the interested parties. The scientists at Tata Steel are also contributing to govt. funded programs like the Uchhatar Avishkar Yojana (UAY), while the senior leadership participates in several national-level research missions such as the Centre of Excellence in Steel Technology (CoEST, IIT Bombay) and the Advanced Manufacturing Centre at IIT Kharagpur amongst others.
Why does Tata Steel do all this? It definitely isn't cheap, and the rewards aren't always immediate. In fact, several research programs go on for years, without producing tangible breakthroughs. And then too, it shares the outcomes of these projects among the industry forums, committees and groups. Where is the advantage that Tata Steel confers on itself, in all of this?
This, right here, is the birth of a co-creation mindset. This is what the Fourth Industrial Revolution foresees: businesses, institutions and governments coming together to find solutions that work for everyone. The Fourth Industrial Revolution won't just change the way we live, but will also determine the way forward for the world economy and the future of the planet.
India is poised on the brink here. We have a unique opportunity that we are primed to succeed at: we have the biggest pool of scientists and knowledge workers on the planet, and all that brain bank is available to be put to good use. Tata Steel has set the ball rolling in steel manufacturing. It is now up to the others to pick it up and run with it in their industries. The Fourth Industrial Revolution belongs to those who can work together. The challenge is ours to accept, and the responsibility on us to make a brighter, better tomorrow.
- In collaboration with Firstpost
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