The enigma of Indian engineering

Discussion in 'Economy & Infrastructure' started by Singh, Jul 15, 2012.

  1. Singh

    Singh Phat Cat Administrator

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    A narrow education is making engineers oblivious to the importance of human interaction and raising the cost of even simple tasks


    My time in South Asia has rewarded me with an enigma: why is engineering so expensive here? Why is it often many times more expensive than in Australia, my home?

    My search for answers led me to shanty towns on the fringes of mega-cities. We compared an award winning Indian factory making car parts for Detroit and Stuttgart with a leading Australian factory supplying parts for the mining industry. My Indian PhD student spent months with engineers in both countries, broadening his focus to water utility engineers and small to medium engineering firms. His knowledge of local dialects and customs was critical.

    He related a typical meeting. A young engineer quietly reported zero production from the machines in his production cell. His manager asked why but he remained silent. Both knew the reason. The machine operators were newly hired day-labourers because the previous ones had exceeded their 180-day limit. Other engineers said their machines were still not fixed by the maintenance crews. The manager sighed: he would have to raise it with his boss later. Direct authority from the plant manager would be needed to move the maintenance head into action.

    Daily struggle

    Discussions with water utility engineers revealed their daily struggle to coordinate valve operators who turn on water for an hour at a time every two days in different wards in their city district. Their mobile numbers are well known in the district: the more influential residents will call them at any time of the day with complaints or requests. They have to personally “twist arms” of recalcitrant customers to get them to pay bills, or have their sewerage line blocked at the same time as the water is disconnected. “That usually makes them pay up quicker,” they told us. Sewerage seeps from tens of thousands of such broken and half repaired connections into the scheme water lines.

    At a government school in the city outskirts, the principal showed me the smelly green water dribbling from the pipe into a below-ground tank. With no toilet or usable water, the children and staff left after a couple of hours. I glanced at the forest of antennas atop the brand-new mobile phone tower I could see beyond the school wall.

    Today, mobiles are everywhere in South Asia and can cost less than 1 cent per minute for talk time.

    Villagers on the Rawalpindi outskirts told me they had paid up to Rs. 50,000 to install their own wells with hand pumps. Before I helped install an electric pump at their high school, ironically called “Thanda Pani”, the children had to carry water in buckets for up to an hour a day just to use the toilets.

    To understand why villagers would pay so much for a hand pump, I turned to development economics. The ‘shadow price’ cost of unpaid labour can predict the economic cost for women to carry water from nearby wells or district water taps. Rs. 13 per hour doesn’t sound like much. Yet, a one hour round trip to carry home an average of 17 litres of water, often with extra time and fuel to boil it, results in a bulk water cost of about Rs. 1200 per tonne. Today, ultra-clean potable water is being delivered to my house in Perth at a total cost of about Rs. 80 per tonne.

    I have checked, rechecked and double checked my data because I was so surprised at this difference. No matter which method you use — a hand pump, bribing government carriers to bring water when you need it, buying it in 20 litre plastic containers — safe drinking water is many times the cost in Perth.

    Energy also costs many times more. With intermittent supplies, one needs a UPS or generator to run electrical equipment reliably. In addition, electric machines are usually inefficient and poorly maintained so it can be four-five times as expensive to achieve the same results as in Australia. Bulk users like steel plants have reported to me that they face twice the electric energy cost of their competitors in industrialised countries.

    How could South Asian electricity and water services be so expensive and phones so cheap?

    Could corruption explain this? Reliable sources estimate the additional cost at 15-25 per cent. However Australia is not immune: dishonest behaviour imposes significant extra costs there as well.

    There had to be other factors.

    First-hand experience employing local engineers in South Asia taught me to recalibrate Australian performance expectations, even though they had degrees from the best foreign and local universities. This led me to the possibility that differences in engineering practice are a major contributing factor, the ways that engineers perform their work.

    My research ran into an unexpected snag. When I started, there were almost no detailed research reports on engineering practice, anywhere. To cover this gap, my students and I interviewed and shadowed engineers across the region. Now we have some answers.

    Many people think engineering is applied science. It works the same in Perth, Pune, Paris or Pocheon: you will get the same results from the same experiments.

    However, engineering is much more than applied science. Engineering is a coordinated social performance of many people with the technical expertise distributed among them, like an orchestra. Social interactions constrain the results just as the strength of steel limits the height of our tallest buildings.

    In South Asia, hierarchical organisations, language differences, and deep social chasms disrupt the performance. For instance, artisans will only speak when asked, and will keep silent if speaking means loss of face for superiors.

    It turns out that engineering education, around the world, is almost blind to the realities of practice. We found 40 other critical aspects that educators inadvertently miss or misrepresent. As a result, young engineers seem oblivious to the subtleties needed to coordinate people and their education seems to impair their ability to learn. It turns out that skills like this distinguish the few truly expert engineers.

    It is no surprise, therefore, that most young engineers stumble into their first jobs, often feeling incompetent. There is no point blaming educators: it is just an accident that only a tiny number of research studies have tried to work out how engineering is actually done.

    A few expert South Asian engineers have overcome these education barriers, and they earn salaries higher than their counterparts in Australia. This is no surprise: they make their enterprises work. Sadly, most young Indian engineers never have a chance to learn their unwritten skills. Even though students in Australian engineering schools learn equally few practical skills, there are enough experienced engineers in most firms for young engineers to emulate.

    In Australia, a copious water supply and sanitation takes around 2 per cent of the economic resources of a family. In South Asia, barely enough potable water to survive can take 20-40 per cent of a family’s economic resources. Effective engineering in Australia accounts for much of the difference.

    Therefore, it is not the lack of money that influences national poverty as ineffective engineering that imposes crippling high costs for water, energy and other essential services. Good engineering liberates human effort for social developments such as governance, healthcare, education, social services and even recreation.

    Mobile phone revolution

    The mobile phone revolution has transformed expensive, corrupt, inefficient government monopolies with appalling service into thriving, profitable enterprises providing high quality service at minimal cost, around the world. India is no exception.

    Although we can’t be sure, there seem to be some key human factors. First, mobile technology increases investor confidence: people can’t steal the service without paying. The phone won’t work without a pre-paid card or reliable credit. Second, the technology provides reliable and efficient ways to collect a vast number of small payments and reassures users that their credit will be secure. Third, the social chasms between engineers and the technicians who work with the equipment are easier to surmount than in the case of water and electricity. Fourth, the saving in time, measured as an economic value, more than makes up for the cost for users.

    Success has come from human factors invisible to most engineers, inadvertently blinded by their education.

    I think the next engineering revolution will be based on understanding people. We have come quite far with rather little understanding among engineers: just a little more could lead to large improvements. A new engineering revolution could consign poverty to history, and also enable us to live within the capacity of this planet to support human civilisation. It needs to come soon.

    The Hindu : Opinion / Lead : The enigma of Indian engineering
     
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  3. panduranghari

    panduranghari Senior Member Senior Member

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    Nice article.

    Here is another interesting take.

    Gurgaons of the mind - Indian Express Mobile

    Just to quote

     
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  4. balai_c

    balai_c Regular Member

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    There had been a thread on BR forums focusing on this exact dilemma, called the Industrial development & the evolution of military aviation, it highlights the intense pain India had to go through to create it's first wave of engineers. This post in particular is very germane to the topic being discussed:


    I could post the entire post, but that would be wrong. I am sending the link, please go through it, it would be specially useful for the resident whiners.

    The link: Industrial development & the evolution of military aviation

    Long story short, India had a 9 to 10 percent literacy rate compared to the current rate of 74 percent, as released by the 2011 census. And yes, by literacy rate I mean you typical anghutha chaap literacy. How can you even improve your quality of engineers, when there were no engineers to start with before the beginning of the year 2000? We have that luxury today thanks to your run-of-the-mills engineering colleges who have produced an entire army of engineers, with some level of engineering training. We can re-train them , improve their overall quality. But if there are no engineers to begin with how can you improve anything? Apparently this point is lost on everybody. Indian engineering industry can today chug along because of the massive surplus of engineers. This was the situation everywhere. Today's Oxford, Harvard, Yale , MIT took many centuries of tireless improvement to be where they are today. Let us give them the time!As Shiv Shastry mentioned to the above quoted post, India had missed more than 200 years of industrial revolution. If people expect us to just pick up our socks, and pace to the front, they are living in a fools paradise!!
     
  5. Energon

    Energon DFI stars Stars and Ambassadors

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    This is actually a fantastic thread and topic worthy of much discussion and debate. I don't know why it's in this section of the forum. I'll hopefully add something to it when I get the chance
     
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  6. roma

    roma NRI in Europe Senior Member

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    honestly - compared to china ?? Indian engineering is good ?? huh ??
     
  7. Known_Unknown

    Known_Unknown Devil's Advocate Stars and Ambassadors

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    Puhleez!! We, the "resident whiners" don't compare ourselves with the US or UK or USSR, but with China! China was in even worse shape in 1947. Not only did they have ZERO industry, just like India, but they were waging a civil war! China only had a viable government in 1949.....until the 1970's China had lower per capita income than India. Today's it's 4x that of India!

    Compare the ocean of filth that is an Indian city with the glimmering futuristic cities of China!

    The problem is not "resident whiners" like us who complain, but perennial underachievers like the person who posted that article who are satisfied with third-class performance and don't care about demanding more from themselves and others!!
     
    Last edited: Jul 20, 2012
  8. balai_c

    balai_c Regular Member

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    The resident whiners never provide any constructive proposals to improve the conditions , they always complain-like an overspoilt child. True critics always have empathy-they assess the situation keeping in mind the past, and present a path forward that is best suited for that society(or country). That is the difference between snooty critics who would never lift a finger to improve the condition, or present a path forward , and true visionary and leaders like vikram sarabhai, homi bhaba, or their modern successors apj abdul kalam; and from private industry luminaries like walchand hirachand, or the great J R D Tata, who is their pioneer behind Indian steel industry led from the front, and change the moribund, that is a much hard thing to do. It does not take much labor to type away a one's frustration and annoyace in front of a keyboard like a cyber crusader, but much harder to effect the changes on ground. True visionaries take the less beaten path , that's what India's pioneers have done. Without what we have today, the question would not even arise. That what I have presented in my previous post-a glimpse of India's past.


    As far as the comparison with China has appeared, yes there had indeed been pockets of excellence there. Peking University indeed is world class. But the hoopla around the apparent chinese "excellence" is indeed that-craze. Chinese construction quality is riddled with questionable standards, shoddy practises, examples of which have been aplenty in this very forum. So let's not fall for that shall we? While I am indeed partly defending India here, it is not that I do not want improvement. I do. But for that we need concrete ideas, not mindless vituperation. We have seen plenty of that in this forum.
     
    Last edited: Jul 20, 2012
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  9. roma

    roma NRI in Europe Senior Member

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    very well stated , sir - the comparison with china is in better perspective
     
    Last edited: Jul 20, 2012
  10. Known_Unknown

    Known_Unknown Devil's Advocate Stars and Ambassadors

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    My comment wasn't about you, but the person from BR who posted those paragraphs. Not everyone can be a visionary, but when the vast majority of Indians are either dishonest, lazy, devoid of work ethic or pride in their country, a devoted minority can only do so much! Like it has been said, "Sau mein se assi beimaan phir bhi mera desh mahaan!" (80 out of 100 are corrupt, yet my country is the best!).

    For countries to rise up, the people of that country need to have pride in their history and determination to succeed at any cost. In India, the vast majority of politicians are content with looting the country....the same feudal approach that the maharajahs and princely rulers had. So India will never get ahead and never become a global power.

    The smart ones like me realize this, and instead of banging our heads against the wall, decide to pack up and leave to better our lives abroad.

    You can criticize China all you like (and I do too, for those things that should be criticized), but the truth is, in terms of engineering, the Chinese have left India far far behind. Chinese industry is extremely broad based, and they design and manufacture everything from computer components to telecommunications equipment to heavy machinery. Indian engineering has neither the depth nor the breadth of Chinese engineering. We should accept this and learn from the Chinese rather than single out their failures and point fingers at them. That won't help us at all, and won't halt their progress in any way.
     
  11. balai_c

    balai_c Regular Member

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    Now, lets get to the meat and potato of this arguement, shall we? The project at hand is to improve the quality of India's engineering education. The question every lay person would ask is - what is engineering. This is the question I also shared when I first stepped into the realm of engineering. Well, as far as I have understood engineering is the science of making and manipulating things, be it physical objects or in any other sense. So, we have iron and steel industry, mining industry, petrochemicals industry- all requiring an indepth understanding both the theoritical understanding of the science involved and the hands on understanding of the techniques and technologies involved in the creation of intended product. At the moment, there are many engineering colleges in India, dutifully churning out graduates in massive quantities. The common complain coming from their prospective employers are that they lack hands on training, and the nitty-grities of current technology. How do we improve the situation?

    Well, this is my humble advice, TIFWIW:

    Indian education emphasizes rote learning. While rote learning is indeed useful in the early stages of one's career, religious obsession of it at later stages is dangerous. Engineering can be learnt only by doing. Let's take a simple example. All little boys love to make paper aeroplanes. Let's ask them to create as many shapes as possible, and ask them to make them fly. Some will fly , some will crash to the ground. Now, some of them will ask you- why those shapes failed to be airborne. That is the golden moment. This will lead them straight to the question -why things fly. This is how man first learnt to fly. People always say-failure is the piller of success. This old proverb is manifested in the history of technology. Early history of aviation is littered with countless examples of crashes, death of test pilots- but those failures did not deter the pioneers from giving up, otherwise we will not be enjoying the fruits of their labors.Israel is often called the start up nation. It has possibly the highest number of start up companies in the world. Do most of those succeed? Hell no! Only a handful will survive. But the survivers will be Industry giants like IAI, Rafael , and many others. That is the prime element of the point I am trying to advocate: we cannot be afraid of failures. Setbacks are the very lifeblood of the development of technology.

    Today in India the only institution remotely connected behind the development of technology is DRDO. Yet every time there is a semblence of a setback, any drawback people pounce on it like a pack of hungy wolves. This attitude comes from the tradition of risk avoidance embedded in the Indian society. Failure is bad, and the eternal-"Log Kya Kahenge?". This culture is the natural instinct of self preservation, prevalant since the British Raj era. It has served it's purpose. But right now, it is time to jettison this practise to the annals of history, and move on!
     
  12. balai_c

    balai_c Regular Member

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    This tradition of risk aversion is not just in common Indians, but also business communities , those who build factories ,as well as patrons of engineering colleges. Let's ask ourselves, what would it take to build the next big technology-things that will change the face of technology? That's how big ideas are conceived-you have to think big! The most common gratuitous advice thrown around , in order to improve engineering education is - stress on practical oriented education should be increased. Now, let us ponder, how can we do that? Syllabus of most engineering universities focusses on theoritical concepts. While practical sections do exist, they are mostly an eyewash, more like a mindless chore. Unfortunately engineering is learnt only by doing, not by seeing! The way out would be- massive investment in practical education (laboratories,instruments,facilities), reduction in teacher student ratio. And another important thing to do is industry tie ups. This would help bridge the gap between what the college provides, and what the industry demands, along with much deeper bond between the stakeholders concerned. However, this would require the college finaciers to loosen their purse strings a bit, and take a look at the bigger picture- they are not just churning out students like finished products in a factory floor, but potential industrialists, institution and industry builders.

    Indian industry also have role in this. They are the recipient of this entire enterprise. So, part of the onus rests on them too. This country's industry captains are known for their aversion to R&D. Companies like AT&T Bell laboratories, IBM, Kodak single handedly built the entire telecom industry, along with countless basic technology. To be like them they will have to walk the talk. That would involve tie ups with research departments of reputed universities, mentoring PHD scholars, grooming manpower- a job that till now had been the preserve of institutions of DRDO et al.Exceptions do indeed exist- TATA POWER is a great exemplar among private companies. But overall quality has a lot to be desired.
     
    Last edited: Jul 20, 2012
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  13. Dinesh_Kumar

    Dinesh_Kumar Regular Member

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    Really good and thought provoking stuff here in this thread. Keep it up guys.
     
  14. trackwhack

    trackwhack Tihar Jail Banned

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    Indian engineering is pathetic because the best indian engineers dont work in india.
     
  15. Singh

    Singh Phat Cat Administrator

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    I will give my own example.

    Most of the Indian companies demand cheap prices at acceptable quality levels, unless its very specific application. And copying a leaf out of Apple, they engineer planned obsolescence.

    One of my customers was taken over by an European Company, and now they demand Quality over Price. They prefer dealing with Indians esp during product development phase because they need quality. For Mass production (using automation) they prefer China.
     
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  16. Dinesh_Kumar

    Dinesh_Kumar Regular Member

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    If China offers such good cost advantages, it is profitable to source from them. However, Design and Manufacturing skills should be kept in-house. Japanese companies import most of their raw materials, but can still give competitive priced products. Their main skills are in areas like Kaizen, Lean Manufacturing, Value Engineering, Continuous Improvement, etc.
     
  17. W.G.Ewald

    W.G.Ewald Defence Professionals/ DFI member of 2 Defence Professionals

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    What incentive would keep them in India?

    Also. do the best Indian engineers study in India or elsewhere?
     
  18. TrueSpirit

    TrueSpirit Senior Member Senior Member

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    For undergraduate studies (10+2+4), it is invariably India. For the next level (graduate/masters), they prefer US & sometimes Germany/France.
     
  19. roma

    roma NRI in Europe Senior Member

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    looking at the lead article - most of the issues and problems raised are in the field of management rather than engineering

    so the title would more accurately read - the enigma of Indian engineering management

    the reason why i would prefer such a title instead, is because it links to the other areas of life in india for which the common theme , namely management - is equally pathetic ,or should we say , equally enigmatic ! :namaste:
     
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  20. TrueSpirit

    TrueSpirit Senior Member Senior Member

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    In my personal experience, almost all MNC's & major Indian conglomerates operating in India have absorbed, implemented & successfully integrated the above mentioned best practices: Kaizen, Lean Manufacturing, Value Engineering, Continuous Improvement etc. In fact, these have been primary focus since more than a decade.
     
  21. TrueSpirit

    TrueSpirit Senior Member Senior Member

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    Couldn't agree more with this assertion. Nice observation. Even today, Indian project management skills are not considered the best in the world. Instead, it is reckoned to be somewhat below-par to West (I mean, this is popular perception across neutral job-markets). The perception still dominating top head-hunters (talent-acquisition orgs.) is that while Indians are invariably superlative when it comesindividual performance, they lack something when it comes to big project-management teams.

    However, they are more than enough examples to the contrary, world-over.
     

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