A talk by former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam in 1991 as head of Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) on the need to reduce import dependence for components required in the aeronautical industry changed the focus of R. Sundaram’s industrial unit in Salem, Tamil Nadu.
“During an aviation seminar in Bangalore, Kalam stated that more than 80 per cent of the aeronautical components required by the industry are being imported. That meeting influenced me to take up aeronautical components production,” says Sundaram, managing director of Tamil Nadu-based Aerospace Engineers Pvt Ltd, a Rs 30 crore turnover company which is in the process of setting up a second unit with a British company as joint venture partner.
Declining to reveal the partner for the expansion, Sundaram says the joint venture, which is being registered in Texas, will involve setting up an assembly unit and help in penetrating the US market. The company, which is the 2014 winner of the central government’s innovation award in the micro and small enterprises category, is targeting raising the turnover to Rs 100 crore over the next few years. Sundaram was among 34 entrepreneurs who received the award this week from the prime minister for innovation and quality products across various categories of the MSMEs (Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises), which are major employment generators and foreign exchange earners through exports.
Today, Indian Air Force fighter aircraft like the MiG-21 and the MiG-27 are equipped with the Aerospace Engineers Pvt Ltd cockpit seal.
The MSMEs’ share in manufacturing is currently 45 per cent while it accounts for 40 per cent of the overall exports. The share of components and products supplied by nearly 6,000 MSMEs to the defence sector, whether government or private sector units, has risen from nine per cent to nearly 15 per cent with the rise in private sector participation, according to official data. In value terms also, from Rs 40,000 crore in 2014, it is expected to reach Rs 52,000 crore in the current year.
A diploma holder in polymer science and rubber technology, and a graduate in mechanical engineering, Sundaram is a first-generation entrepreneur who started his Salem based industrial unit after five years of work experience. Initially, his unit produced components for state-owned companies like BHEL, NTPC and ONGC. But the shift to aeronautical components production has changed his clientele.
Sundaram’s plans for aeronautical and defence components production took shape with the help of the state-owned Hindustan Aeronautical Ltd (HAL) and the DRDO. It took him four years to learn the procedure for developing new product base in coordination with airworthiness authorities like the Centre for Military Airworthiness and Certification, the Directorate General of Aeronautical Quality Assurance, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation and HAL, as also the DRDO. It was only in 1996, after over two years of work, that Sundaram was able to successfully develop the cockpit rubber seal for the Kiran fighter aircraft.
The first fighter plane fitted with the indigenously made cockpit seal was initially test operated by Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma in 2001. The cockpit seal is critical where high-impact resistance is needed, such as in cockpit windows and canopies. It helps maintain the cabin pressure while the aircraft is airborne, and during touchdown. Today, fighter aircraft like the MiG-21 and the MiG-27 are equipped with the Aerospace cockpit seal.
“The HAL has helped us learn and grow. Since 1999, we have developed several products for HAL. We started with rubbers, but are now making high precision metallic components along with lubrication pumps for the Dhruv helicopter, light utility helicopters, and hydraulic and engine components,” states 52-year-old Sundaram.
Sundaram, who is completely at home travelling by public transport including the metro in the capital, says his company is currently manufacturing composite components for the Brahmos, Akash, Agni and Long-Range Surface-to-Air missiles, and also vibration isolators for ISRO. The first enterprise to be set up in the Salem Aeropark, Aerospace Engineers is also associated with the hydraulic systems for the RLVTD or reusable launch vehicle of ISRO, which was demonstrated earlier this year. The company also supplies components like air-conditioning units, lighting, wheels, brakes, etc for civilian aircraft.
Out of the 13,000 parts designed and manufactured by Aerospace Engineers, it has DRDO approval for 1,900 products for use in military and civil aircraft and missiles. It is also working with ISRO on plans to produce rocket components within the country. With the government permitting private sector participation, including foreign investment in defence equipment production, Aerospace Engineers is now also working with several private players including the Tatas, L&T, Godrej and Wipro for their civilian aircraft, and with companies like Reliance and ADAG on their defence equipment manufacturing projects. “My dream is that India should be self-reliant and be able to produce all aircraft and defence components within the country, in keeping with the prime minister’s schemes of ‘Make in India’ and ‘Zero Defect, Zero Effect,’” he says.
Youngest of six siblings, Sundaram is the only one not to have opted for the security of a government job, choosing to be an entrepreneur instead. Besides Kalam, Sundaram considers Dr A. Sivathanu Pillai, a leading scientist and managing director of Brahmos Aerospace, and Dr K. Tamilmani, former director-general of DRDO’s Aeronautical Systems, as his role models.
“It is a tough industry for survival so you have to continuously upgrade. Since we are a small company, I am able to focus more on technical aspects. We supply more than 30-35 per cent of the non-metallic components for the aviation industry, which were earlier being imported,” says Sundaram, who is proud that though there are bigger defence and aviation component making companies, none is fully focused on the aviation sector.
The biggest strength of the company, according to Sundaram, is his team of 60 bright engineers, mostly from rural backgrounds, and technicians trained from ITIs and diploma holders. Having benefited from HAL and DRDO’s guidance, Sundaram, in turn, takes time to mentor college youngsters. He believes in following government regulations to the hilt, including employment of women, who constitute one-third of his 200 strong workforce. Taking note of a recent call by his district collector urging companies to give jobs to transgenders, Sundaram has plans to employ 10 people of the third gender.
Though happy that there are many takeover offers for his company, Sundaram is not ready to give up the reins. “There is a lot of interest to acquire our company but I only want to sell technology and products but not the company,” says Sundaram, who is fine with remaining in the small enterprises category or at the most graduating to a mid-segment enterprise by 2020, when he is hopeful of his daughter and son-in-law, both aeronautical engineers working in the UK, joining his business. He is also hopeful that his second daughter, who is in the process of completing company secretaryship, may also join the business at some point.
At the moment, though, he continues to focus on further enhancing his technical capability in his firm belief that “innovation is the mantra for success”.