All the world is looking at India. With heavyweights like Ikea, GE, Apple and Panasonic investing in manufacturing here, the potential of post-liberalization India is becoming more and more apparent. The launch of programmes, such as Make in India, have only served to strengthen the conviction that India can indeed become the fifth largest manufacturing country in the world by the end of 2020. The government is also keen to grow manufacturing’s share of the GDP to 25% by 2022.

Yet achieving this sustained growth is a complex business, because the manufacturing landscape in India is exactly that – complex. Its sheer diversity and many contradictions are revealed by a mere scratch of the surface: the mingling of making practices; mix of greenfield and brownfield projects; the low-cost manufacturing clusters that struggle against pressure for increased wages; and the pull of the potential of its 1.3 billion people circumscribed by major productivity gaps. What lies further beneath the surface is even more baffling.

The supply chain is shaped by invisible hands

Several external but seemingly unpredictable factors affect the manufacturing supply chain in India. Great market volatility, shifting demand patterns, bottlenecks in infrastructure and transportation, and the inability to structure the supply chain network to optimize sales and excise tax, impede its efficiencies.

Manufacturers struggling to mitigate the impact of these deterrents are compelled to increase their raw material and finished goods inventory across the value chain. The ‘month-end skew’ is another unfortunate outcome: lacking the supply chain efficiencies to pace their manufacturing output evenly, these makers often end up pushing a greater part of their finished goods to the market in the latter part of the month to meet their sales targets. This significantly increases channel inventory on the supplier’s side, through the plant process stream, all the way to dealers, their stocks, and so piles up unnecessary costs.

The making is still a black box

We have two kinds of factories in India. The first are those that have been set up by the big boys with parent companies abroad and are mature and automated. As a result, their plants in India use the same template and have a certain degree of maturity in terms of process and systems.

The second kind of factory refers to another set of companies – greater in number - that have grown from the ground up and still have several legacy systems to deal with. Their product lifecycle management and manufacturing execution systems are largely non-standard and unpredictable. They must undergo a transformation whereby every aspect of their making process becomes visible, every part and ingredient that goes into the manufacturing procedure becomes traceable, and the state of every machine that participates in the process is known, so that the quality of the manufacturing output might be influenced. It’s a mostly analogue world and sometimes even internet connectivity remains unreliable.

A labourer works inside the manufacturing unit of iron parts at a factory on the outskirts of Kolkata, India, September 11, 2015. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri/File Photo   GLOBAL BUSINESS WEEK AHEAD PACKAGE - SEARCH
A labourer works inside the manufacturing unit of iron parts at a factory on the outskirts of Kolkata
Image: REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

People need to be able to learn

While India has a large working-age population, finding skilled manpower in adequate numbers is still a herculean task. Companies often end up spending disproportionately to retrain their workforce.

For manufacturers to be able to make new complex products or even to improve the quality of existing products workers must learn new skills. Managers of these outfits need to learn to apply technologies and manage processes that they previously could not. Because people must undertake this learning as fast as possible in order to compete, policy-makers and implementers must learn to create conditions that nurture this process.

‘Komorebi’ can occur only when the physical meets the cyber

Komorebi is a word the Japanese have for when sunlight filters through the trees and brings light into dense darkness in a beautiful interplay between the light and the leaves. That’s the exact impact the Fourth Industrial Revolution can have on the Indian manufacturing sector.

When manufacturing operates at the interplay of cybersystems throwing light that filters through physical systems to make the landscape more visible, the supply chain will become more transparent, the manufacturing process and units more visible (and therefore more available for orchestration), even as people grow to be more productive and purposeful.

Digital monitoring of physical processes through sensor-based technologies, an industrial application of the Internet of Things (IoT) and data analytics will lead to fact-based decision-making that will, in turn, be executed as a matter of routine by automatons. People can be trained and repurposed to monitor and manage these systems, while also directing their new-found productivity into tasks that can only be executed with human intelligence, such as imagining new products that must be manufactured to solve new kinds of problems.

For us Indians, this path is not an entirely unfamiliar one. Our system integrators already work extensively with IoT, software and digitization. Our mathematical talent and analytical skills are globally acknowledged. We have done this before – in fact, we’ve worked closely with Acatech as they created a Fourth Industrial Revolution maturity assessment index that helps organizations systematically grade their readiness for this revolution, in terms of resources, information systems, organizational structure, and organizational culture, against six inter-connected maturity levels that include computerization, connectivity, visibility, transparency, predictability, and adaptability.

We must now apply what we’ve learned to our manufacturing sector and swiftly make the right investments in the right infrastructure so we might bring the benefits of the Fourth Industrial Revolution to everything India makes – from safety pins to supersonic jets.

When you think about it, there isn’t a precise word in English that exactly translates komorebi. But to my mind, in many ways, the Fourth Industrial Revolution comes close. Really close.