Raising the Bar on Manufacturing Skills in Developing Countries


By Benedict Bahner, ASME Public Information

In this special interview with ME Today, Sabarinath C. Nair, an education and skills development advocate and founder and CEO of Skillveri Training Solutions in India, discusses the need for early career engineers in developing countries — and India, specifically — to develop a proficiency in manufacturing, and how the use of training simulators can help meet this need. Skillveri Training Solutions is a start-up that was incubated at the Rural Technology & Business Incubator (RTBI) of the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras (IIT-M). In 2012, the company, which specializes in simulators for hands-on vocational skills training, created a simulator that has become India’s most successful simulator for welding training. Nair, the winner of India’s National Innovations for Skills Challenge 2014, received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kerala and an MBA from Great Lakes Institute of Management, both in India.

ME Today: Are early career engineers in India and developing countries particularly lacking in manufacturing skills?
Nair: Aside from countries that are heavily into manufacturing — such as China, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, and Thailand — most countries today do very little manufacturing on their own, and are outsourcing it to these countries instead. Therefore, except for learning some theory, most young engineers haven’t had the chance to handle real-life situations. There are some opportunities for young engineers in manufacturing in India, for instance, but the opportunities are very few in the context of India's size and GDP.

ME Today: Has there been an upswing in the number of manufacturing operations in developing countries versus more established nations?
Nair: As each country gets established as a manufacturing destination, the costs get higher, and this presents other upcoming countries with an opportunity to pitch themselves as a preferred destination. The same way China lured away manufacturing operations from the United States, India, with 800 million people under the age of 35, is now looking at grabbing the market. However, unlike an established country like Korea, where 96% of working population gets formal vocational training, India has this number at less than 3%. So scaling up skills development is a critical factor to succeeding in this objective. Most developing nations have a relatively younger population, which needs to be meaningfully employed. This is best met by opportunities in a robust manufacturing sector.

ME Today: Why is that?
Nair: On one hand, the larger population by itself provides a sizeable market to sell the product to, which is currently being met by imports. Specific to India, the government’s new National Manufacturing Policy, launched in 2014, aims to increase the share of manufacturing in the country’s GDP from 16% to 25% by 2022, and establish India as a major force in such sectors as aerospace, shipping, IT hardware and electronics, telecommunication equipment, defense equipment, and solar energy. In addition, creating jobs in the manufacturing sector is considered to have a multiplier effect on other sectors. Every job created in the manufacturing sector is believed to lead to the creation of two or three additional jobs in related activities, due to linkages in the supply chain.

ME Today: Is government funding for vocational training going to individuals who wish to study these skills or to companies who wish to train their employees? How much of the funding goes to simulator-based training?
Nair: Government funding is primarily aimed at the individuals where anyone acquiring a vocational skill is paid a stipend. Through recent policies, like the new manufacturing initiative, manufacturing companies are incentivized through tax concessions for their investment in skills training. At the moment, there is very little funding for simulator-based vocational training in India and almost all of the training is done through conventional methods. There are simulators available for a few trades, most notably flight training, but also sship handling, medical skills, process control and nuclear power plant operations. However, I see a lot of scope for simulators in manufacturing skills involving psychomotor dexterity, which have to be practiced correctly, and can’t be learned by merely watching YouTube videos. These would include skills such as welding, industrial spray painting, machinist, drilling, crane operator, and fork-lift operator. There’s still a very large market out there to capture.
The value of the simulator comes from the fact that it is able to give corrections during practice as well as very detailed analysis after the practice on aspects that can’t be seen or measured in a real physical scenario. From our experience of using simulators at training institutes as well as industrial shop floors, those who have used a simulator-integrated training have performed significantly better than those who used only the conventional methods. But simulator training in hands-on vocational skills can’t be a complete replacement of actual physical practice. It is best delivered as a prelude to or in combination with physical practice.

ME Today: Where do young engineers acquire this simulator training: at a university, at work or at private training centers after graduation?
Nair: Today, it happens in a mix of all three — leading universities offer simulator-based training, some engineers go to private training centers, and some receive it at in-house training centers. Currently only a handful of universities in India have such facilities. At the moment, the majority of the students at universities without these facilities will have to pay on their own to take short training programs from private training centers.

But that will begin to change. In the next two years, I see a quicker ramp up of adoption. Many universities are followers of trends rather than trend setters, so the increased adoption by the leading universities will lead to a tipping point, where simulator-integrated training becomes the norm rather than the exception – due to its benefits of offering better quality training and being environmentally friendly and less wasteful with regard to materials and power. This, in turn, will lead to a more well-rounded education for engineering students, as well as better prospects for graduates who pursue careers in manufacturing.