It is difficult to overstate the reverence with which the Tata name is held in India. On a recent flight to Hyderabad, Flight International sat with an aerospace engineer from the subcontinent. He works for one of the top names in aircraft engines, and has had roles in international OEMs. When asked if he would work for an Indian aerospace firm, he shrugged.
“Would you work for Tata?” asked Flight.
“Ah!” he cried. “Of course I would. Everything Tata touches turns to gold.”
Tata Advanced Systems (TASL) gets its name from India’s most respected business family. Tata Sons, which owns 100% of TASL, is India’s most prolific business conglomerate. Apart from TASL, seen as a key driver of growth, Tata has interests in cars, pharmaceuticals, hotels, utilities, steel, consulting, and many other sectors. The family founded Tata Airways in 1932, although the carrier was taken over by the government after the Second World War to become Air India. Today, Tata is back in the airline business, with a 51% stake in full service airline Vistara (Singapore Airlines holds the other 49%), and 30% of AirAsia India (AirAsia holds 49% and an Indian investment firm 21%).
Though founded only nine years ago, TASL has grown to 1,800 employees across three Indian cities. It has obtained significant work packages from OEMs such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Sikorsky, Airbus, Pilatus, and Ruag. Its key aerostructures production facilities are located amid scrubby, dusty farmland an hour south of Hyderabad by car. Flight recently spent the afternoon with the company, to discuss where Tata sees itself in the Indian aerospace market and in the global supply chain.
“In India, we want to be an interesting company for the government as a key customer, and to be a partner of choice for global OEMs who are looking at India,” says chief executive Sukaran Singh. “This is our overall strategic objective. In order to undertake this, it is imperative for us to be able to provide deep value addition, and build Indian intellectual property.”
TASL’s work packages include the fuselage of the Sikorsky S-92 helicopter, the empennage of the Lockheed Martin C-130J, the aft fuselage and tail cone for the Boeing CH-47 Chinook, the wing assembly and other major work on the Pilatus PC-12, and major work on Ruag’s Dornier 228NG, for which it produces 3,000 detailed parts, as well as the fuselage, empennage, and wings. It also has component work on several other programmes, including structural work on the Cobham refuelling pods found on the Airbus Defence & Space A400M and Embraer KC-390. Pending work includes a joint venture with Boeing that will produce the AH-64 Apache fuselage.
TASL, through a joint venture with Lockheed, also has the ability to produce the centre wingbox of the C-130J. After producing 20 units as spares it has placed the tooling in storage, although it is hopeful of obtaining more wingbox work in future.
In most cases, bringing work packages to TASL involves detailed analysis of the previous manufacturer’s techniques and methodologies. Subsequently, TASL develops its own tooling and processes.
“Even if [a previous supplier] thought they knew it, they may not have captured it on paper,” says Singh. “Tribal knowledge is critical. It's never really all there, because of changes that were made and ways of working and how they did it on an everyday basis. A core part of a successful transition is having people who can interpret the language, understand the culture, and observe it carefully. In some cases the team videotaped entities before they closed shop. So, all new trainees would see that.”
C-130s by night
It is not always smooth. A TASL executive recounts that when the company was figuring out how to do wingbox work for the C-130J, it had very little time in a previous supplier’s factory to examine processes and methodologies. All it had to go on was a very rushed visit in the evening.
“That was a peculiar case,” says Singh. “We were transitioning from a company with whom Lockheed was negotiating in order to get work packages to us. We didn't have too much time with that particular case. Generally, the transitions are away from OEMs. The S-92 was transitioned from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, the C-130J from an American company. In all these different transitions there is a mixed reception. Sometimes they are co-operative, sometimes they are not very co-operative.”
To get all this done, the company has placed a premium on its workforce. One objective is obtaining international talent who can assist with processes and knowhow. TASL also places a strong focus on training factory management and production staff. The Hyderabad location features a large training centre, where staff of all levels receive months of training. To reinforce a safety culture, a guard at the school’s door asks all who enter to wear protective eyewear – even when no activity is taking place. Production staff spend months learning precision manual skills related to aerospace production. They are carefully graded and assessed and after graduation are required to take refresher courses. Given Tata’s prestige locally, TASL says it has no shortage of recruits.
The assembly halls themselves would not appear out of place in developed nations. They are well lit and immaculate. The busiest halls are for the C-130J empennage and TASL’s component production facility. The S-92 line, owing to weakness in the heavy lift helicopter segment, is somewhat quieter. The PC-12 line is busier, and the Do 228NG line is still being brought up to speed. A bustling office in one of the production halls is planning fuselage production for the AH-64 – a project that will be run by a joint venture between Boeing and TASL.
In every hall one finds notice boards detailing all aspects of production, such as customer satisfaction, defects, and Kaizan efficiency metrics.
“The Tata culture has a philosophy to learn from the best in class, so doing the Kaizan has come very naturally to us as something we should absorb,” says Singh. “Each global OEM transition also comes with a pre-packaged training programme. They always have people come, and there is a lot of learning from that. There is a skillbase for absorption and there is a push from their side to transfer. Put it all together and we have a programme management office that is centralising all the learning. So when new projects come we have an understanding of how to do it.”
Apart from getting more defence work, the company also hopes to expand into more commercial work. Singh indicates discussions have been held with Boeing for civilian workshare, but he did not want to discuss details for projects that have yet to be officially announced.
C295W work beckons
The real prize in TASL’s sights is among India’s most pressing defence requirements: an aircraft to replace the air force’s antiquated fleet of Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL)-built HS 748 Avros. New Delhi has already approved the Airbus Defence & Space C295W for the 56-aircraft requirement. Critically, the deal calls for 16 aircraft to be purchased from overseas, and 40 to be produced by a private company in India – as opposed to government-owned HAL. TASL will be the production partner for this lucrative deal.
“This will really differentiate us from anyone else in India,” says Singh. “We hope this will act as an anchor for us to get the type of capability and skillset that can then attract many other programmes.”
According to Airbus, the programme is “on schedule”, and field trials are being planned in conjunction with New Delhi.
Singh also offers insights into how private sector firms such as TASL can work alongside a government-favoured company such as HAL. He believes the advent of India’s private aerospace sector, which will benefit from the government’s “Make In India” programme, will create an “ecosystem” that will free major government firms like HAL and Bharat Electronics to pursue higher-end work and integration, as opposed to “doing everything internally.”
Looking forward, TASL hopes to do more work in areas such as design, as opposed to the “build to print” model where it makes structures and components based on a blueprint from an OEM. Another area of interest is modifying aircraft to perform special missions. Singh says there is no capability to do such modifications in India, and also no maintenance, repair and overhaul capabilities for mission-adapted aircraft. Additional growth areas for TASL include avionics and other subsystems. The company also has a thriving missile business. Commercial MRO is not out of the question, but would require changes in India's regulatory regime.
“As TASL we have an opportunity to go to all the aerospace companies in the world, especially where they have no footprint in a relatively low-cost country, and provide the same proposition we demonstrated with Lockheed and Sikorsky,” says Singh. “In that sense it's a very interesting ‘Make In India’ sweet spot.”