Role of Private Companies in Analysis and Design Services in India in Aerospace and Defense
The current situation presents the approach for collaborative R&D to relieve the managerial manpower from studying technologies in different domains. TRLs are used to explain where the company should use its own manpower and where it should outsource the R&D to experts.
In Aerospace and Defense (A&D), R&D enables achievement of an organization’s / program’s strategic objectives most, compared to any other sector. Developing a technology, though very important, is one of the several steps in its commercialization. Present paper restricts itself to discussions on technology readiness level with sole emphasis on how and by whom technology can be improved. Technology Readiness Levels (TRL) from 1 to 9, with 1 being most basic to 9 being proven, have been documented in white paper by NASA. Other readiness levels like manufacturing readiness level, business readiness level and customer readiness level are not addressed in this paper though they are equally important.
Phases of Technology
It is clear that TRL 1 and TRL 2, with a focus on basic research and efforts to assess the potential in a technology, can mostly be funded by Government. In aerospace, Aeronautical Research & Development Board (ARDB) has been on the forefront and funding these activities. The board has been producing adequate man-power capable of carrying out fundamental research for exploring ideas in basic and advanced fields. Improving TRL 5 to TRL 9 needs to be fully funded by industry, because by definition, even TRL 5 talks about “Component and/or breadboard validation in relevant environment”. Naturally, any other organization other than in-house R&D cannot take this job.
Therefore interesting discussion is possible about the onus on improving technology TRL 3 to TRL 5. Industry finds it difficult to conduct this activity in-house, because managing and monitoring this R&D is not immediately beneficial to its products and projects. Attempts to measure the success gets riddled with complexities such as inappropriateness of individual’s/group’s background with the project requirements, incompleteness vis-a-vis design requirement, high implementation cost, lack of clarity on quantity / quality of data, etc. Measuring and monitoring performance boils down to number of reports and publications, this may result in loss of control on judgment and the future returns. Scarce techno-managerial resource can rarely be diverted to such activity as they will be involved in revenue generating activities.
It is in this context, that small R&D companies have a role to play. They can focus on the industry’s requirements with immediate ROI as there is a ready customer. The risk undertaken is manageable as basic principles have been understood and experimented. Design and especially analysis does not require capital investment. Being small the technology developers double up as managers that increases customer focus and decreases monitoring overhead of large manpower. Involvement of industry in such projects is limited only to the review of progress. This relieves the techno-managers from the fears of losing out on the next big thing while they concentrate on product development.
Small technology firms can identify technologies at TRL 3 level and produce technologies at TRL 5 level. Work given to these small technology development houses by large industrial firms is usually on project basis making the monitoring easier. The risk of technology enhancement becoming a long drawn project if undertaken by in-house R&D is suitably taken care of. The smaller organization has incentive to finish the ‘project’ and move on to other technology. This collaborative development approach between the small technology firms and industry leads to commercialization at much lower cost, within tight time frames and also without distracting the in-house R&D centre from its broader goal. Responsibility of choosing the right partner however remains a challenge but a proper selection can lead to significant savings and competitive advantage.
The Way Forward
The belief in industry about this collaborative approach has to be strengthened and there can be various programs for doing so. USA has successfully implemented Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) program and various technologies are now coming to market due to these small and innovative companies. There is no reason why this model cannot be replicated in India. The SBIR funding must come from the government and some part of it has to be earmarked by the industry in relation to defence and aerospace supplies they make. Authors believe that the troika of Academic institutes at TRL 1 and 2, Small technology firms from TRL 3 to 5 and industry at proven technology level can bring innovative products in markets faster and cheaper.