As they say, looks can often be misleading. At first glance, the Engineering and Research Centre (ERC) inside the Tata Motors' factory in Pimpri doesn't seem to be the kind of place where great ideas are born.
The paint on the walls is a dull shade of blue and white, the same colour as the uniform that employees sport, there are helmets strewn all over the place, the window panes in the visitors' toilets are broken and the chairs in the long boardroom are anything but comfortable. To the untrained eye, everything about the place seems practical and mundane.
But then a casual visitor to the plant may not quite know this: The ERC is the nerve-centre of the biggest research and development effort that any Indian corporation has mounted in recent times.
Today, the company has about 5,500 people working in R&D spread across India and the rest of the world. At any given point in time, there are several R&D projects going on both at the company and inside many global universities, different start-up companies, and different vendor partners that Tata has collaborated with across the US, Europe and India.
The plethora of work is astounding: From electric vehicles, fuel cells, engine development, hybrid technology to battery research or even simple things like a remote-controlled door opening device or boot lid or a smart starter motor or just a glass winding mechanism that's more efficient.
So there's an electric car undergoing field trials on the streets in the UK. An electric version of the Ace commercial vehicle is also on trial. A parallel hybrid bus trial is now on in Mumbai, plus a fuel cell bus that was debuted as a concept at the Auto Expo in January. Work is also on to meet new Indian emission norms like BS IV and BS V.
The acquisition of Jaguar Land Rover was a game-changer in this technology game. In early 2011, Ratan Tata spoke about Tata Motors and Jaguar and Land Rover cooperating for an engine development programme in the company's annual report.
The goal is "to optimise the synergetic strengths between JLR and Tata Motors in India" he had said. These would be smaller displacement engines that could be used both by Tata Motors and JLR. Take the case of the 5-litre engine developed by Jaguar engineers, considered to be one of the best of its kind.
Yet, a 5-litre engine is not exactly the future. JLR needs smaller displacement engines which comply with tighter emission norms. So does Tata Motors. For the past one year, engineers from both JLR and Tata Motors have been working on these new engines.
No other Indian car maker has gone this distance to develop research and development capabilities. Mahindra and Mahindra has made a start with its 1,200-man R&D centre in Chennai. But it focussed only on utility vehicles, whereas Tata aspires to be a full-line auto firm with global footprint.
Market leader Maruti-Suzuki is looking to open its own research centre in India in two years' time, after depending on parent Suzuki for nearly three decades.