“When our factory in China ran out of production space, we were looking for options with best cost as well as availability of high quality talent. I think India fits very well into that description. So yes, the Indian operations are important in GKN’s global scheme of things.”
April 2022: Niranjan Mudholkar, Editorial Director, Pro MFG Media, caught up with Maarten Durville, Site Director, GKN Fokker Elmo India, for an exclusive conversation at the organization’s Chakan Site in Pune
Tell us about the GKN Fokker Elmo India site.
We make wire harnesses for commercial aeroplanes at this site. A wire harness basically connects either data or electricity inside aeroplanes. This site was officially opened in December 2019 and we currently serve three customers from here: Boeing, Airbus and Collins Aerospace.
What kind of engagement do you have with the customers from this site?
The primary engagement happens only through our central team in the Netherlands. We do have some basic interaction here. For example, as Boeing has a pretty big establishment in India, we are connected with their supplier quality manager from here. The same holds for Airbus and Collins Aerospace. But the official contractual contacts go via the Netherlands.
What is the biggest challenge that you face as the Site Director?
Well, the biggest challenge is to bring out a cultural transformation. In fact, I would say that the challenge is actually to establish the culture or the DNA of the organization. We are a young organization at this site and the beginning, to a large extent, basically defines the DNA for years to come. It involves different things. How do we interact with each other? What kind of organization do we want to be? If you look at our shop floor, you will realise that our procurement team, our planning team, our manufacturing engineering team and our quality team are right on the shop floor sitting very close with the operations team. They are not sitting in offices far away. We put these people in one place so that they can together run their line. This ensures that the central team is really the backbone of the organisation. That is one of the ways that we are trying to establish a culture where results matter and teamwork is stimulated.
I observed that the shop floor has a majority of women. Does it have something to do with the cultural strategy of the organization?
While we do believe in encouraging diversity and inclusion at the workplace as an organization, cultural strategy would be a big term to use in this case. Having more women on our shop floor is more to do with their superior fine motor skills that are required for the kind of products that they manufacture. It’s about mechanical skills and hand-eye coordination. Also, it is a positive way to basically stimulate women participation in the workplace. At the same time, we think that it’s an advantage to find these young talented women from Maharashtra and give them a chance in education and a way to support themselves. Tomorrow, even if they marry and they have to go home, they have still learnt a number of skills, which they can always use. Of course, I hope that they will marry and continue working with us even if they take some time off to have children. We are also trying to ensure and establish a way of working that makes it possible for them to come back and to remain independent by earning their own income.
You started the operations in December 2019 and the pandemic struck very soon after that. How did you manage things during the pandemic and in the post pandemic period?
Basically, we had just started production and then we had to stop it because of the pandemic. Our priority was to ensure that everybody was safe. Well, none of us knew anything about this Covid. It had a big impact, because we had to stop production as our customers too had stopped their production. So we tried to make the best use of that time by preparing for the next phase. The pandemic set us back by almost nine months. When we restarted again, the production was to be shipped out to customers. But we used the time very well in terms of project management.
You see, we are manufacturing products here that we were previously manufacturing in China and those were transferred here. That made it a bit more difficult due to the pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, our teams including the operators had travelled to China for practical training. Of course, post the pandemic, travel was not possible. So we set up video links with high tech and high definition cameras here on the shop floor so that our team could learn and train further. The idea was to learn by showing to our sister plant in China what we were doing and then getting their feedback. So that’s what we did in this period; we prepared for the transfers and to make sure that we could guarantee the quality to our customers. In fact, we also did some pioneering work in terms of audit. Airbus had never done a remote audit before and they did it for the first time with us. It was really intensive but when we look back at it, it gives us a very proud feeling.
GKN is a globally major player in the aerospace segment. How do you analyse the India operations in GKN’s overall global scheme of things?
There are several things that come to my mind. The first one I see is that the importance of Indian aerospace is growing. The airline companies from India are growing very rapidly and they will only continue to grow because the number of people who can afford air travel is growing. The pandemic will be just a small dip in the big increase. As a result, the market becomes more interesting for the big players like Airbus and Boeing in commercial aerospace. In fact, even for the smaller players. So the importance of Indian aerospace is growing. Our customers are very much trying to engage with the government and with the local players. They need to demonstrate that they are producing and sourcing locally. And we are part of that move. So our customers are really happy that we are here and that we provide jobs locally.
Secondly, when our factory in China ran out of production space, we were looking for options with best cost as well as availability of high quality talent. I think India fits very well into that description. So yes, the Indian operations are important in GKN’s global scheme of things.
Given this potential that you just talked about, do you see GKN further expanding its footprint in India, both in terms of products as well as geographical spread?
As of now, I know of no such plans. However, I would not be surprised if that happens in future. It makes sense if you look at some of the advantages that India offers in terms of the market growth, talent availability, manufacturing costs, and good English speaking employees. In fact, English is a major advantage when it comes to India. For example, we have some fantastic factories in China and Turkey but the English there is not as widespread and easy spoken on the shopfloor as it is here. Also, the level of education in India is really good. In fact, Pune is known for being an educational hub. It is also a manufacturing hub, which originally is very much automotive driven, but also has some aerospace. Then, you have the aerospace cluster in Bengaluru, as well. So there is quite some knowledge and experience with the industry. And it is important to have that kind of an ecosystem to feed off on where everybody benefits.