'We can help build smart cities in India'

'We can help build smart cities in India'
The Minnesota, US-based $31.82-billion 3M is probably the world’s most diversified company, bringing out an astonishing 60,000-plus products. 3M veteran Amit Laroya has been heading the company’s India operations since the past 20 months. He recently sat down with Deccan Herald’s Georgy S Thomas to share the company’s excitement to participate in the Prime Minister’s 500 cities urban renewal mission (AMRUT) and the 100 smart cities projects.

How can 3M India contribute to the urban renewal mission and smart cities projects?

We can broadly contribute in four areas. Smart transportation, public safety and security, smart grids, and smart buildings. In smart transportation, 3M India can contribute through reflective sheets, traffic signages, automated number plate reader cameras, eTolling, etc.

In public safety, 3M India can participate through our facial recognition, fingerprint identification, camera capture technologies, electronic monitoring of non-major offenders through bracelets, etc. In smart grids, 3M India has unique products in the net metering space for solar panels. In smart buildings, 3M India has offerings like films to reduce UV covering area, innovations like Daylight Tubular Guidance System, etc. If you walk into any of the airports in India, all the scanners at the emigration counters are from 3M. If you get your Aadhaar card done, the biometric readers, the fingerprint and retina scanners, are all from 3M. So it is a space where we are already present.

Have you taken any concrete steps towards getting involved in these projects?

We are talking to two-three city governments. As of now, cities are trying to understand from companies like us about the practical solutions that we can bring to the table. Some cities may want to convert their concepts into test sites.

Maybe we would be asked to give demonstrations. After evaluation, select concepts would be taken to the project or tendering process. We haven’t reached that stage right now.

3M is a giant globally. But your revenues in India were only Rs 1,840 crore last year. Why aren’t you contributing more?

The answer is pretty simple. 3M has been in India for more than 25 years. But we could grow only when the customers and markets in India became ready for 3M technology. We are not a producer of mass consumption products.

If you look at our growth of late (past five years), it has been very good. That is because our economy is growing, and consumer earning power has increased.

Let me give an example. Many years ago (in the early 90s) we launched an overhead projector. It cost five times more than the leading brand. And people were surprised. But the projector had some fundamental differences. Its lighting was clear and crisp. Projectors sold in India then had yellowish light, and one could not read anything.

Also, ours had no fan inside it unlike traditional projectors which created a lot of noise. Our projector even featured two bulbs. So if one of them blew a fuse, you had to just flick a switch. But we struggled to talk about the concept. We were unable to penetrate the student market but we started getting into boardrooms, where they admired its functionality.

As people understood the value, and as the ability to buy expensive things improved, the projectors started selling. So instead of one projector every month, we were selling 500-1,000 every month.   

Now no one has overhead projectors, and even schools and colleges seem to have multimedia projectors which cost up to Rs 3 lakh compared with the Rs 5,000-Rs 25,000 spent on overhead projectors before.

Could you share some of the innovations which have come out of your India R&D?

We have a large R&D presence in Bengaluru and a technical centre in Delhi. Our R&D centre is fundamentally meant for India. It so happens that some of our products end up having relevance to outside markets as well.

Our India team recently created an exciting product called Daylight Tubular Guidance System. It captures sunlight through a tube and using 3M diffuser films, spreads light evenly in the room. We launched the product a few months ago. Right now it is at factory shop floors. We will also look at exports.

Again, we supply a lot of products for OEM car manufacturing. One of them is acoustical installation, where we are the global leader. In India, we had a unique request from some customers to reduce the noise from the engine block because the engine quality is not as sophisticated. Especially in smaller cars.

You can always put a physical barrier between the engine block and the  steering and reduce the noise but the weight goes up, along with fuel consumption. You have to have light-weight, but heat-resistant acoustical material.

This is a challenge that our R&D engineers solved six-eight months ago and we launched the product in India for a few customers who have received it well. This is another product that has good application outside India.

Globally, how many products do you have?

I can never tell you on any one particular day. We typically say that we sell upwards of 60,000 products.

How many of them are offered in India?

I would say we are probably in the 6,000-odd range. We still have a large opportunity to go forward. The real question is which one is relevant to the market in India, and where does the company make money. That’s our focus now.

Isn’t 3M an unusual company to have so many products at a time when the emphasis is on companies focusing on their core competencies?

3M’s diverse products are connected by the common technology platforms they share. We globally have around 46 such platforms. To give an example, we first created microspheres (glass spheres) decades ago. Somebody decided to stick them in paint and put them inside painted signboards. They become visible at night.

With that glass sphere technology, we created the entire traffic signage business. Then of course we realised that rain water forms a layer of film on the glass, reducing visibility. So we thought of putting plastic sheeting on top to sandwich the glass beads inside so the water drains off.

That’s how reflector sheeting was created. From that glass bead technology, and the concept of reflecting backlight, we went on to create computer screen filters. So if someone asks why are we selling traffic signs and selling computer filters, the connection is our technology. We use the same technology to create different products for different applications.

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