India's insane Suzuki factories.
Numbers. Facts and figures. Data. Call them what you will, but the simple truth is that they are the only way to convey the scale of the Maruti Suzuki car-making operation in India. Fancy things like adjectives, metaphors, clever words and phrases simply won’t work. So here goes, and don’t say I didn’t warn you.
The Maruti Suzuki factory at Gurgaon in Delhi builds one car every 16 seconds. That’s 3,500 a day, some 62,500 a month. Just let that last number sink in for a second. In 2013, 750,000 cars will roll off the production line, and to build them, Suzuki will have to find 487,500 tonnes of steel. Each car leaves the factory with five litres of fuel on board, which means that the facility will slurp though 3,750,000 litres just getting the cars out the door in one year alone.
If you think those numbers are impressive, it really is just the start. There also happens to be another Maruti Suzuki factory just a 20-minute drive from Gurgaon, in a place called Manesar. This one will build 550,000 Suzukis this year. Which will need another 357,500 tonnes of steel.
And then another plant is being built in Gujarat. By 2015, this will be building 250,000 cars a year. With added capacity at the other plants too, that means Maruti Suzuki should be constructing well over 2,000,000 vehicles a year. A year. In other words, enough cars for every man, woman and child in Nepal.
But before we get too bogged down in yet more figures, some historical perspective is required, because it wasn’t always like this. Just as China ‘awoke’ in the mid Seventies, so was India freed from the state-led ideals of previous administrations by Indira Gandhi’s government of the early Eighties. She wanted to create a people’s car for the subcontinent, a car that would encourage economic growth. To that end, her government simply formed a company which then went out to try to entice a large carmaker into a partnership.
Plenty of operations were considered, but most turned the offer down, probably because it seemed like a huge effort for very little return on investment. There were other issues, too: the Indians imposed numerous constraints, and a lot of the European makers’ small hatches didn’t quite fit the bill, mainly because they were either too large, too decrepit or too posh.
Attention subsequently turned to the East, where some of the Japanese makers looked more suitable. Mitsubishi began as a strong contender, but at a meeting with the Indian government representatives, 40 Mitsubishi board members turned up to greet the four bods from Maruti, and promptly - and somewhat literally - scared the Indians off. Plus, Mitsubishi’s annual spend was higher than the entirety of the Indian government’s at the time.
But, as in all good fairy stories, there was a happy ending. Suzuki turned out to be just what the Indians were looking for - happy to invest in India, build the necessary infrastructure and take the long view. Suzuki’s cars were the right size and price point, and even the company ethos was spot-on - the Japanese didn’t even bother with frivolities like air-conditioning in their offices. And so began a marriage blessed with solidity of purpose and common outlook.
The resulting joint venture - Maruti Udyog Ltd - was born in the early Eighties. Watching the hustle and bustle of Delhi now, it’s difficult to imagine how different it must have been. In 1983, there were only 40,000 cars on the roads. There were also only three domestically produced models to choose from - the Hindustan Ambassador, the Premier Padmini and the Standard Herald. And if you wanted a car, you needed to wait two years for your order. The conservative optimism of the time is touching now, because the factory at Gurgaon was only ever meant to build 100,000 cars a year. And it was buried in the middle of a dusty field outside Delhi.
Be mightily impressed by those pioneers from Maruti Suzuki. They had to build their own power plant at Gurgaon because the local electricity supply was so unreliable, and they had to train the entire workforce from scratch. There simply wasn’t the trained labour in India at the time, so every manager had to work on the shop floor in Japan to get the necessary experience.
This historical industry is still all-encompassing at Gurgaon, because even though the plant has sprawled from those early beginnings, it’s still on the same site, a bit like a car-producing version of Heathrow. It is what I mistakenly imagine all factories in India to be like - masses of people everywhere, absolutely zero appearance of any order to anything, and yet the capability to produce literally hundreds of thousands of cars a year.
Sure, it’s got modern welding robots and massive 4,200-tonne steel presses, but there’s something charming and weirdly romantic about the sights and smells here. Walk into the engine casting plant, and you’re greeted by the relentless heat of the furnace, the odour of some really rather hot metal and the frantic noise of blokes grinding unwanted flashes from the engine blocks.
The modern plant at Manesar couldn’t be more different. Clean, spartan, roomy. Plenty of natural light filtering through the roof. Underestimate what is possible out here at your peril - there’s no room for prejudice. The new site is state-of-the-art, developing manufacturing techniques that Western manufacturers copy. The welding line is 100 per cent automated, at a cost of nearly 21 million, and the constant improvements are mind-blowing.
Each employee is encouraged to make suggestions about the way things can be enhanced. Nothing new in that - most manufacturers do the same. But the scale is the difference. One bloke (and it is mostly men) suggested shortening the battery clasp. That saves 18 pence per car. Big deal. But, overall, that has saved Maruti Suzuki a well sum.
But as I stood watching all these cars roll off the line - a tardy one every 30 seconds at Manesar - a thought struck home. Where on earth can they all be going? Because surely there’s a consequence to all this unit-intensive modern manufacturing - physical congestion.
Maruti Suzuki has 10,000 trucks on the road every day, delivering all the cars to the various dealers around the country, and the Indian infrastructure just isn’t keeping pace. I met a lot of guys from Maruti while I was out in India, and the one who looked most stressed was the transport chap at Gurgaon. Small wonder. Every day, his trucks cover 100,000 miles, which means that in two-and-a-half days, he might as well have sent a convoy to the moon.
Why don’t they use the train? Two issues here: the train network isn’t geared up for this sort of capacity. Also, the railway doesn’t go anywhere near the Gurgaon plant. It doesn’t even go to the modern Manesar factory. In China, you get the feeling that the local government would simply bulldoze a railway to the factory’s front door, but India is a democracy. And in a democracy, people get a bit shouty about losing their land to a train track.
So the road it is. And congestion is the main worry for our transport friend - with 3,500 cars a day spilling out of the Gurgaon factory, and a car park with a capacity of just 5,000, things could get sticky very quickly.
don’t worry him as much. He’s got the spare capacity to cope with losing a few
trucks, and, besides, Maruti Suzuki has got new strapping techniques. Cars used
to be held in place by a single strap; if the truck had an ‘incident’, the
likelihood would be damage to its semi-precious cargo. Now, the vehicles have
all four wheels ratchet-strapped to the truck, so that even if the lorry turns
over, the cars are still preserved because they just hang there. Which is an
odd way of making something positive out of a negative, but hey-ho.
Driving around in a Maruti Suzuki Alto 800, I can’t say I share the transport bloke’s easily worn Gallic shrug about the risk of accidents in India. Every single car has a dent of some description. And, as a European - in fact, scratch that… as a human being - it’s difficult not to notice the crowds, the sheer number of people trying to get somewhere.
Stand back from it all, and you wonder how anyone gets anywhere. Not a single person obeys any traffic law, and the horn is used for everything from warning the car in front that you’d like to overtake, to telling a pedestrian that they’re about to get flattened, to warning the car behind that you’re about to change lanes. When Suzuki first investigated bringing a car to India, one of the key considerations was fitting a more robust horn. Honestly.
The strange thing is that there’s very little aggression when Indians use the horn. It’s almost a communication tool. And the even crazier thing is that if anyone actually bothered to use their mirrors - half the cars have the driver’s side ones folded in so they can squeeze through even tinier gaps - they wouldn’t need the horn in the first place.
mall is better, and it’s where there’s a huge difference from China. The Chinese built their roads and then let the people buy cars. In India, it’s been the other way around. As such, big SUVs and limos don’t work because there isn’t enough room. Tiny hatches are king - practicality is important to Indians, as is value for money.
And by that, I don’t necessarily mean cheap. The Tato Nano is the absolute cheapest car on sale in India, but it only just scrapes onto the top ten best-selling list. Our Alto 800, is comfortably at the top of the board. Indians love it, because it’s small, they know it won’t break down, and they’ll get a good price when they swap it in five years’ time.
This isn’t just idle PR from Suzuki Maruti, either. Standing at the end of the Gurgaon production line, watching a new car whizz past every 16 seconds, it’s worth remembering that every single one has an owner waiting for it. A staggering 100,000 people have paid deposits.
It’s difficult not to be overawed by it all - the scale is actually scary. All that energy, all that raw material, all that vast, untapped potential. Think about it: Indian car ownership currently stands at only 18 cars per 1,000 people. In Western Europe, it’s about 600 per 1,000, and that’s what the Indians are aiming for. Maruti Suzuki isn’t concerned about the growth stagnating, but frankly I’m a little bit worried as to where all these cars are physically going to go. Surely India, and probably the world, just isn’t big enough?
If size matters, Europe might as well just pack up and go home. The simple truth is that we just don’t even register any more. We might be worried about the economy and the environment, but it’s difficult not to feel that we’re being patronising when we pontificate about raw materials and green issues. Who are we to tell this enormous nation, and, for that matter, this enormous continent, what they can and cannot do? Indians want cars, and Indian companies like Suzuki Maruti are going to provide them.
As we head out and away from Gurgaon, I can’t help feeling concerned at the inevitable problems allied to the sheer numbers involved. A situation made more problematic in India than in the other huge emerging market China, where the ruling Communist party seems to be doing a pretty good job at quashing any sort of protest. In India, government decisions take time, and that’s something that India doesn’t have.
Which brings us full circle to yet more incredible statistics. The population of India has risen from 644,330,000 to well over a billion in 35 years. Over 65 per cent were born after 1978; nearly half after 1991. And they all want cars - over a quarter of Alto buyers are under 29 years old. Which points to some serious numbers in the future, as India drags itself up the socio-economic gradient. All of which means that in a world of uncertainties, two things are clear: the Indians will need to build a lot more roads… and fit louder horns.