The managing director of RNTBCI talks economical engineering with AMS

‘Frugal engineering’. It’s a phrase you hear a lot at the joint Renault-Nissan technical centre in India, the only one within the Alliance to serve both brands, and now also the newly resurrected Datsun.
But ‘Frugal engineering’ is not a polite phrase to disguise that things are done on the cheap – indeed, Renault gives the example of the Indian-market Duster, which underwent 30 modifications to make it suitable for local buyers. Renault prefers to regard it as ‘doing more for less’ to control costs and the use of resources in a market where the volume is currently for cars priced at the equivalent of €3,500 ($4,800).
“This is the Alliance technical centre for frugal engineering,” says Karim Mikkiche, managing director of the Renault Nissan Technology and Business Centre Private (RNTBCI). “Our aim is to satisfy high-growth markets, to understand their needs and to engineer the right concepts for them.
“We are the main centre for entry-level vehicles which can tap the potential of the Indian market. Our job is to create attractive products which are top three for quality [in India] and to bring them to market quickly at competitive cost.”
The centre, on a business park near Chennai, has also since last year housed one of two offices for Renault Design India (the other being in Mumbai). It is half an hour by road from the Renault-Nissan production facility at Oragadam, and close to Chennai airport.
“We are in the middle of the automotive hub of India,” says Mikkiche. “There is a good local supply base, with more than 50 suppliers nearby. We are close to the plant, the port and the airport and there is a local talent pool in IT at Anna University.”
RNTBCI was established in 2007 as the first – and still the only – joint Alliance engineering and purchasing centre. An initial workforce of 1,000 has now grown to almost 4,500, two-thirds in engineering and the rest divided between business, finance and IT. The average age of an employee is 29 and seven out of 10 are graduates. Interestingly, 12% are women – a far higher proportion than in the rest of the auto industry in India. Training averages 160 hours per person per year.
The centre’s main objectives are to adapt products for a premium positioning in the Indian market, ensure that quality matches other Alliance plants and designing to cost – ‘frugal engineering’ or, in Hindi, jugaard (the ability to turn adversity into an opportunity, improvise solutions to problems and innovate).
Mikkiche emphasises the need to “localise and adapt for India” in the activities of the centre. “We need to understand the market, the customer and the competitior,” he says. “This is a unique environment because of the climate, the roads, the traffic and the flooding in the monsoon season. In India, the car is a status symbol and regarded as an asset. But we have to work to time and budgets with no compromise in quality or performance, and the targets are tight.”
A good example of the work done at RNTBCI is the Indian-market Duster. “Exterior design is the number one priority for Indian customers,” explains Mikkiche. As a result, changes have been made to the grille, tail lamps and badging.
Inside, the door grab handles have been modified, the air vents are chromed, the bonnet release has been switched to the right and there is a softer horn pad, since Indian drivers use the horn almost constantly to warn others of their presence, rather than as act of aggression. The seats, cupholders, parcel shelf, window switches and storage systems have also been localised, and there is a separate air conditioning unit for the rear of the car. Overall, the focus has been switched to ease of driving rather than faster driving as in Europe.
The Duster’s K9k 1.5-litre turbodiesel engine has also been extensively modified for Indian conditions. It has a lighter oil pan that is cheaper to produce, has best-in-class fuel economy and is better protected against the effects of the monsoon floods, which are often bonnet-deep. The changes are mainly to suit the capabilities and materials of local suppliers.
“We are aiming for 71% local content by 2015,” says Mikkiche. “Today it is 60%, but we want to localise more and more. We have an engineering department that knows about the capability of Indian suppliers. The safety standards in the body structure are the same as anywhere else in the world, but we don’t put airbags on as standard. The only differences are in terms of equipment.
“We used to get involved only at the last stage [of development],” he explains, “but we now start at the beginning and support each stage. With the new CMF-A platform [for new Renault and Nissan A-segment cars from later this year] we will do it from here. We are working continuously to give to the brands what they need to succeed in the market.”