Call the Nano frugal, not cheap

  • 31-Aug-2010 11:59 EDT
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At a Better Innovation tour stop at SAE world headquarters, four regular-sized Pittsburghers were able to fit into the twin-cylinder, 600-kg (1323-lb) Nano LX.

In the U.S., it would be easy to mock Tata Motors’ Nano for not measuring up in conventional ways. And indeed, compared with mainstream vehicles in the U.S., the India-made car is short not only on dimensions but also power and content.

But the fault is not with the car; it’s with the comparison. First, the Nano is not sold in nor designed for the U.S. Second, it’s not conventional.

But if a comparison were to be made, one could argue that the car more than measures up in perhaps the most important criterion: value. At an equivalent $2200 to $2600, it gets four adults cheaply if not luxuriously from one place to another. In the U.S., the smallest mainstream car costs four times as much—in India two times as much.

A unit of Tata Group, Tata Technologies carried out much of the Nano’s engineering and product development, accounting for 28 of the 59 patents related to the vehicle, according to Warren Harris, President and COO of Tata Technologies. He described the engineering company’s contributions to the Nano at the recent Management Briefing Seminars in Traverse City, MI.

With him at the seminars was the only Tata Nano in the U.S. Tata Technologies purchased it for $2500 in Mumbai, India, last December. The car, a top-of-the-line LX version with right-hand drive, spent the summer of 2010 touring engineering colleges and other locations throughout the country. One of the stops was at SAE International world headquarters in Pittsburgh, where AEI editors were the first media to test-drive the Nano in the U.S.

With no spare parts available for the four-seater, Tata Technologies officials who accompanied the Nano asked that the car not be driven on public roads, so we stayed within the SAE parking lot. Limited though the driving experience was, and lacking a real reference point, the editors agreed that for the price, and despite its compromises, the 625-cm3 twin-cylinder car is impressive in its engineering and performance.

Tata Motors has made no announcement about bringing the Nano to the U.S. The car as designed for emerging markets has no crush zones, for example, and lacks many safety technologies that are standard equipment on more expensive vehicles.  

Better Innovation on Tour is what Tata Technologies calls its yearlong string of Nano stops in the U.S. The purpose of the tour is not so much to tout the Nano, although Harris and others do that, as it is to tout Tata Technologies’ contributions to the Nano and the company’s general capabilities.

The company is the Tata Group’s engineering and product development unit, with headquarters in Singapore and one of several branch offices in Detroit. It employs 4000 professionals in 14 countries and services all of the top 10 global automakers and aerospace companies.

Tata Technologies has more than 200 open engineering positions throughout the U.S.—“primarily automotive, primarily Midwest locations,” said company spokesman Dan Saad. The company also is hiring in Europe and India, he added.

In his presentation at Traverse City, Harris described the company as "a pure-play manufacturing solutions company" with two primary components to its value proposition: outsourced engineering services and new-product technology assessment and deployment.

"Our services range from component design to full vehicle development on the engineering side," Harris said. "And in the PLM market, we are one of the world’s leading providers of products and professional services.”

Although Tata Technologies played an important role in helping Tata Motors bring the Nano to market, “the relationship we have with Tata Motors is essentially the same relationship we have with Chrysler, Ford, Nissan, Daimler, or BMW,” Harris said.

Tata Technologies engineers were responsible for the design of many of the Nano's major subsystems. They led the chassis design and contributed to the suspension, brakes, steering, fuel systems, and the wheels and tires, said Harris.

“Moreover, we were also responsible for innovative deployment of the PLM and IT systems that were used to build the digital product," he noted. "We were involved in designing the tools and selecting, deploying, and configuring the manufacturing execution systems.”

Tata Technologies engineers handled CFD work for the exterior aerodynamic studies, as well as for underhood and powertrain cooling, all of which were conducted at the Tata Technologies campus in Pune, India, using one of the worlds’ most powerful supercomputers.

“We led vehicle integration activities and were responsible for the DMU [digital mock-up] environment,” added Harris. “We also played a major role in the design and testing of the electrical and electronic systems, including the development of the groundbreaking engine management system.”

More engineers from Tata Technologies were dedicated to the Nano program than those from Tata Motors, according to Harris: “We were responsible for much of the innovation and ‘frugal engineering’ that enabled the product to be delivered at a price point that most automotive OEMs and their suppliers never thought possible.”

The Nano's seats are an example of frugal engineering. Their low overall mass, minimal bill of materials, and low cost were primarily the result of efficiently designed foam padding and component integration, Harris said.

The headrest is integrated into the seat, metal tubing is used instead of stamped parts for the seat frame, and the tracking and reclining systems are “rudimentary and mechanical.” A serendipitous benefit of the tube frame is that there is plenty of room for backseat passengers to slide their feet under the front seats.

The instrument panel (IP) also embodies frugal engineering. In a conventional vehicle, it is highly stylized and made up of multiple panels that not only increase the number of assembly parts but also contribute to higher tooling costs.

On the Nano, “styling has been subordinated to function and cost,” Harris said.

The car's IP is a single molded piece, which greatly reduced tooling costs. Although the vehicle is wired for a sound system it does not come as a standard part of the vehicle. A center-located cluster position enables easy adoption of right- and left-hand-drive derivatives.

The symmetrical IP design also allows identical air vents to be used on both sides. Although there is no glove box, recesses for storage have been built into the IP.

Clever design engineering abounds throughout the Nano, as many competitors continue to discover in their competitive-teardown activities. As for the AEI editors, we look forward to more time behind the wheel of one of the auto industry's most intriguing new products.   

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