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The Story of NFTDC....

Nonferrous Materials Technology Centre (NFTDC) was one of the four R & D Institutions that were created during early 1990’s under the aegis of Ministry of Mines, Government of India. The Genesis of NFTDC is an important milestone in S & T organizational system in India, in that it was the only R & D institution which had unique genetic characteristics right at the time of inception that were significantly different from other R & D laboratories in India. The story of NFTDC highlights them herein..

NFTDC’s was not created from funds of Government of India nor does it draw any annual budget support in any form right from inception and it is therefore not a grants-in-aid public funded institution. NFTDC was conceived to be a non profit & non commercial institution to undertake technology development in a more of comprehensive manner. This essentially translates to emphasis on product and process developments together with system level design and engineering as the underlying R & D spectrum which falls in TRL 3 to 7 space in contrast to research limited to only materials that too at very small scale typically in TRL 1 & 2 levels. The aim was to get away from the limitations of doing only basic research within a scientist’s domain of expertise but move towards a much more complex multi domain team and interdisciplinary mode of R & D leading up to pilot production to prove the technology. This philosophy of product as a starting point and a systems approach to technology development to render multitude of products was to be enshrined as output function in an institutional frame work. “Form follows function” is a universal principle in biology, product design and organizational structures and NFTDC became the organizational form for undertaking the much needed translational R&D from materials to components to systems.

Genetic characteristics >> Form & Function

NFTDC was deliberately created to be a Technology Centre that is small in size, fairly flat in structure and entirely executive based system which is the first bed rock genetic characteristic. The centre typically has strength of about 50 comprising only of scientists and engineers drawn from all disciplines of engineering and a few professional executives to man the nontechnical office tasks. The self financing policy gave NFTDC its quintessential second genetic stamp which brings in auto calibration in terms of a coupled income – expenditure paradigm in stark contrast to grant in aid institutions. The income has to pay for all expenditures which in turn have to be so deployed to earn the income. Thus form and function should be such that S & T function has to sustain the NFTDC in a self financing adaptive feedback mode. Thus S & T function of NFTDC which is its third gene is entirely R & D market and client driven and is executed as contract research, sponsored project and prototype pilot production in bilateral or consortium modes.

While it sounds good on paper as policy, it was a herculean task to obtain an institutional form to render the S & T function in TRL 3 to 7 space in a self financing mode. Today NFTDC stands as a testimonial to the form and function in its true sense. Creation of NFTDC was facilitated first by R & D project grant during 1990 – 93 to develop pure metals, speciality alloys, products and enabling technology demonstration pilot plants by four nonferrous metal companies, namely Hindustan Copper Limited (HCL), Hindustan Zinc Limited (HZL), National Aluminium Company (NALCO) and Bharat Aluminium Company (BALCO), which are the leading nonferrous metal producing companies of India. One of the fine traditions in India is that existing institutions are given the task and responsibility of nucleating the next generation entities and in NFTDC’s case, Defence Metallurgical Research Laboratory (DMRL) was given this responsibility vide an MOU. NFTDC was first registered on 16th January 1990 as a Society under Public Societies Registration Act Fasli 1350 to give it the necessary legal status to start its first R & D activities from then on. As NFTDC was a unique experiment in many ways, initial project teams were created by bringing together a few scientists from DMRL and engineers from the four companies on deputation and project posting till 1995 for executing the first identified projects.

1990-95 was the first phase in NFTDC to test whether NFTDC would survive on a self financing mode entirely as a project based institution without any budget support from government or even companies other than one time initial R & D project funding from the four companies. NFTDC started out with just one material R & D, one process competence and one technology demonstration facility in the early 1990’s. The material was oxygen free electronic copper with a refining cum solidification process technology to render it in a demonstration facility. Though it was technically successful, economic liberalization which ensued in early nineties necessitated a complete rethink on the process technology, impact of taxes, product profile and user commitment to take decisions on further scale up. Hard lessons were quickly learnt in the translational research particularly on valley of death to be negotiated when traversing from TRL 4 – 7 and new vistas had to be explored. Having weathered an initial difficult period with some degree of success to showcase and tough lessons learnt in techno economic feasibilities, the process of building the technology centre that was to be a next generation R & D institution slowly took shape.

During 1999-2005, NFTDC changed its emphasis and added 10 plus materials systems, 15 process core competencies and multitude of product developments. It was during this period, that NFTDC graduated from being a materials laboratory to that of systems lab by adding engineering design + analysis + advanced manufacturing technologies on the one end and Electronics + instrumentation and control on the other. Materials design + process design + product design at systems level became the golden triangle in a design paradigm of scientific know-why. Advanced materials processes and manufacturing technologies formed the technical know-how to render the designs for the required functional performance. Control and Instrumentation is the third essential attribute in all systems level developments. Products at systems level is the final repository of technologies. Technology in NFTDC’s definition is essentially innovative Knowledge Integration along a solution path starting from the multitude of differentiated basic knowledge micro domains. End to End Solution is a “knowledge integral” which is the product asked for by the R & D market /client in the integral form of engineered product + process methods + design & engineering system. This philosophy is exemplified in NFTDC’s logo of Knowledge Management in an Integration – Differentiation solution path with adaptive feedback.

The next phase during 2005 -2010 saw the emergence of centres of excellence with application vectors from materials to systems in (i) automotive, (ii) aerospace, (iii) energy (iv) materials process engineering, (v) biomedical and health care. What is worth noting is that the core competence in materials + design+ controls as essential knowledge domains (with a set of micro domains in each) of NFTDC forms the genetic core for all the above application streams. Product + client are the starting as well as the end points and Integration – differentiation model of knowledge management in a systems approach distilled and practised by NFTDC as its trade mark of its R & D. What can be the metrics of a self financing, of a technology centre that is small in size, all executive based and product/technology/knowledge oriented? Let us see what the gurus in organizational structures and successful leaders/mentors had to say on such issues.

Jack Welch of GE known for his strategic leadership abilities and re engineering of GE, identified five important assets that form the metrics of growth of organization; Saluting his insight in identifying the real metrics and paraphrasing him herein, namely (i) knowledge & HR assets, (ii) physical assets, (iii) financial assets and (iv) brand assets are like four poles of a tent and the leadership is the central one that should lift all the four. Lack of progress in any one of them does not bring the tent up.

Growth of NFTDC in knowledge assets is seen in the nature of its R & D activities, growth in terms of complexity and variety and projects executed by multi domain HR teams in interdisciplinary mode; R &D in NFTDC is particularly enshrined in TRL 3 to 7 space which is fairly complex; physical growth in terms of facilities in terms of lab space, design, process equipments and testing and characterization, software etc; financial growth thanks to multitude in portfolio and virtuous cycle with built in fiscal discipline thanks to self financing nature; and above all the brand asset- being client oriented solution provider; a lean organization and a knowledge entity..

To quote Peter F Drucker from his writings as early as 1987 on coming of a new organization

  • “20 yrs from now, typical businesses will have half the levels of Mgmt and one third managers. Coordination & control will depend on employee’s willingness to discipline themselves”
  • “Work will be done by specialists brought together in task forces that cuts across traditional departments”
  • “It will be knowledge based entities much like orchestras and hospitals”

NFTDC was one such a knowledge entity way ahead of its time in the R & D space and still re inventing itself..