Aureka, Auroville's engineering workshop, takes on a big new challenge.
When people talk about the environmental achievements of Auroville, they often forget about the back-room work that made it all possible. Take water. For many years the Toujours Mieux workshop serviced the hand-pumps which made irrigation possible. It also worked on improving the efficiency of windmills donated to the community. Ultimately the Aurovilians working at Toujours Mieux came up with their own design, the highly-efficient AV55, described by a Dutch wind-energy consultant as the best windmill manufactured in India .
Some years ago Toujours Mieux was renamed Aureka. And the changes didn't stop there. “It's a whole different ballgame now,” says Robi as he surveys the busy compound below his office. “And it all began when we hooked up with Suzlon.”
Suzlon is not only India 's leading manufacturer of wind turbine generators, it's one of the biggest in the world. Globally, there's a huge growth in the market for wind turbines. This is not just because of concerns about global warming. “It's also because it's a mature technology now and a really profitable investment,” says Robi. “These machines cost two crores or more, but after five years of generating and selling electricity you've repaid your investment.”
A friend of Robi's mentioned that Suzlon needed custom-made mobile tool cabinets for the huge tools they use on their production line. “They gave us the specifications, we made a prototype and they were very pleased. Actually,” says Robi, “they were in awe. They told us ‘We can see Swiss engineering here'.”
Suzlon wanted more cabinets, but clearly the demand for mobile tool cabinets is limited. So Robi asked if Aureka could also manufacture components used in Suzlon's production process. “The production manager gave us some drawings but he implied that we may not be able to compete with other Indian suppliers because the pricing was so competitive.”
Yet so successful has Aureka been in producing high-quality components at the specified prices that today they are manufacturing over 100 different components for Suzlon. “The other day,” says Robi, “their production manager was here and he said that next year he'll give us as much work as we like. One crore, two crores, five crores, no problem.”
Robi does not want to expand the workforce, however. Aureka has already increased production by 50% since last year, and simply to meet present orders the workers are doing a lot of overtime. Robi also notes that they've had previous experience of increasing their workforce, only for orders to suddenly drop away when they were confronted with cut-throat competition from other Indian
“Actually, we're happier designing and making prototypes – that's where our skills lie – than getting into huge production runs,” says Robi. “And as Suzlon, given the rate of innovation in the industry, will always need new parts I'm not too worried.”
Clearly, the Suzlon orders are running the workshop at present. Does this mean that Aureka no longer has time to manufacture the AV55
windmills or do one-off jobs for Aurovilians? In fact, the windmills are still being made. However, while there have been big improvements in the design of the AV55 over the last five years, fewer than ten a year are being manufactured now. “The government has shown very little interest in promoting it,” says Robi, “and while a subsidy exists it is difficult to get it. This makes the AV55 a rather expensive proposition for many people.
“We also manufacture equipment for Auram Earth Construction (actually this constitutes up to 30% of our work) and specialist equipment for the Arvind Eye Hospital , a long-term customer, and, yes, we still do those one-off jobs – the wheelbarrows, frames, grills etc. – because we don't want to send people away.”
In the compound below Robi's office people are hammering out sheet metal, cutting, welding. In one corner the new computerised lathe awaits its first orders. Everywhere there is
activity. “We have sixty people working here, that's a wage bill of two lakhs a month,” says Robi. “Sometimes it all gets a bit too much. But then I remember how it was when we didn't have orders, when the guys were bunding the compound because there was no other work, and I know I'd rather have it this way.”
Energy from wind