Working in international networks, Siemens researchers and developers are coming up with inexpensive yet sophisticated entry-level products. These products have what it takes to become market leaders, and not just in emerging economies.
There is a flicker, and yet again the lights go out on Hosur Road. Here at the research site of Siemens Corporate Technology (CT) in Bangalore, the power fluctuations of the electrical grid lead to regular blackouts. When the lights go on again after a few seconds, Dr. Zubin Varghese of Siemens CT explains the causes of the blackouts. “India’s population and economic output are growing at a breathtaking pace. More people, more prosperity, more air-conditioning systems. The expansion of the power grids simply cannot keep up with this pace. When there is an overload, the networks simply collapse,” he says.
Varghese is responsible for the development of sustainable technologies for emerging markets at CT in India. He and his team are working on solutions that help raise the standard of living over the long term and in affordable ways for a billion Indians — and people in emerging economies around the world. It is often the case that the solutions used in industrialized nations are too expensive and do not adequately meet the needs of emerging markets. The price of a product is the key factor, according to Varghese. “When a product developer here sees a car, the first thing he thinks about is how he can manage that at one tenth the price,” says Varghese. “There are then two ways to go. You can build a vehicle with three wheels and no engine,” he says jokingly. “Or you consider very carefully what the customer in our market actually wants and can pay for — and then develop according to these specific requirements. The result could be a Tata Nano, for example.” More and more Indians are taking a fancy to the Nano, which is considered the cheapest car in the world. It has become a symbol for extremely inexpensive products — from emerging markets for emerging markets.
High Tech, Low Cost. Siemens does not build automobiles, of course, but it does build many other “smart” products around the world. In this context, “S.M.A.R.T.” stands for “Simple,” “Maintenance friendly,” “Affordable,” “Reliable,” and “Timely to market.” In other words, these are entry-level products that are perfectly tailored to the needs of certain market segments (see Innovations for New Markets, Pictures of the Future, Spring 2009).
For example, Varghese’s team has developed a low-cost, energy-saving waste water treatment method. In India, this is quite a big challenge. The country produces roughly 29 billion liters of waste water every day, of which only one quarter is treated. In addition, conventional treatment plants consume lots of energy, because oxygen has to be pumped in continually.
With this in mind, Siemens researchers in Bangalore have built a bioreactor in which certain algae and bacteria enter into a symbiotic relationship. While the bacteria generate CO2 that the algae need for photosynthesis, the algae emit oxygen, which is in turn required by the bacteria for their growth. It is a perfect cycle — and 60 percent less energy-intensive than conventional methods. This development has kindled the curiosity of Siemens researchers in Germany, as similar processes could be used to fix CO2 from fossil-fuel power plants and convert it to biomass in algae, perhaps even on a large scale one day.
“Increasingly, engineers from India, China, Brazil, Europe and the U.S. work together in international teams in which the members contribute what they are best at,” says Dr. Uwe Linnert, who heads the Sensor Systems Global Technology Field at CT in Erlangen, Germany. Linnert views the research and development center in Bangalore as an integration and consulting center for the region — a place that, with its deep understanding of the local market, helps turn the results of research and development into innovative products.
Another result of the international cooperation between Varghese’s team and Siemens colleagues in Germany is the Fetal Heart Monitor (FHM), a device that can monitor the heart rate of fetuses in the womb. While ultrasound technology is often used for this in advanced nations — where the machines can cost several thousand USD — the Fetal Heart Monitor uses special microphones instead. The resulting device costs significantly less than ultrasound. The idea was conceived and developed into a product in India. The team led by Linnert, which is based in Germany, helped with the development of the special microphones. “The cutting-edge research takes place where the cutting-edge researchers are located — which is still usually the established industrialized nations,” Linnert says. “But product development is increasingly taking place where there are fast-growing markets — in emerging economies, in other words,” he adds.
Other examples of successful German-Indian collaborative projects have included work on optical sensors and camera technology for the Indian market. These technologies are now helping Indian cookie factories to greatly increase their quality and efficiency by identifying imperfectly-baked cookies in a fraction of a second (see Affordable Vision, Pictures of the Future, Spring 2009).
New Markets in Brazil. International innovation processes can be used to tap into new market segments in Brazil too, according to Siemens engineer Thiago Pistore. He coordinated a Brazilian-German development team that made design changes to a steam turbine conceived for the European market and arrived at the SST-300, a turbine ideal for use in Brazilian sugar mills.
“We had to make sure that the whole turbine could be manufactured in Brazil. To do that, we had to learn to make sacrifices here and there,” says Pistore. “The resulting turbine is a bit less flexible and slightly less efficient than the model it was based on. But on the other hand, at the time of market entry it was priced at approximately thirty percent less.” (see Pictures of the Future, Spring 2009, Sweet Savings). The modified turbine is now being sold not only in Brazil, but in other Latin American countries as well.