(This post was originally published at Swarajya magazine https://swarajyamag.com/economy/building-a-manufacturing-ecosystem-screwdriver-technology-will-show-the-way)
India has becomeworld’s second largestmobile phone manufacturer in the world after china. While there are reasons to cheer, there is also a feeling that we are at the screwdriver level technology when it comes to electronics hardware manufacturing. We bring in most of the components and assemble them here using screwdrivers. The critiques use the term screwdriver technology to deride such activities. What many of them miss is the fact that usually such screwdriver technologies are the stepping-stones to upper levels of value chain. And while at it, the millions who turn the screwdrivers have a job.
During early 2000s I used to work in the engineering product development at an Indian firm. We designed the components in house, did all validation tests, and launched the products in the market. My skills got me a well paying job with a US multi-national corporation that had newly set up an engineering service centre in India. I was one of the first dozen employees there. Once I joined, I was placed in front of a computer and asked to do something called ‘engineering change note’ (ECN) work the whole day. The drawings arrived from US, through secure online mode, necessary minor changes were carried out at the center, and then the drawings were uploaded for checking and approval by the US parent. I never saw the actual product. It was frustrating and after a couple of months I barged into my manager’s cube to vent. The manager, a US-returned Ford motors veteran, told me coolly, “Son, keep at the ECN for some months, then I will get you 2D to 3D conversion work.” That 2D to 3D conversion work was just a miniscule step above in value chain than what I was doing. It was frustrating.
Recently, I visited the same facility after many years. The centre now employs more than a 1,000 engineers and carries out advanced engineering work including product conceptualisation and development. They have a full-fledged product-testing lab that carries out the product validations. The journey took less than 15 years for the centre. The ECN work was the screwdriver technology. The current work they do is cutting edge. There are thousands of such engineering centres in India today, falling somewhere along the spectrum that spans from ECNs to engineering system modelling. Most of them started with ECNs or 2D to 3D drawing conversions. The same story holds for IT services where we started out as Y2K bug operators, a screwdriver technology. When one spots a screwdriver, one should look at the direction it points to. Usually they point to the next level.
The same holds for manufacturing, but for two differences. First, goods face tariffs at borders and tariffs play a role in determining the technology that is developed in the country, which I shall discuss below. Second, manufacturing of goods, especially consumer goods, electronics hardware and advanced engineering products, has moved to global value chains (GVCs) in recent decades due to discretisation and specialisation of production steps, and containerisation of cargo, which led to ease of transportation.
The goods pass through tariff barriers whenever they cross borders. If the tariffs for parts as well as the finished item were to remain same, screwdriver plants would vanish, as completely assembled items would then be shipped in directly. Therefore, policymakers design tariffs in such a way that progressively higher value added products face steeper tariffs. This works in a tiered manner. The screwdriver assembly lines come up first. Then simple sub assembly lines would form. Then comes the component localisation. And finally we end up with the complete product being manufactured and assembled in the country. It might not always work the same way or in that order, but that’s the overall drift if things go as planned. The auto industry is a good example of how this worked. The sector was opened very gradually during the 90s. It still is one of the guarded industries, making US President rant against the high tariff walls on Harleys sent to India. But the calibrated move helped the sector.
On the other hand, WTO’s Information Technology Agreement (ITA1) ensured that tariffs on electronic hardware items covered through the agreement were brought to zero, and this stunted the growth of electronics hardware manufacturing in India. It made more sense to pick up the electronic hardware from ‘factory Asia’ (China, Japan, ASEAN) and ship them to India. There is a counter point that lower priced electronics helped the information technology (IT) service sector grow. However, this counterpoint does not factor in the loss to hardware manufacturing and associated jobs that never materialised, or the fact that IT services mostly operate out of zones such as software technology parks of India/special economic zones (SEZs), where duties anyway are zero for all imports. Add to it the loss in technology development, and we can easily see why it was a bad idea. The argument here is not that we should have high tariff walls everywhere; but that the policymakers need to pick and choose the way the tariffs are structured for each sector in order to help manufacturing. There is no point in dropping all tariffs to zero in the name of free trade.
It must however be noted that not all sectors are amenable to a mere structured tariff policy alone. For example, chip making or silicon wafer manufacturing technology operates at economies of scale and requires initial sunk research and development (R&D) costs, and this needs a massive initial push and support. Mere tiered tariffs will not convert the solar module makers of India, a simple assembly operation, into silicon ingot makers or wafer dicers even after decades. Further, handholding is required for that to happen. This is being done through efforts such as M-SIPS programme of MeitY, which is trying to boost electronics hardware manufacturing. Such dual effort of tariff structuring and handholding is required in multiple sectors to cajole the manufacturing into growth phase. Critics who lament every tariff hike or state led support as Nehruvian economics miss the point here. There is nothing wrong in thinking in that direction. It might appear to some as a return to licence-permit raj, but given the amount of efforts the government is putting towards automatic approvals and ease of doing business, it is wrong to compare this to the pre 90s era. The interfaces are fast moving online for all kinds of public citizen interfaces, right from customs clearances to industrial approvals. When China talks about ‘Made in China 2025’ and focuses on key sectors, they are actually talking about strategising such state support. It is a common developmental strategy.
The second often talked about matter in recent years is about how global value chains (GVC) has changed the way manufacturing is carried out. This is visible especially in sectors such as automobiles and electronics. The ‘designed in California assembled in China’ iDevices model is an example of GVC in operation. China adds less than 10 per cent of value to a typical iPhone, which is actually a product of multiple countries with each contributing various components and inputs.Being a part of GVC is important in order to bring in jobs in these sectors. If zero custom tariffs implied automatic participation in GVC, India should have become tightly integrated with ‘factory Asia’ long ago. We had cheap labour, zero or low tariffs on most electronic components and SEZ facilities where custom duties are zero for imports.
Therefore we should have automatically got integrated into the GVCs in a meaningful way. That didn’t happen to the extent we wanted. For sure, the trade in value add statistics for India makes us look good as long as we see the value added percentages alone. When we look at the quantum of trade, we are far below the expectations. Low tariffs is just one variable for GVC participation. In addition, we need infrastructure, skills, R&D investment, ease of doing business and supportive policies in order to gain the required competitiveness to be a significant GVC player. The government is moving in that direction.
That brings us to the point that the time in our hands is very limited given the twin factors of advancement of automation in manufacturing and what we call as peak trade phenomenon. The automation would soon disrupt the labour cost advantage. We need to strategise keeping this in mind. Only upskilling and increased productivity would keep us in the run for future. The appetite for old world way of discretisation of manufacturing is on the wane. The stalemate at WTO, threats of tariff wars, and the rise of anti trade sentiments is a testimony that probably the best of opening up days are behind us.
Developing a strong manufacturing sector is not an option but a necessity. We are in a different century, with unique challenges like automation, yet it would help us look at the experience of those who got the manufacturing right. A good example is China. They opened up with screwdriver level technology jobs, forced foreign companies to transfer technology through local partnerships, maintained cheap currency for decades, provided state subsidies and incentives, and used all tricks available in policymaker’s book to become a leader in manufacturing. South Korea followed neo-mercantilist trade policies up to early 80s to grow its exports machine. MITI played an important role in development of Japanese industry and exports. Had all these countries followed a universal low tariff theory during their stages of industrial infancy, they might probably not have ended up with the same results.
Here, one must caution that such state actions at times might generate unintended consequences and hence cannot be a blanket recommendation. However, one cannot deny that these examples demonstrate that a determined state which runs a systematic industrial and trade policy plays an important role in growth of manufacturing and exports. India is waking up to a synchronised industrial and trade policy where the government is looking at playing a facilitator’s role. There is nothing wrong if a tariff is hiked here or there for valid reasons. Or if some rudimentary assembly plants pop up in the interim leading to doubts whether ‘Make in India’ has ended up with just ‘assemble and sell in India’.
When I quit the private sector for a government career, I was working in area of system simulation of flight controls at Airbus, the biggest airplane maker in the world. That was as cutting edge as it got for me. The ECN job was a stepping-stone in my career. I am sure the screwdriver turning jobs of today would vanish sometime in a generation or two. We need to prepare for that future by moving up the value chain and preparing a solid manufacturing sector. The strategising and push must come from the state. I fail to see how it could be achieved otherwise.