Interview : Col. H.S. Shankar, VSM, Chairman & MD, Alpha Design Technologies Private Limited
Bright Vision In Sight
Acclaimed as one of the foremost Defence R&D technologists in India today, Col. H.S. Shankar, VSM, is the Chairman and Managing Director of Alpha Design Technologies Private Limited, a premier Defence Electronics and Aviation R&D and Production Company based in Bengaluru.
In his 22-year-long service in the Indian Army / EME, he took part in both 1965 and 1971 Wars against Pakistan. He was decorated with Vishisht Seva Medal for upgrading the TIGERCAT Ground-to-Air Missile System. He held important assignments in the Army and had extended long tenures at the Border Areas in Punjab and in High Altitude Areas in Jammu and Kashmir and Sikkim.
He joined BEL in 1986 as Deputy General Manager and rose to become Director (R&D) in 1996, a post he held until 2003. At BEL, he was responsible for the development and production of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) which are being used today all over India for elections. He also directed more than 250 new R&D Products while at BEL, including all the projects under Guided Missile Development Program, Electronic Warfare Systems, Tactical Communication Systems, Radars, Tank Fire Control Systems, etc. He won the Award for Outstanding Contribution to Defence R&D, presented by the Defence Minister in 2001.
He launched the Alpha Design Technologies in March 2003, and the company’s annual turnover today is around Rs 370 crores and it has a healthy Order book of Rs 1,100 crores. Alpha specialises in development and production of Night Vision Thermal sights, Electronic Warfare equipment, Tactical Communications equipment, and major R&D projects such as Software Defined Radios, Missile Seeker Systems (in collaboration with BRAHMOS), IFF, Simulators, etc.
He has endeavoured to bring together Indian and Israeli Industries spearheading in facilitating ‘Make in India’ projects. He is the Chairman of FICCI Defence Sub-Committee on Indian Defence SME.
Col.Shankar speaks to AeroMag Asia about the success saga of Alpha Design Technologies, leveraging its unique strengths inDefence Electronics and Aviation R&D and Production and its key international collaborations and joint ventures
Alpha Design Technologies has made big strides in a short span of time. How was the journey so far?
We started Alpha Design Technology in 2004 with hardly three people and a turnover of Rs 50,000; and 12 years on now, we have become a company of 840 people – 610 of them engineers, a majority being in the age group of 21 - 29 years and almost 50 per cent of them women, mostly working in R&D. Our turnover has grown to Rs 370 crores. So there is a very large increase both in our turnover and also our strength and our resources.
Our customers are mainly the Army, Air Force and Border Security Force and majority of our projects are in the field of Night Vision devices – Thermal Imager and Image Intensifier Tube based, for handheld thermal imager sights, rifle sights, carbine sights, AK-47 sights, binoculars and goggles. We are very strong in what we make. In the field of Electronic Warfare sights, we produce EW sensors, called MILS-Missile Launch Detection Systems. We have collaboration with Germany, with Airbus, and we make large quantities of the sensors, as a part of fitment for helicopters particularly. We had an order of almost 460 such sensors to be made for the Indian program for the upgrade of Cheetah helicopters. Now we are expecting similar sort of things for MI-17, LCA, LCH also for ALH hopefully, so many types of helicopters that may be coming in, including KA-226. In other words, it is a very important and very sensitive item being produced here for which we have set up ultra-modern facilities, calibration, testing etc.
We have established a separate R&D group in Hyderabad with more than 60 very fine young engineers, who undertake design development of various sub-systems and modules, sub-units and sub-assemblies for EW systems, primarily for the DRDO and later on when these become approved for production by BLS, their sub-contractors. So this is a very unique facility which we have established in Hyderabad.
In addition in Bangalore our R&D is very strong, we are making our own RF seekers for Missile systems, we are making interrogator Friend or Foe called IFF for heliborne and ground- and airborne- applications and we are also in Software defined Radio development. We are doing Radio relays with software defined radio as the base and so many other important projects which are of great importance to our country.
Could you elaborate on your product portfolio, facilities and manufacturing capacity?
As I explained, firstly it is a design house for RF seekers, IFF, then we make the software defined Radios, we make micro-wave components, large number of thermal imager based systems for the Army and the Border Security Force and versions of various communications sets, like Tactical switches, ULSB, INS Integrated Navigation System, Laser Target Designators, and varieties of sights for the Rifles. Among the products mentioned almost 80 per cent is of our own design and the rest is collaborative projects wherein we have minimum 50 per cent indigenous content.
Give us an update on some of the key collaborations, joint ventures?
We have two Joint Ventures already in action; one is with respect to International Technologies Lasers (ITL), on the optical adaptor electronic side. ITL is an Israeli company with whom we have developed very good relations and we are jointly working on quite a few projects. We supply the Indian Army quite a large number of sights and reflex sights for the soldiers.
And we have the second JV with Electronica, Italy, for the production, assembly, aircraft testing of SSTRU. This is going to be become functional in the next one or two years, as soon as the project is cleared by the Indian Air Force.
What are the new business opportunities you are eyeing in the marketplace?
Already we have expanded a lot, in terms or turnover, and we have a good order position. We see the requirement in the market for Thermal Imager based fire control systems for the tanks and BMPs. We have various versions of long-range surveillance systems, different versions of EW suit for helicopters. IFF is a huge market, as also software defined radio. We are good in simulators and we have recently finalised a contract for 57 numbers of BMP-II simulators and Laser Target Designators. We are going to supply what has been contracted from us during this year.
Our order book position as of date is of Rs 1,400 crores, which also include US$ 80 million of exports of Advanced Thermal imager based fire control systems to various countries.
What's your take on 'Make in India' campaign and how you can leverage it, based on the company's expertise?
It is a very fine initiative by the Government of India for giving priority to producing as much as possible in India. As far as our company is concerned, we feel that we are in a very unique position, having established ourselves and having ultra-modern test, production, qualification facilities and equipment, we can meet the demands of the defence forces for both R&D, manufacture and supply of large quantities of defence oriented equipment and systems.
In addition, our subsidiary company, Alpha Tocol, is already supplying various Air frames and other sub-systems for SUKHOI aircraft to HAL Nasik unit. That will further be strengthened and a larger number of orders is expected. This will form the basis also for the manufacturing base for the ‘Make in India’ program.
Your thoughts on defence offsets and how the policy environment can be improved further for Indian companies?
Among the Indian companies, at least in the MSME sector, we may probably be the most successful company in obtaining offset orders and also in completing them. We have done Rs 300 crores plus offset orders in the last two years, primarily on the Thermal Imager based Fire control systems and we would like to leverage this and add new offset programs to further improve ourselves and also to give quality products to the international market through the route of offsets.
MSMEs are the base in our country for developing core technologies. The bigger companies would only be system integrators, so this sector will have to be strengthened and the Government of India has come out with a large number of schemes for making this more effective. There is a need for holding the hands of MSMEs by providing them enough funds for development and infrastructure and also to simplify some of the anomalies like providing bank guarantees to the MoD which entails that the MSMEs have to provide collaterals to the banks for providing the bank guarantees. It is also necessary to give protection on foreign exchange variation not only for future projects but in particular for current and on-going projects.