Bajaj Auto Limited used to be the world's largest scooter manufacturer. Everything changed when, within the course of just a few years, the scooter market in India completely collapsed. Now the country is all about motorcycles. In a wrenching change the company adjusted to the new market, focusing almost exclusively on motorcycles. Today Bajaj is back on track to become one of the world’s largest manufacturers of motorcycles.
Still one Bajaj product continues to beat with a scooter heart. This is the venerable three-wheeler. A few issues ago I started the story of a trip Becky and I took to India where we were able to squeeze in tours at Bajaj's three main factories. We began with the company headquarters in Akurdi and the location of their new scooter plant. Here I pick it up again with the other two factories, Chakan and Waluj. Waluj is where the bulk of Bajaj’s three-wheelers and autorickshaws are still made.
Everywhere the buildings were painted bright white. This campus, above all of the others was particularly beautifully landscaped and lush, much of the greenery made possible from the use of a waste water recovery system. One area contained a huge bed of flowers that spelled out “Hamara Bajaj,” an older company slogan that means “Our Bajaj.”
Upon arrival we were offered lunch at the company cafeteria. As part of the work culture all employees eat together, from the top managers and engineers to production workers. We were treated to a local India favorite, Indian-style Chinese buffet. Indian-style Chinese is really a cuisine unto itself. Based on this very casual encounter, I concluded that Chinese Indian food tastes similar to Indian but tends to substitute noodles more for rice. We had a great lunch and a pleasant chat with employees.
After lunch we were given the tour. The walk from the cafeteria to the busy assembly lines was surprisingly quiet and serene. Along the way we were greeted with banners hanging from covered walkways proclaiming company slogans and TPM production philosophy.
TPM you ask? TPM stands for (at least originally) Total Production Maintenance. It started in Japan in the 1950s as an approach towards maintaining factory assembly equipment but evolved into a broader manufacturing philosophy related to all areas of quality control and production efficiency. The Japanese Institute of Plant Engineers awards TPM designations to factories all around the world. A number of years ago Bajaj Auto got the TPM religion and adopted it wholeheartedly, so much so that there were many times touring the Chakan plant that I thought I could very easily be in Japan. It was so unexpected to see Japanese culture and ideas adapted so rigorously into an Indian work environment.
At all of the Bajaj factories, but most particularly Chakan, it was obvious that Bajaj was dead serious about quality and production efficiency. The unrelenting churning out of high-quality motorcycles was almost scary. Will Bajaj take over the world? Standing on the factory floor watching the vehicles roll off the production line, it certainly felt like it.
The tour proceeded with a walk-through of the engineering area and a video presentation on Bajaj’s embrace of TPM. A narrator with a baritone Japanese accent (I pictured George Takai) droned on about manufacturing numbers and production goals met. We saw examples of production improvements, many charts and graphs and viewed scenes of employees doing morning exercise drills.
In the engine assembly area most all of the production lines included an air filtration system. The air was blown through massive ducting, keeping a positive air pressure of clean air in the work areas. Throughout the entire factory tour we walked along a raised gangplank looking down on the assembly lines. One section had robots boring out motorcycle engines. It was fast, precision work.
Before leaving for India I read in a Bajaj annual report about how production was way up and man-hours worked was down. I pictured the evil manager at the end of the assembly line turning up the speed on the conveyor belts, making all of the hamsters on the wheels run faster. This wasn’t so. Part of the new manufacturing philosophy highlighted at Chakan is that much of the “non-value added” (their term) production has been outsourced. Bajaj now obsesses with production and assembly, making every step simpler and easier. For example, why make an assembly line worker walk around a cart to pick up a part when a cart can be built with revolving shelves. If more parts are needed, a freshly loaded shelf can be quickly rotated into place so items can be grabbed at arm’s length. If anything, the work place seemed quieter and the overall mood of the workers seemed friendlier and more relaxed from when I visited the Akurdi plant previously 11 years ago.
It would be very interesting to compare Bajaj’s production methods and quality with Kymco or a Japanese manufacturer.
I’m waiting for someone to import Bajaj motorcycles to the U.S. The Pulsar, in particular, might be a big hit. It is a high quality, small capacity motorcycle that achieves super high fuel efficiency. Even though this is considered Bajaj’s sport bike, at the time of our visit the largest engine was 180cc. By now it has broken the 200cc barrier (believe it or not this is a very significant milestone for the India market) and is fuel injected.
After the Chakan plant we took the bus from Pune to Aurangabad. A very rough geographic analogy for our trip might be to make a comparison with the Bay Area. Consider Mumbai as San Francisco except with an upside down peninsula. We started out there and went south to Pune, Bajaj’s headquarters. If you pretend Pune is San Jose, Chakan is Oakland. From there we took a bus to Aurangabad, which— following the comparison— would be Sacramento. The distances are off but they’re close enough to give you a mental comparison. The real difference is that in getting to Aurangabad, given the crowed roads and frequent stops, our bus trip took about six hours. It was a long and somewhat stressful ride but also fantastic for the scenery and as an opportunity to see everyday India outside of the tourist mainstream.
Aurangabad is a very old city located on a trade route. It had largely been passed over by industrial growth until the 1980s. At this time Bajaj Auto decided to expand production and built a huge plant here. By doing this the company played a key role in turning a relatively small city into a substantial new industrial hub. On the drive to the plant I recall seeing a lot of factories with important sounding names. Aurangabad is full of many satellite parts and accessory companies related to the automotive industry.
Simply put, the Waluj plant is huge. The campus is a ways off the main highway. After passing through the trademark giant white Bajaj entrance gate, the road took us about a kilometer through undeveloped wooded and grassy land. Arriving at the factory, it felt a bit like something out of a Star Wars set. It felt easy to get lost in a monotonous grid of tree-lined paved streets and big three-story concrete windowless concrete box buildings.
Now Waluj has a bit of a ghost town feel. Waluj used to be Bajaj’s primary scooter production facility. With the death of the unibody scooter and, following the new production model of the Chakan plant with a higher reliance on outside parts manufacturing, a significant portion of the facility lies mothballed.
There is still one legacy of the Vespa scooter that remains at Waluj and this is the three-wheeler. In India (despite the new competition from Piaggio) Bajaj Auto Limited remains king of the three-wheeler market. Many of Bajaj’s three-wheelers still owe some derivation from the original Ape, manufactured under license in the 1960s. In India three-wheelers are everywhere. They were imported into the U.S. briefly both by Bajaj of America in the 1980s and more recently by Bajaj USA (now Argo USA). Used versions from both eras still turn up from time to time. In India they generally come in two forms: autorickshaws—the ubiquitous affordable taxi of urban India and many other parts of Asia and the Middle East—and goods carriers or GCs. In India GC is synonymous for (and actually replaces) the terms “small truck” or “small lorry.”
GCs and autorickshaws for the New Delhi market were all painted bright primary green. The green designated that these vehicles ran on propane. This was certainly based on some mandate set up to help authorities assure that only newer cleaner-burning engines were allowed in the crowded inner city. Similarly, we noticed that in central Mumbai, three-wheelers were completely banned. We remember seeing lines of three-wheelers stopped just outside a certain boundary near the airport waiting to pick up new “fares” as passengers got out of more expensive car taxis and into the cheaper autorickshaws. This allowed travelers to save a bit of money as they moved to outer city areas. Inside the city beat-up black and yellow taxis—old Fiat clones—were also run on propane. The Mumbai three-wheeler ban was probably as much an anti-working class move as anything else since three-wheelers are the primary taxi of the poor and working class. Even though they actually take up less space and are more maneuverable in tight urban areas, they were probably banned due to their reputation for being smelly two-strokes. With propane-burning Bajaj three-wheelers available maybe the Mumbai ban will eventually be lifted?
Many of the other GCs were also bright primary colors. Between the colors and my own enthusiasm, I felt like I was in a candy shop. The visit to the three-wheeler assembly lines will remain one of the highlights of my life as a scooter enthusiast.
We left the factory on something of a sad poetic note. At one of the many near-empty factory intersections there was a large sculpture in an island in the middle of the street. At first we didn’t pay much attention to it. As we drove by, pieces sticking out of the structure caught our eye. Stop the car! Attached to a black rectangular column were parts and sections of a Bajaj scooter. The sculpture was put in place back when the scooter was the economic powerhouse of Bajaj Auto Ltd and certainly a symbol of pride for the Waluj plant. It once acted as a study in the form of the scooter, the towering pillar a reminder of the scooter’s economic authority. How things have changed! I got out of the car to capture some photos. The lawn around the sculpture wasn’t very well maintained and parts of the old scooter were starting to rust through. Just as the Vespa-derived metal-bodied manual-geared scooter production has reached an end for Bajaj Auto, the sculpture was well on its way towards rusting into oblivion.