Continental: Gaining insights into one of India’s leading OEM suppliers
Enthusiasts might be familiar with the name Continental and its range of tyres. But there's more to the company than just that. The German automotive parts manufacturer has a history that spans more than 150 years globally. And while the automotive supply chain is not something that usually catches the fancy of enthusiasts, it is companies like Continental which supply technology and components to OEMs and automotive manufacturers to help our cars go harder, faster while being uncompromised on reliability. Continental has been committed to constantly upgrading technology in the automotive sector, and with the inauguration of their new facility in Pune, we had a conversation with Prashanth Doreswamy, president and CEO of Continental India and Landry Tchapda, Head – Business Area and Plant, Continental Surface Solutions India.
What is the Continental story?
Prashanth tells us that Continental’s journey started with rubber products and now it is also a technology company. Continental entered India in 2008 and has now completed 14 years in our market. The company also has 10,000 employees working across seven plants and 13 locations in the country, with the headquarters and a tech center located in Bangalore. The Continental Group itself is split into three group sectors – Continental Tyres, ContiTech and Automotive Technologies. ContiTech and Automotive Technologies consist of multiple business areas within their domain. One such business is called Surface Solutions which deals with the applications of seating, door trims, instrument panels and the like. Continental also has a powertrain group or PTG, which operates out of their plant in Sonepat. Their other products include engine and body mounts, which are manufactured in Pune through a JV. The company is also heavily invested in the future, especially when it comes to technologies that facilitate cars to communicate with each other and in-car computing, which helps power the increasing number of gadgets that our cars now come equipped with.
How does Continental work with OEMs?
“Just to give you a little bit of an overview of the development process that happens in the automotive business, the most important thing I would say is the relationship and the course coordination,” Prashanth tells us. “Why do OEMs come to us? It's because any product we develop, we have a vast experience of developing it, be it for Toyota, be it for Mercedes (Benz), be it Volkswagen or BMW. So, over time, we have gained vast experience of developing many products, so our knowledge base is very high.” Prashanth goes on to explain that if an OEM is bringing out a vehicle by 2025, they have to start working backwards as per the product requirements. It is also important to consider what technology would be used as the development time for a product is typically 3 years and then the vehicle will be available for another six years, which means that nine years down the line, the technology that you choose today should still be relevant. Sometimes, even the engineers are placed in an OEM to ensure that the development process is smoother and faster. Landry Tchapda adds to that by saying, “This is something where we are in interaction with the OEMs already 5-6 years before the guy is coming on the road. We have to be able to give solutions that are also helpful for the customers meeting their needs. On the other hand, we have to innovate to remain the pioneer in the market.”
Evolution of an industry and its products
“It all started 35 years back in 1984 and Maruti Suzuki entered I think with all great respect to Maruti. In the first 20 years, they held every single customer in terms of bringing them up to speed with the Japanese techniques. Yeah. And with that, there's a huge evolution, which has happened over the last two decades,” Prashanth tells us. The Indian automotive industry has continued to become even more efficient and today, made in India vehicles are accepted in developed markets such as North America. The vehicles themselves are now much more complex to work on. “In the ’70s and ’80s, cars used to be purely mechanical. Slowly, we started adding electronics to the car, followed by software. The software is defining the car architecture today.” Prashanth goes on to reiterate that for instance if there’s a glitch in your smartphone, it only causes irritation to the end consumer, but if there’s a software error in the car, the result can be fatal. “When you’re bringing these technologies into a car, it requires a lot of R&D and validation.”
A 50 lakh sq. meter Pune plant
Continental also inaugurated a new facility in Pune recently and given that the city is a long-established hub for the automobile industry, the move is a logical one. “We follow the ‘in the market, for the market' approach which means that we want to be there where our customers are, we want to be close to them,” says Landry. The Pune facility combines Continental’s know-how from their 16 other surface solution plants which are spread across the globe. Landry also mentions that this new Pune plant is a greenfield facility which has a capacity of approximately 50 lakh sq. meters, with the land size ensuring that they also have the potential for scaling up in the future as they ramp up production capacities. The manufacturing plant will mainly manufacture Acella Eco and Acella Lux, products which are designed to lend cars seats and dashboards a high-quality look and feel. The plant also takes environmental production and sustainability measures very seriously, with multiple measures implemented to ensure gasses and potentially hazardous materials do not affect the surroundings. Prashanth adds that, “Through this plant, we will be able to actively supply our customers and partners from local production.” He says that it is estimated that the number of vehicles in India could more than double from the current 4.8 million to around ten million by 2025, and given these projections, he mentions that, “This (the Pune plant) is a major milestone on our way to become 'First partner of choice' for our customers on the Indian market.”
The future: EVs, autonomous tech and more
“When we talk about electric vehicles (EV), we tend to restrict ourselves to the vehicle powertrain and the battery capacity. But EVs indicate an entire transformation of the vehicle architecture from the traditional cars,” says Prashanth. The electrification journey in India may have begun nearly two decades ago with the introduction of the Reva EV, but it is only in recent times that there is a significant amount of traction in the market. “EVs are now showing a lot of promise, especially in terms of battery (capacity), look & feel, practicality, and most importantly, matching with the ICE vehicles in sheer power and capabilities,” Prashanth adds. Along similar lines, Continental is also working towards developing an over-the-air update solution capable of updating the entire vehicle – be it everything from the powertrain to the infotainment system. The company also has a whole range of assisted driving technologies, with radar, sensors, LIDAR and cameras working in tandem as a part of the ecosystem to provide critical information. Continental’s Technical Centre in Bangalore is also one of the company’s largest automotive R&D centers globally and it supports their automotive business both at a local and global level.
So what does Continental’s, and by extension, the OEM industry’s growth mean for you as a car buyer or an enthusiast? With companies such as Continental investing further in the country and setting up technologically advanced facilities, more of the tech that is used to make our machines go harder and faster while remaining safer can be made in-house at a competitive price point, which would eventually make our cars more affordable while also ensuring a world class level of engineering in Indian products. Continental in India is one of the major companies making inroads into boosting our technological prowess and showcasing it to the world, and with cars which are engineered to take on the best the world has to offer, our driving experience is all the better for it.