On December 20, the Tejas light combat aircraft (LCA) was cleared to enter operational service with the Indian Air Force (IAF). Now Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) faces the daunting transition from handcrafting Tejas prototypes into factory-assembling the 200-fighter Tejas fleet that Defence Minister A K Antony has envisioned.
The ministry of defence (MoD) has sanctioned Rs 1,556 crore for HAL's high-tech production line that aims to build 12 Tejas fighters each year. The funds will come from the IAF (25 per cent); the navy (25 per cent), while HAL will put up half the money.
Business Standard visited the new Tejas production line, an expansive 28,000-square metre facility in four massive hangars in HAL, Bangalore. Work is already underway on the first IAF order of 20 Tejas Mark I fighters, with an order for 20 more in the pipeline once the aircraft gets "final operational clearance" next year. The first two fighters being "series produced" - they are numbered SP-1 and SP-2 - are visibly taking shape.
"By end-March 2014, SP-1 will fly, and SP-2 will fly a few months later. By the end of next year four Tejas will be in production. In 2015-16, we will build six fighters, and in 2016-17, we will build nine. We are targeting an annual capacity of 12 Tejas fighters," says V Sridharan, the project manager hand-chosen to build the LCA. Earlier, he set up HAL's production line for the Hawk trainer.
Over the years, excellent designs like the Arjun tank have failed the transition from design into product. This is because India's archaic defence production policies make the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) responsible for designing equipment, with production responsibility then passing onto a network of eight defence public sector undertakings (DPSUs) and 39 ordnance factories (OFs) with long reputations for sloppy production. Having played little role in design, the manufacturing agencies struggle to produce the system.
The Tejas could be a game-changer. Firstly, HAL has played a major role both in designing the Tejas and in building prototypes for the flight-test programme. Secondly, HAL has brought a radically new approach to Tejas production, adopting global aerospace manufacturing standards and an unprecedented approach to quality control.
Walking around the Tejas assembly line, Sridharan explains that the sixteen Tejas prototypes HAL has built are each different from the other. As the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) incrementally refined and improved the fighter, each new prototype incorporated improvements and additions. The most recent prototype has a pressure refuelling system that lets the Tejas be topped up Formula One style, in just 8 minutes and then flown back into combat.
"As a result of all these changes, a panel from one Tejas would not fit another. Now we will implement absolute standardisation, with identical components, assemblies and panels," explains Sridharan.
This is being done with laser scanners that ensure that a number of key points (called "locators") on each aircraft being built is exactly where it should be. By measuring with the laser, it is ensured that the locator is within 80 microns, i.e. about one-tenth of a millimetre, of where it should be. These are international standards, used by companies like Boeing.
It is evident from the focus of the laser trackers teams that it is painstaking work. This standardisation, and coordinating the flow of Tejas systems and sub-systems to the assembly line constitutes what Sridharan describes as the process of "stabilising" the Tejas line.
"Once the process is stabilised, we can transition to higher rates of production. My initial focus will be on production quality; then we will scale up production. HAL will meet the target of building 20 fighters by 2016-17," he says.
That was the pattern while building the Hawk. After building just two aircraft in the first year, seven were built in the second year. In the third year, HAL built 18 Hawks, and the remaining 14 Hawks were produced within months.
Within ADA and in HAL, there is expectation that better production could improve aircraft performance. "Better build quality could well improve the Tejas' aerodynamic performance, reducing drag, and improving its speed, rate of climb and turn rate," says a designer.
HAL's chairman, RK Tyagi, explains that the international best practices being introduced in the Tejas assembly line will be replicated across all the aerospace giant's production lines, including the Sukhoi-30MKI line in Nashik and the Hawk trainer line in Bangalore.
"We have earmarked Rs 3,500 crore of HAL funds for making our production lines world class. Our focus is to gain the IAF's confidence. We will do what is necessary for that," says Tyagi.