Article by: Bhushan Mhapralkar
The Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises Development (MSMED) Act enacted by the Government of India in 2006 defines a Small and Medium scale Enterprise (SME) as the one whose investment in plant and machinery exceeds Rs. 25 lakh, but not beyond Rs. 5 crore. In case of a medium scale enterprise, the investment in plant and machinery exceeds Rs. 5 crore, but not beyond Rs. 10 crore. In an obscure lane on the road to Lavasa from Pune, an SME called Conex AvioAuto Pvt. Ltd. is located. It is claimed to be the third largest commercial tool room in the country. Commencing operations in 1999, it traces its origin to Nexus A.E.S., which was established in 1991, to sell machine tools and service them. Providing turnkey engineering and manufacturing solutions for the sheet metal industry, which include Body-In-White (BIW) engineering projects for Ashok Leyland’s G90 cabin and the TVS three-wheeler body, Conex AvioAuto has also catered to the needs of CV makers and tractor manufacturers like Tata Motors, Mahindra, John Deere, Force Motors and Piaggio. 
Conex AvioAuto’s ability to offer sheet metal engineering solutions to OEMs had its founder and managing director, Avinash Belgamwar (also the MD of Nextmotive Pvt. ltd.)dream of making an automobile. To become an OEM. Revealed Avinash Belgamwar, “As a tool room we face ups and downs. We saw it as an opportunity to work on other fronts. We thought of producing sub-assemblies for tier 1 suppliers. We gave up the thought after it was found that their margins were on a decline.” “It was at a meeting in 2005, which we decided to hold in the open at Sinhagad fort, to chalk out a road map for the next five-to-six years, that a plan to produce an automobile took shape,” he added. The plan to produce an automobile was also helped by the comment of an Italian friend that was playing on Avinash’s mind. On a business visit to Pune, Avinash’s friend did not seem to like the state of the diesel passenger three-wheelers. To him they looked unsafe, unrefined and polluting. “We chose a four-wheeler over a three-wheeler. We undertook such an activity because we felt that we had the knowhow, and because we had the right people. We approached NID, Ahmedabad for styling,” mentioned Avinash. 

Work began in earnest with the establishment of Nextmotive Motors Pvt. Ltd. in 2005 as a subsidiary of Conex AvioAuto. An SME embarked on the journey to become an OEM. “We went slowly as we did not want to take chances. The ladder frame of the first prototype comprising rectangular and tubular sections was made in-house. The development team included Karam Singh, N S Babu, YSP Rao and R M Srivastava as consultants. Karam Singh brought with him the experience of developing prototypes at Tata Motors. Design chief, N S Babu having retired as Tata Motors’ ERC head, took upon himself to guide the design team, including styling and design of dies, fixtures, components, etc. YSP Rao brought with him the expertise to design cabins. R M Srivastava brought with him the experience of testing and certification of vehicles, having worked with Tata Motors earlier. He co-ordinated with ARAI for certification and variant type approval activities. “We went to ARAI in 2011 and got the approval in the first go. Frontal crash test, roof crush test, etc.,” said Belgamwar. Three products have emerged over the years of work (a fourth model, a 2-tonne truck named Alite is in the pipeline). Avia with a 1.25-tonne payload is at the beta stage of development, and is powered by a 2-litre Isuzu derived 55 hp diesel engine from Avtec. This engine, according to Avinash, was used in the Hindustan Motors Winner. In Avia, the engine is placed longitudinally with the drive going to the rear through a (American axle supplied) live axle. Front includes a unique twin strut suspension that is being patented. A BS4 diesel engine of Peugeot lineage is also under consideration.

The smallest, the Atom, with a 0.88-tonne payload, is powered by a 510cc, single-cylinder 10 hp diesel engine from Greaves Cotton. The main stay is the Across. Available in two variants, HD and 870Di, like the Atom, it is a front-wheel drive design. A transversely located 871cc, 2-cylinder direct-injection 17 hp diesel engine from Greaves Cotton (found on Piaggio Ape Truk earlier) routes power through a 5-speed manual gearbox and a transaxle. The engine is a bit noisy. However, an amount of work on NVH in co-ordination with ARAI according to Pramod Shashtry, General Manager – Sales and Marketing, Nextmotive Pvt. Ltd., has ensured that not much of it filters into the cabin. Vibrations are well contained.

The engine’s location under the seat has ensured that the cabin is spacious, and with an accompanying sense of room. Any difference in power delivery or response over the rear-wheel drive Ace is not noticeable. We drove the Across on the hilly road to Lavasa (see box). The drive would also help to better understand what Avinash claimed, that the front-wheel drive design of the Across and Atom curbs transmission losses and aids packaging. Also ensures good response and superior fuel efficiency. ver the Across and the Atom, the Avia will get ‘power’ brakes and power steering. Supporting the three products are tier suppliers like Gabriel, JK Tyre, Apollo Tyres, Exide, Bosch, Rane Madras and Rane TRW, K G Foam, Pricol etc. Stating that he has put his experience of batch production to work in this project, which he learnt while working on the T70 tank at Chennai, Avinash explained that they had a big debate about the drive orientation. A conclusion was drawn that up to 1,000 kg GVW, it does not make a difference if the vehicle is a front-wheel drive or a rear-wheel drive. “Front-wheel drive improves fuel efficiency. We also looked at the French vans, which are mostly front-wheel drive designs,” said Belgamwar. Homologation of Atom and Avia is yet to take place.

Due to commonality of parts, it should not take long expressed Avinash. All three share the same cabin. The loading trays differ in dimensions, and are, like the cab and chassis, made on the same line. All three, the chassis, cab and tray are made in-house. Nextmotive has invested in laser welding solutions, leveraging its ability to provide BIW solutions to OEMs. While Atom and Across share the frame, except for dimensional changes, the frame of Avia is different. Atom and Across run on 12-inch dia. wheels whereas the Avia runs on 14-inch dia. wheels. 

The production facility is a mix of line layout and a functional layout. One look at the production facility, and it is clear, that the next step is expand-ability. The next challenge thus would be to expand successfully. The investment according to Avinash on this project is Rs. 50 crore. Supporting the project is a design team that is based at the company’s design centre at Amravati. Avinash opined that it is the high attrition rate at locations like Pune, which drove him to his hometown Amravati to set up a design centre there. Subjected to a grueling test schedule of over three lakh km before going to ARAI for homologation, the SCVs were supported by the design centre. The design centre also supported changes, big and small, to ensure that the end result was a robust product. Apart from the export markets of Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, the Across is finding its way into newer markets of Africa. Over 120 units have been imported till date to Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Orders for customised vehicles (including a passenger carrier and a mobile canteen) are being addressed too. Explained Avinash, “We went to the export markets first as we wanted to prove ourselves. Success in these markets would give us the confidence to enter the Indian market.” 
Aware that the Indian market is a demanding market, in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, Nextmotive entered into an arrangement with distributors
that also market Hero MotoCorp and Eicher products. The Sri Lankan distributor is a Parsi gentleman called Tito. He drove the Across for an amount of time. Only after he was satisfied did he give a plan for 30o units over a period of five to six months. This would amount to 3 per cent market share in a 1,000 unit strong Sri Lankan SCV market. As an SME, to manufacture a vehicle is a brave attempt. To think of making it grow is by no means less challenging. Avinash is keen to see the numbers climb up to 500 units per year. This will amount to five per cent of the market share in Sri Lanka. The next step would be to capture a 10 per cent market share. Stating that the Mahindra Maxximo is giving a tough fight to the Tata Ace in Sri Lanka, Avinash opined that specific application vehicles is what his company is comfortable doing (at the factory level) rather than pursue volumes. The takt time of 30 minutes for each station is indicative of this stratergy. 

Claiming that the body and chassis are subjected to CED coating, which makes them salt spray resistant for 800 hours, Avinash averred, “Even the bodies and frames of custom application vehicles are CED coated.” He added, “Since we provide customised solutions at the factory level, the buyer does not have to deal with corrosion issues resulting from aftermarket activity.” For its dealers (and distributors), Nextmotive has developed a software for part numbers and drawings. They have been advised to stock a minimum inventory of two sets. Well aware of the growing aspirations and expectations of the owner-operator buyer of an SCV, Nextmotive will be entering the Indian market in this fiscal. As it makes a successful foray, areas like aesthetics, fit-finish, etc., would have been looked into, and addressed. This would also include the suppliers, and their ability to support the project. Apart from expand-ability, Nextmotive is working towards constructing a robust marketing and support network. Avinash and his team are inclined to not leave a single stone unturned to realise their dream. That of turning into an automotive OEM from an SME.

The first impression is of the vehicle being tall. The ground clearance of Across, at 220 mm, is claimed to be more than that of the market leader Ace. Climbing into the seat, from behind the wheel, the driver is greeted to a good view ahead. The minimalist dashboard with a centrally mounted instrument cluster fails to impress. The inconsistent panel gaps may not matter much to a CV buyer, but will need to be addressed nevertheless. The driving position is high and comfortable, and accompanies a feeling of the cab being roomy and airy. Turn the key and the BS3 direct injection motor wakes up to emit a distinct diesel clatter. It is loud no doubt, though not very intrusive considering the current offerings in the category. First and second cogs are very tall and ensure take-off rather than achieve good speed. Third gear is where some speed is achieved, followed by more speed achieved in the fourth gear. Third and fourth gears offer a good combination of speed and the ability to lug. There was hardly any steam by the time the fifth gear was engaged on a hilly stretch of road. This cog could however help in achieving good efficiency on level roads. 

During the drive, the Across came across as a dandy and comfortable SCV. It behaved well over some of the broken roads in the region we subjected it to, displaying a good ability to tackle the undulations without resulting in an utterly inferior ride. It responded well to the inputs, and the fact that it is a front-wheel drive, did not make for a noticeable difference in the way the power was routed to the wheels. The way 40 Nm of torque was put to use. Evoking a feeling of being modern and well-engineered even though there is a need to work upon factors like aesthetics, features, and fit and finish, the first impression was positive. The braking feel, comprising discs at front and drums at the rear, was progressive. The ‘non-powered’ steering felt light and precise, and even at speeds in the region of
50 kmph. The top speed of this SCV is 70 kmph. If the pictures draw a similarity with the Tata Ace, in actual, subtle styling differences make the Across look different. 

As mentioned at the onset, the Across looks bigger than it really is, and with an ability to deliver more load. Getting under the skin of the Across reveals that the two – Ace and Across, are quite different even though they are aiming at the same category. Ace has a rear-wheel drive mechanical configuration. Across has a front-wheel drive layout. Powering the Ace is a 16 hp, 702 cc two-cylinder in-direct injection diesel engine positioned longitudinally. The Across’ 17 hp engine is of the direct-injection variety and located transversely. Claimed to have a near 50:50 weight distribution over the two axles, the Across, parked besides the Ace surprisingly does not look as big or burly. It is perhaps the expanse of the windscreen and its curvature that makes it look big. Also, unlike the Ace, turning the key to the off position does not kill the engine of the Across. A lever on the dashboard has to be pulled. It is a distinct reminder of the fact that a direct-injection diesel engine is located under the seats. 

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