Tata Elxsi was meant to be a computer hardware manufacturer in pre-liberalised India. As its global partners Elxsi and Silicon Graphics wound up, it recast itself as a global services venture in software design and visual computing. Managing director Madhukar Dev has seen the launch of two new specialist divisions for industrial design, and animation and video effects at the Bangalore-headquartered company. The story:

I joined Tata Elxsi in 1991, when it began operations, and have been managing director for 10 years now. Elxsi used to make supercomputers in the late ’70s and mid-1980s. The Silicon Valley-based company, which had sold seven supercomputers in India, saw a bigger potential here.

Because of stringent regulations, importing computers was a huge challenge in those days. So, the company teamed up with Tata to manufacture the machines here.

But, by the time the manufacturing licence came in 1989, Elxsi had folded up in the Valley and semiconductors had brought an end to the supercomputer era.

Tata Elxsi India took up the task of supporting Elxsi’s global customer base, for which we released a new version of its operating system. To use the manufacturing licence, we started scouting for the hottest technologies to make powerful computers for India. In 1991, we tied up with California-based Silicon Graphics and started SGI Systems. By 1993, as a result of liberalisation, we became Silicon Graphics’ distributor and value-added reseller. The Elxsi business had declined to almost nil.

The value-addition business involved supporting applications in which Silicon Graphics was strong, such as computer-aided design (CAD), and film and video applications. Our customers were all first-time users, so they needed a lot of support. We undertook projects on our equipment to show them the capabilities of the software.

In the next five years, the new crop of users had become familiar with the latest tools, making application support redundant. So we moved into content development and design. By the mid-1990s, we also started offering embedded electronic product design services. We now design chips and hardware, and write every layer of software and develop the user interface. We have started offering these services across the globe.
Today, around 70% of our business comes from embedded electronic services, up to 15% from industrial design services, and 5% from animation and visual effects. The rest comprises integrating hardware and software for virtual-reality projects.

Creativity isn’t confined to animated content and visual effects. There’s a lot of creativity in figuring out, say, the next-generation user interface in home electronics products. That requires the same level of innovation as visualising a 3D character.