Summers can be hellish in Bidar in northwest Karnataka, with temperatures darting past the 40-degree Celsius mark regularly. Add the fact that it’s an arid region, and it’s easy to see why the district reported a rise in the number of farmer suicides back in the 1990s. Since then, there have been several government and private initiatives to help farmers overcome natural disasters, mostly involving different crops and seeds and other agricultural inputs. Now, Bidar is seeing something new: digital agriculture.

In a pilot project, farmers growing ginger were trained to use sensors, which resulted in reducing the water intake for their crop. Miniaturised robots and drones provided data about the crops and the soil, and ensured precision farming by specifying the exact amount of fertiliser and pesticide to be used. The result: a 15% to 20% increase in yield.

The unlikely hero in one of the all-too-few feelgood stories about farming is a company known for its automotive technologies: Bosch. “Our aim,” says Rajendra Nath Goswami, senior general manager, agricultural and water technologies, Bosch, “is to substantially improve farm productivity, reduce water and other input usage, and also lessen the impact on climate change.” Laudable ambitions, but what’s a company that makes alternators, powertrains, and injectors for car engines doing on the farm?

The answer opens the door to a whole new Bosch—an automotive components player, definitely, but also a growing technology heavyweight. It’s difficult to pigeonhole this labyrinthine organisation. It’s an auto component maker without doubt. But it’s also an information technology (IT) player that provides software solutions and services to a host of sectors like agriculture, retail, and health care. It’s also a cloud computing services company that has enough capacity to store and process massive amounts of data for clients across the world.

I guess the man heading this organisation will be able to explain the contours of the new Bosch. And so I’m in Bengaluru, sitting in the Bosch corporate office, waiting to meet Soumitra Bhattacharya, managing director, Bosch Limited, and president, Bosch Group India. He’s been at Bosch for 22 years, so I’m sure he’ll be able to define Bosch for me.

“Bosch is a contemporary company, which is strongly connected, focussed on future technologies, while also taking care of the core. We are in the automotive space in mobility, in the Internet of Things [IoT] and connected products in various sectors, and are providing innovative, merged and affordable solutions for the future of India,” says Bhattacharya. Sure it is, but can he explain that so we can all understand what exactly Bosch does?

Clients today, explains Bhattacharya patiently, are looking for total solutions in the connected world of the future, including mobility, which requires the use of hardware and software solutions and services. “The plan is to provide connected and intelligent products with embedded software, which generate tonnes of data for analysis, thereby ensuring the best predictive, preventive, and maintenance solutions.” Bosch is managing to do this by leveraging its many strengths: It’s the world’s largest manufacturer of affordable sensors; it has its own cloud; and it has over 19,000 software engineers in India, who can help provide cutting-edge software and analytics solutions.

It sounds like any other IT giant, I say. Why is Bosch getting into an area that, say, an IBM or Cisco have made its own? The answer, like most things these days, is data. Because Bosch makes so many connected devices, whether for cars or farms or homes, it sits on “tonnes of data”. And that’s something an IBM or Microsoft doesn’t have—at least not in such quantities. Vijay Ratnaparkhe, president and managing director, Robert Bosch Engineering and Business Solutions, Bosch’s largest software development centre outside Germany, says Bosch is uniquely placed because it has access to data as well as the capability to analyse it to provide customised solutions.

Because I seem somewhat sceptical, Ratnaparkhe shows me how Bosch has implemented technology in its own office. Instead of access cards or fingerprint scanners at entry points, Bosch seems to let its 30,000-odd employees in and out with no security layers. What it does have are cameras that capture images of employees, and software that matches these images against a database. Unknown faces are prevented from entering. “While many companies may be able to provide the cameras,” says Ratnaparkhe, “the challenge is to provide a complete solution, which requires an understanding of complex algorithms in the case of image recognition”. And that’s what Bosch brings to the table—solutions that can be used by a host of industries.

Here’s the thing. While Bosch sees itself as a tech company, it’s still considered an auto components player by most of the market. According to a report by brokerage firm Motilal Oswal, Bosch is the best proxy for the Indian automotive industry, offering an exposure across all auto segments and enjoying market leadership across all the key business segments.

The competition seems to agree. Bosch is a phenomenal company, says Sunjay Kapur, managing director, Sona BLW Precision Forging, an auto component manufacturer. His praise is based on the fact that he thinks Bosch, more than any other company, has managed to evolve rapidly to meet changing consumer demands .

Bosch’s strategy seems to be paying off. In the past five years, it has seen an annual growth of 5.5% in revenue, from Rs 8,972.3 crore in FY13 to Rs 11,172.3 crore this year. Similarly, profit after tax went up 12.7%, from Rs 958.3 crore to Rs 1,741.1 crore. This kind of steady progress has kept Bosch in the top half of the Fortune India 500; it has consistently been ranked in the early 100s, from a high of 114 in 2011 to 121 this year.

As important is the fact that India is seen as a key part of Bosch’s global play. Four years ago, we had discovered that Bosch’s work in India was beginning to impact global auto technology trends. Over the past few years, India has had a disproportionate say in Bosch worldwide compared with sales, an indication of how important the country is to headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany.

I had met Ratnaparkhe back in 2012 when Bosch was looking at itself as a technology company that would change the way we drive. At the time, engineers at Bosch were speaking of the Internet of Things as something that would be important in an undefined “future”. Well, to coin a cliché, the future seems to be now.

Today, the buzz in Bosch, both in India and globally, is about the “third living space”. According to social scientists, most adults spend the maximum time in two living spaces—the home and the workplace. The concept of the third space where people spend the maximum amount of time has been monetised by the likes of Starbucks, and now, connected cars.

“The car should provide a seamless integration between the home and office and become an extension of the other two living spaces because people are spending more and more time in commuting these days,” explains Bhattacharya.

For Bosch, this is not just a concept. Five years ago, the company had just begun exploring machine-to-machine communication where cars would “talk” to each other and to other infrastructure. Today, that’s translated into a prototype. On display at Bosch’s “Future Connected” conference in New Delhi earlier this year was the company’s latest connectivity offering installed in a Mahindra XUV500. Called iTraMS (intelligent transport management system), the system is Bosch’s demonstration of implementing end-to-end, vehicle-to-infrastructure communication—controlled by an app on the owner’s phone. “The deployment of iTraMS will bring down high maintenance and operational costs in vehicles, monitor driver’s performance, reduce thefts and breakdowns, and offer better fleet management,” says Vijay Pandey, regional president of Bosch’s automotive aftermarket division.

Bosch’s Bidadi factory is the company’s lead plant for the production of single-cylinder common rail pumps and conventional fuel injection pumps.  
Bosch’s Bidadi factory is the company’s lead plant for the production of single-cylinder common rail pumps and conventional fuel injection pumps.  
Image : Narendra Bisht 

The next level of connectivity is about making the car a “node in the Internet”, which means that the car is like a computer, which generates data about its location, weather conditions, information about accidents, congestions and road conditions. It then uses the cloud to communicate with other vehicles and road infrastructure (toll booths and so on), so other cars can take preemptive measures or change routes if needed. “While all these may seem rather far-fetched today, the technology and its applications are already available. The real challenge is to put it all together,” says Ratnapharke.

Bosch is looking at a future that will see the dominance of electric vehicles, with or without drivers. And a lot of its research is in that space. The big concern, as far as electric vehicles are concerned, is what will run them. In a word, batteries. India does not have the raw materials needed to make the lithium-ion batteries that electric vehicles run on today and are also extremely costly. Getting the raw material will be hugely expensive. Arunabha Ghosh, CEO of New-Delhi based think tank Council on Energy, Environment and Water, says the battery accounts for 50% of the cost of an electric vehicle. “So if you have to make all vehicles electric by 2030, you have to focus on what goes into the battery, along with the kind of technology used,” he says, referring to the government’s plan to have only electric vehicles on Indian roads by 2030.

Bosch’s researchers are tracking progress on this front because that will really dictate the future. “In technology, you will require a new highefficiency drivetrain, as well as affordable batteries with longer life that can travel between 200 km and 250 km on a single charge so that charging anxiety is not there,” explains Mahesh Babu, CEO, Mahindra Electric, the only Indian company that makes electric cars.

Bosch makes those drivetrains as well as sensors and other equipment that will go into a truly connected car. And the market is watching this. The Motilal Oswal report says it is Bosch’s focus on the electric vehicle portfolio that will bring in the revenue in the near future both from the domestic and global markets.

“How cars get used will ultimately depend on the kind of applications built into the connectivity platform. The opportunities are only limited by our own imaginations,” says Ratnapharke. This means more intelligent sensors, millions of lines of code, data analytics, and a lot more engineering. There’s a lot happening already. There’s the e-cell, which the India engineering team helped develop. This cell sends emergency signals automatically to ambulance services if the vehicle is involved in a crash. It even estimates the severity of injuries, helping the ambulance service prioritise services. (Bosch has something similar, the lean connectivity unit, for scooters, which allows riders to make calls in case of an emergency.)

Then, there’s DigiSense, also developed in India, a sensor installed in some 5,000 Mahindra tractors loaned out to farmers. This sensor allows the company to track where the tractors are, limit its boundaries, as well as monitor engine health and suggest predictive maintenance.

Tractors are still vehicles, so building technology solutions isn’t too much of a stretch. But going back to where we began, farming seems like quite a leap. Bosch doesn’t think so. It’s a service that can do with technology solutions, and Bosch is in the business of providing technology solutions.

Agriculture offers challenge for Bosch, because every technological breakthrough will have to come from the Indian lab; the company understands that it could get too complicated and expensive for scientists not familiar with India’s climate and geography to develop innovative solutions.

An understanding of soil conditions is vital, says Goswami, who also heads Bosch’s agricultural business. Bosch sensors, he tells me, are developed to suit different soil types. More important, these sensors are enabled to learn (machine learning), “which ensures that the sensors continue to learn more and more as time passes”.

This combination of data from soil sensors and remote-sensing satellite with agronomy sciences (the company is working with various agricultural institutes, including the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru) means that the solutions provided to farmers are of much higher value than what is provided by regular sensors.

Other Bosch sensors can tell farmers whether or not to water the fields; whether to open or close the shades in a greenhouse; and even what kind of storage the crops will need. The data provided by Bosch even tells those in the floriculture business how to ensure the right length of a rose stalk, and the best size of the bud for the best return.

Then there are sensors intended for coldchains. “Adopting digital technologies and practices across the agri value chain minimises the time of intervention, resulting in improved crop productivity and less wastage, and provides early warning signals of a pest attack and the necessary risk-mitigating measures,” says Goswami.

The technology is available, and Bosch is working on making it more affordable and scaleable and looking for new business models for the dissemination of the technology. But there are other issues that the technology behemoth had not accounted for. For instance, in Bidar, Bosch engineers realised that sensors were being damaged because farmers would kick them or step on them in the course of walking around the farm. So the engineers had to work on making sensors that would work even when buried deep in the soil.

Some years ago, Kishore Biyani, CEO of Future Group, told this magazine that his aim was to bring high technology into retail. Back in 2014, in relation to his retail venture Big Bazaar, he spoke of the concepts of omni-channel, endless aisles, smart shopping carts, unmanned stores, and “connected commerce”. To be sure, it wasn’t a new idea even then, albeit in non-Indian companies. Disney, Tesco, Starbucks, Chipotle and others have used omni-channel to good effect. In India, there are still only a few brick-and-mortar players adopting technology in such a big way .

Enter Bosch. Understanding that retail needs more than cuttingedge technology, the company funded an intrapreneurial venture called iero (earlier Bezirk India). “What we are doing is enabling retailers and owners of physical stores to become digital stores—bringing the benefits of the digital world to the physical space to enable new customer experience through the iero portfolio of connected apps,” explains Hemant Sheelvant, business head and strategist at iero.

There’s a lot going on at iero, including apps developed for store management, predictive analytics, store maps, targeted advertising apps, and so on. “Although they face tough competition from e-commerce stores, if brick-and-mortar stores use IoT properly, they can offer customers something they will not get from an e-commerce platform, that is, an in-store experience they won’t forget,” adds Sheelvant.

Meanwhile, Bosch is building a network of partnerships to disrupt other sectors too. For instance, it has developed a micro-climatic monitoring system along with global chipmaker Intel. The product is basically a small black box stuffed with all kinds of chemical sensors; it constantly monitors the amount of sulphur dioxide, humidity, carbon dioxide, and particulate matter in the environment. Using this device, the company has developed an Index of Air Quality. “Since the system can work in extreme temperatures from -20 degrees to 50 degrees Celsius, it can be used anywhere in the country, to measure the air quality,’’ says R.K. Shenoy, senior vice president, business unit, powertrain electronics and hardware product engineering.

Then there’s health care. “We are already building a platform for eye care that will screen and track diabetes, help maintain the lifestyle of a diabetic patient and, finally, advise the patient on home care. In fact, we plan to write the whole road map for the diabetic patient. We will see whether we can do it on our own or have to take the help of startups,’’ says Ratnapharke.

The company has also tied up with the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, to carry out cutting-edge research on the promising fields of environmental protection, energy, and mobility. To make the connected car a reality, the company has joined hands with a number of app developers. Globally, it has entered into a strategic part nership with U.S. technology company Nvidia to use its single-chip processor that can manage Level 4 autonomous driving capabilities—a driverless car that can operate in any condition that a human driver can negotiate.

“For things that require huge investments and state-of-the art laboratories, we go with the bigger players [like Intel], but for developing applications and experimentations we look for startups. After all, it is not possible for a single company to do everything,” says Ratnapharke.

The one thing certain about technology is that it’s constantly changing; obsolescence is almost its trademark. And it’s not something new, though the pace of change has increased dramatically. In 1861, Vanity Fair published a cartoon that showed a pod of whales partying. The caption: “Grand ball given by the whales in honor of the discovery of the oil wells in Pennsylvania.” The subtext, of course, was that the discovery and use of fossil fuels meant that whales would no longer be hunted for blubber. As the world now begins to move away from fossil fuels, there’s no clue about who will be shown partying. But with its unwavering focus on cutting-edge technology, my guess is that Bosch will definitely be one of the causes for a party.

(The article was originally published in December 2017-March 2018 special issue of the magazine.)

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