Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Laxmanrao Kirloskar: A pioneer of Indian machine-tools industry

In 1907 Henry Ford was busy designing his 9th car model to be named Model T coming after the 8 models – A, B, C, F, K, N, R and S. Around the same time another gentleman named Laxmanrao Kirloskar in Belgaum, India was getting ready to launch his 2nd product – iron plough. Ford was creating a history in the world while Laxmanrao was doing the same in India. Why? Because until then no Indian had started a machine-tools product development business in India. How did Laxmanrao, a J J School of Art dropout, go about pioneering a machine tools industry in India? Let’s explore in this article.

Laxmanrao was born in 1869 (same year as Gandhi) and was fond of two things: mechanical objects and painting. Against his father’s wish and with financial support from his eldest brother Ramuanna, Laxmanrao joined J J School of Art in Bombay in 1885. Unfortunately, he had to quit after 2 years as he was found to be partially color-blind. He gave up painting but continued to study mechanical drawing at the institute. This skill came handy and lead him to a position of Assistant Teacher of Mechanical Drawing at Victoria Jubilee Technical Institute (VJTI) on a salary of Rs. 45 per month.

At VJTI Laxmanrao developed a habit of reading American Machinist, Scientific American and Foundry. He worked at the institute’s workshop and learnt to install, operate, repair, dismantle and reassemble various machines. He took pride in in describing himself as a 'ghisadi' - a blacksmith. He also started accepting jobs for installing and repairing machines. Soon he was called Prof. Kirloskar and Principal Mr. Phythian appointed him to teach ‘Steam’ – perhaps the equivalent to ICT of today. Sometime in early 1890s Laxmanrao started bicycle dealership – he would buy bicycles in Bombay and send them to his brother Ramuanna in Belgaum where he would sell them. For a cycle of Rs. 700 to 1000 Ramuanna would also charge Rs. 15 for teaching how to ride.

A turning point came in 1897 when Laxmanrao was passed over for promotion at VJTI in favor of an Anglo-Indian. Laxmanrao quit VJTI and joined his brother at the cycle shop in Belgaum. Soon the duo discovered another luxury item of interest to the rich in and around the town – Windmill. Soon they acquired a dealership from Samson Windmill of USA and went on a vigorous sales drive. They sold so many windmills in a year that Samson folks gave one free to the brothers. Like any luxury good, they soon ran out of customers.

In 1901 he was contracted by the king of a small princely state of Aundh to construct an assembly hall. However, within no time the king died and bitter disputes followed for succession. Laxmanrao’s work came to a grinding halt and his investments locked up. He had to return back to Belgaum. This setback got Laxmanrao thinking for what he could do for a steady income. And he thought of making his own products that would appeal to mass market - that of farmers.

The brothers had continued to subscribe to the three American magazines and Ramuanna used to meticulously file and index them. They also received mail-order catalogues from the USA. In one of the catalogues, an illustration of a fodder-cutter caught Laxmanrao’s eyes. The description said that the cutter would chop fodder into fine bits, including stems and roots which cattle normally reject. He ordered one and tested it. Finding that it worked well, Laxmanrao decided to copy it.

He built a small hut as an extension to his shop, bought a few tools and fixtures and started to make fodder-cutters, buying the castings for them from Bombay. He advertised in the newspapers in the local language. In 1901 this was the first Kirloskar product. As sales picked up, Laxmanrao bought an engine (2 ½ HP), a small lathe, a drilling machine and a small emery grinder, all of which he installed in the hut.

Like Henry Ford, Laxmanrao would also pioneer establishment of an industrial township in India called Kirloskarwadi in 1910 (although on a much smaller scale). Kirloskar Brothers would remain a leading industrial house in India throughout most of the 20th century. However, it would take India another hundred years to launch its own “model-T” called Nano that would catch world’s attention. And it would be done, not by Kirloskars but by Tatas.

Source: Cactus & Roses: An autobiography by Shantanu L. Kirloskar (Laxmanrao’s son).

6 comments:

  1. Very nice! What prompted you to write this article?

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  2. I am glad you liked the article, Sanjay. I am studying the method of innovation of various people / organizations both in Indian and abroad. I use the learning when I work with my customers. Helping organizations become more innovative is what I do for a living. It enjoy it.

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  3. Hi Vinay, Are sure about the price of bicycle to be of the range of 700-1000 INR in those days. I remember the cost of my cycle Hero Ranger was Rs 1600 in 1992-93. Rs 700-1000 would have meant huge money back then.

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    1. Saket, This is good question. I wondered about the same when I read it in the biographical book. But I couldn't double-check it. So it could be wrong. However, this price is at the turn of the century when cycle may not be manufactured on a mass scale yet and price might have included shipping charges etc. In case you come across any other reference, please share. Thanks.

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  4. Thanks Vinay! I really enjoyed reading your article. My father worked in a machiche tool industry and he spoke highly about people like Kirloskar or Rusi Modi(of Tata steel fame).

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  5. Laxmanrao vl be the inspiration to "Marathi manus" to establish industrial strategy.

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