Making up for technology lag

Despite capital spending in diverse segments of the economy over the past few decades, all these investments have failed to upgrade th...

Making up for technology lag

Despite capital spending in diverse segments of the economy over the past few decades, all these investments have failed to upgrade the technological capabilities of local manufacturing firms for sustained growth and real job opportunities.

Among others, the technological capability of an industrial firm or sector may include design or manufacturing capability of a product, and technological upgradation, which involves improving an existing product or developing a new product.
As a nation, we are a consumer-oriented society, which consumes and manufactures only low value-added items. Even the low value added manufacturing sector is under threat from competitive neighbours.
If real economic growth is to be achieved, we, as a nation, have to move from being a consumer-oriented society to a manufacturing-oriented society, just like any other developed nation, by defining and implementing a focused, long-term technology policy for different industrial sectors, both at the national and regional levels.
For a manufacturing-oriented base, a nation — not a government — has to have a technology policy with a purpose, which does not change with changing governments.
The purpose of a policy relates to the type and level of technological capabilities to be acquired/developed according to the nation’s needs and resources, and accordingly, the type and level of collaboration with foreign suppliers and the capability of local academia and research and development institutes need to be developed.
It is generally portrayed that a population of around 180 million people is a drag on resources, infrastructure and the economy of the country. However, this population is also a potential customer; a facet often not propounded by our government but realised by foreign investors.
Despite the present law and order condition, foreign firms manufacturing consumer items in the country are making and repatriating huge profits; such is the potential of having a large customer base.
The present technological capabilities of local manufacturing heavy industries present a dismal picture. While our roads are choked by automobiles, rickshaws and motorcycles, we are, at best, assemblers, not manufacturers of autos. There is no information available on the core technological capabilities of these local auto manufacturers, such as gear train manufacturing, engine casting and assembly.
Further, despite having one of the largest mobile phone densities in the world, the country does not have much technological expertise in mobile phone design and manufacturing.
Another big example is the large cement sector. Foreign experts are called by the cement sector for periodical checks of machines and equipment, in which neither the local workforce is much involved, nor any data is shared between various cement factories on their routine maintenance records.
Also, it remains to be seen how much the capital goods sector has facilitated the transferring of expertise and integrating with local small and medium enterprises (SMEs).
The important question is whether these industries in different sectors are investing in their human resource; whether the auto sector is training its employees in design, manufacturing and casting operations other than quality and assembly line inspections; whether the cement sector is facilitating the transfer of expertise from foreign trainers to the local workforce; and finally, what steps is the government taking to enhance the technical and analytical capabilities of the local workforce.
Investment in human resource facilitates international technology transfer and upgradation of local technological capabilities for better value-added products.
Presently, most manufacturing firms are generally assembling different items, where even the assembly quality leaves much to be desired. Generally, engineers and other technical personnel run daily operations and perform preventive/predictive maintenance of plants/assembly lines.
Usually, operationalisation/optimisation of manufacturing plants is done by foreign experts, and then local engineers are trained in the running and general maintenance of these plants. This training is ‘know-how’ of the technology.
The competitiveness of the manufacturing base of a country is tested when it competes at the international level. Some of the SMEs, such as those in Sialkot, have been successfully exporting without much government patronage.
However, the capital goods manufacturing sector has apparently failed to make its contribution to national economic growth and improving exports by failing to indigenise/upgrade its existing technological capabilities to meet international benchmarks for quality, efficiency and reliability.
When the technological capabilities and related expertise are not indigenised, spare parts, machinery and experts have regularly been called in from abroad, which costs foreign exchange to the nation and lost jobs as well. We have a cost-competitive workforce, and technology and related expertise indigenisation would help to export the trained workforce to different countries.
Recently, industrialised nations such as Singapore and South Korea made universities as hubs of R&D, with emphasis on inculcating research and analytical skills in university graduates. This skilled manpower was used to attract and facilitate technology transfer from developed nations to local industries.
Therefore, to move from being a consumer-oriented society to a manufacturing society, there is a need to move from acquiring ‘know-how’ of technological capabilities to developing the capability to generate knowledge through R&D and international technology transfer, which could help upgrade the existing technological capabilities of local industry.
A local workforce with strong analytical skills; capability and capacity of local academia; willingness of local industry to collaborate, and facilitation and incentives by the government are some of the factors that help in developing local R&D culture, facilitated by international technology transfer.
Therefore, the need is to look into and interweave different factors to formulate a long term, holistic technology policy. However, a technology policy is not a time-bound plan; it should be a roadmap that is developed and continuously updated to meet the immediate and future technological needs of the country.
All the stakeholders should be taken on board, and milestones and performance measurement systems should be staked to have a synergistic effect.
The policy should be implemented through plans of action, benchmarks and indicators, and the means of their measurement should be clearly outlined. Policymakers are required to document decisions and their rationale, as it would help in building a valuable repository for future projects and policymakers.
The writer is an engineer with a diverse industrial experience.

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