In January 2019, Vicky Kaushal-starrer Uri film was released. The film was based on the surgical strike conducted by the Indian Army on Pakistan in September 2016 to eliminate terrorists as a retaliatory response to a terrorist attack that killed around 18 Indian soldiers. Probably the most prominent thing in the first few moments of the movie are the night-vision goggles worn by the Commandos that help them see their targets clearly even in the pitch-dark environment.
This (night vision devices) is what Systems 4 Ever (S4E) - founded by Rajendra Chodankar - makes. In 2017, Chodankar founded S4E as a forward integration strategy into electro optics products and systems. Amid COVID pandemic, when demand for body temperature detectors increased, the company forayed into producing fever detection systems based on niche thermal technology products. This has kept the company busy than before.
In conversation with Rakesh Rao, Rajendra Chodankar, Founder of RRP S4E Innovations Pvt Ltd, narrates his entrepreneur journey and highlights the potential of electro optics market in India.
Can you take us through your journey as an entrepreneur?
I have been in the industry for over three decades. We began our journey as a trading firm in 1990 and represented some foreign companies in analytical instrumentation. As the journey progressed, we started offering some customised systems, which were built using imported modules, for the nuclear facility of Bhabha Atomic Research Center. In 2001, we took a quantum jump by setting up a Nano machining facility, which still remains to be unique and one of its kind in India.
This facility was set up to mainly produce mechanical components with one micron tolerance which were used for very niche applications. We delivered a lot of modules to the Government of India. Nano machining is based on diamond turning and the components that are produced by diamond turning obviously forms a part of the electro optics industry. All the optical elements that go into an electro optic system needs elements which are actually diamond-turned and this prompted us to go into the electro optics industry in 2011-12.
We could do a very good job on a project for the Indian Army, which was building some optical elements on the thermal imaging fire control system. Following the launch of Make in India initiative, we formed RRP S4E Innovations Pvt Ltd in 2016-17 for offering complete electro optics products or systems. Today, we are probably one of the most known electro optics companies.
What are electro optics products and where they are used?
Electro optics devices are thermal imager which provides soldiers day-like visibility during night and help them view the enemy or the target in night.
These night vision devices were the need of the hour as most of them were made by reputed global companies and were imported. With the Indian Army undertaking soldier modernisation programme, night vision devices are in demand from the defence sector and hence, we decided to enter the electro optics field. It is a very nice tool system which allows soldiers to detect, recognise, or identify a target in night. Depending upon the requirement, we can offer products having detection range starting from 300 meters up for five km. These products can be used by the hand, in a vehicle or on a border perimeter.
Not just army, our products find applications in air force, navy, Border Security Forces, Home Ministry, and other commercial establishments like homeland security services.
What is the significance of setting up a facility for 3rd generation electro optics products?
If we have to be at par with the existing manufacturers globally, we needed the state-of-the-art system. Hence, we decided to establish the third-generation manufacturing facility.
We were planning to inaugurate the facility on March 28, 2020 at the hands of Dr Anil Kakodkar (past Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission of India). However, COVID 19 pandemic has delayed the process. If everything falls in line, then the facility should be fully functional by August 30, 2020.
It was not an easy task to set up this facility. But, Make in India initiative helped us get the technology directly from a global company. All we had to do was to use our expertise and infrastructure very effectively and tactfully to make it happen. We were also fortunate to have the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) as a partner. We complement each other very well and together we could build the third-generation facility, which will be a very unique one in India.
In fact, IIT - with investment from Department of Telecommunication - is in process of setting up a fab facility to manufacture infrared sensors for thermal imaging in India. This is expected to be launched in January 2021. If they are able to do it successfully, then India will be the fourth country in the world after US, France, and Israel to do so. These sensors will offer huge business opportunity.
How has your experience in thermal vision devices helped you foray into manufacturing products for COVID detection?
COVID pandemic has caught everyone unaware. Detection of rise in body temperature (fever) is one of the simplest and fastest way to identify possible COVID patient.
Thermal core is the main sensor that is used to detect fever. Since we had this thermal core technology knowledge in house, we put together a team consisting members from S4E and IIT to build thermal detection products. Started work on these products around March 20 and by the end of April, we came up with a product that could can detect fever in a human body.
This was a blessing in disguise for us. Based on our core technology, by using the right software and electronics, we could build the fever detection product.
At present, we have three products in this category. We have received good response so far. We have secured a project for delivering almost 1,000 units to Andhra Pradesh MedTech Zone Limited (AMTZ) by end of August 2020. There are many other contracts in the pipeline. It really does help as we are busier than the normal times.
Is this (fever detection products) going to be a temporary phenomenon?
This product range would not be a permanent sector for us. But, the advantage of the product lies with the user, because even if COVID is eliminated completely, this product still has a value. The organisation (may be an airport, hospital, large corporation, etc), who is currently using this product for fever detection, can also use it for surveillance purpose during day as well as night (in pitch dark environment) because it is based on a thermal camera.
Normal camera is effective in day time only, while thermal camera can be useful during day as well as night. So, once COVID is eliminated, the customer can use it as a perfect surveillance system, and record a lot of activities that probably will be going around in the vicinity with the thermal camera.
We believe this product is a value for money for any user who buys this, even for fever detection.
What is the potential market for electro optics product?
Majority of market research studies anticipate robust growth for electro optics, the market for which is expected to reach a few billion dollars in coming years. Anybody investing in electro optics will obviously reap rich dividends because Indian government is opening up tenders on a very aggressive mode. In the next three-month, tenders worth over Rs 500 crores in electro optics are expected to be opened for bidding by the Indian Army. Additional tenders are expected from the other armed forces - Navy and Air Force.
As the country gains capability to produce thermal sensing devices, global majors will also look to shift their manufacturing to India to take advantage of labour arbitrage.
Recently, as part of Rs 20-lakh crore relief package, the government announced a lot of schemes for MSMEs. Will these schemes help companies like S4E?
Changing the definition of MSMEs to widen its scope to accommodate more companies will help the industry. To strict tenders below Rs 200 crores only for Indian companies will also help them gain scale over a period of time. In electro optics products segment, majority of the bidders were global companies; there were hardly 4-5 Indian companies. So, now every Indian vendor has a good chance to win at least one project.
What's your plan for the company in the coming year?
When we started our electro optics firm we knew it had huge potential as India was dependent on imports for this critical technology. Last year, we reached Rs 18 crores in top line and this year we expect to touch Rs 75 crores. At the end of the fifth year from now, we should probably reach a four-figure turnover.
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