Business Today

From the Managing Editor: Jan 20, 2012

Josey Puliyenthuruthel | Print Edition: Jan 20, 2013

Business opportunities are like buses, there's always another one coming," business magnate Richard Branson likes to say. True when you are an entrepreneur but not as true for nation states. For countries, game changers happen once in a few decades; often, under duress. Some three decades ago, vast swathes of US business, faced with the might of the Japanese run by precise and deliberate managements, looked headed for the trash bin. "America came from out of nowhere with tech," US entrepreneur, academic and thinker Vivek Wadhwa told me recently. Technology that ran operations smoothly and added percentage points to productivity and EBITDA, making US businesses profitable again. The US faces a similar bleak situation today with value in manufacturing getting increasingly added in places such as China. (Exceptions such as Apple are few.) Wadhwa predicts this will change with three-dimensional printing turning the world of manufacturing on its head. 3D printing creates objects by laying successive layers of material based on a design. At its most basic, think of making a plastic spoon. Or, think of a complex design of, say, a fuel injector printed with help from a robot topping the printer with 'ink', typically a polymer today. As 3D printing and robots evolve, they could help shift design-rich manufacturing right back to the US in about five years, Wadhwa insists. He is not being imaginative - 3D printers today start at $1,500 apiece with industrial printers coming at half a million dollars or so.

An equally epochal change sweeping the US is that it is headed towards energy independence in its region with discoveries of large quantities of shale gas and oil sands in the Americas. Extracting these today is expensive and not particularly friendly to the environment, but with oil prices staying put in the vicinity of $100 a barrel, it makes good business to blast the rock open with steam and chemicals to let out gas. This breakthrough has big implications for energy guzzlers like China and India. Not only do they get to tap into American exports of energy fuels, they get to buy cheaper crude and gas from traditional suppliers in West Asia. Read our resident energy expert and Special Correspondent Anilesh Mahajan's reportage on, and analysis of, the topic.

Some 13 years ago, a reporter staffing a government-business meeting tried to buttonhole Ratan Tata when he walked out of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's office. He was polite but said little. An imported Toyota Corolla pulled up to pick up Tata, who had unveiled the Indica car, the first car made by Tata Motors, just a few months ago. He was unabashed when asked why he was still using a foreign-made car. "Do you mind," he asked me, adding with a smile, "Just you watch." What a ride it has been for Tata, who stepped down from the $100-billion group he chaired on December 28. We have a personal account of Tata by confidant J.J. Irani that you must read. As also, untold stories of Sanjiv Bajaj's emergence in business and of the Khorakiwalas rebuilding their hospitals business.

And, yes, wish you a year of value, health and contentment ahead.

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