Category Archives: Frugal Engineering



46th ENGINEERS DAY-September 15, 2013


The Oxford Dictionary defines Engineering as:

-the branch of science and technology, concerned with the design, building, and use of engines, machines, and structures.

-a field of study or activity concerned with modification or development in a particular area: software engineering

-the action of working artfully to bring something about.

The aim of engineer is to make use of the material economically getting maximum benefits within the prescribed limit of factors of safety as per BSI code of practice.

Frugal is defined as:

-sparing or economical with regard to money or food.

Thus the term frugality is already inscribed in the term “engineering” and ‘frugal engineering’ is to be super-economical within safe limits.

Frugal Engineering is the science of breaking up complex engineering processes into its basic components and then re-building each component in the most economical manner. The end result is a simpler, more robust and easier to handle final process. It also results in a much cheaper final product which does the same job qualitatively and quantitatively as a more expensive complexly engineered product.

It is generally believed that Indians and other South Asians are the most adept in frugal engineering, because resources and capital are scarce in this region. 

Many terms are used to refer to the concept. “Frugal engineering” which was coined by Carlos Ghosn, the joint chief of Renault and Nissan, who stated, “frugal engineering is achieving more with fewer resources.”

In India, the words “Gandhian” or “jugaad“, Hindi for a stop-gap solution, are sometimes used instead of “frugal”. Other terms with allied meanings include “inclusive innovation”, “catalytic innovation”, “reverse innovation“, and “BOP innovation”, etc.

At times this no frills approach can be a kind of disruptive innovation.


Spotlighted in a 2010 article in The Economist,] the roots of this concept may lie in the appropriate technology movement of the 1950s although profits may have been first wrung from underserved consumers in the 1980s when multinational companies like Unilever began selling single-use-sized toiletries in developing countries. Frugal innovation today isn’t solely the domain of large multinational corporations; however, as small, local firms have themselves chalked up a number of homegrown solutions. While General Electric may win plaudits for its US$800 EKG machines, cheap cell phones made by local, no-name companies and prosthetic legs fashioned from irrigation piping are also examples of frugal innovation.

The concept has gained popularity in the South Asian region, particularly in India. The US Department of Commerce has singled out this nation for its innovative achievements saying in 2012 that “there are many Indian firms that have learned to conduct R&D in highly resource-constrained environments and who have found ways to use locally appropriate technology.

Notable innovations

Frugal innovation is not limited to durable goods such as the GE US$800 EKG machine or the US$100 One Laptop per Child but also services such as 1-cent-per-minute phone calls, mobile banking, off-grid electricity, and microfinance.

ChotuKool fridge

A tiny refrigerator sold by Indian company Godrej, the ChotuKool may have more in common with computer cooling systems than other refrigerators; it eschews the traditional compressor for a computer fan. (It may exploit the thermoelectric effect.)

Jaipur leg

A low cost prosthetic developed in India, the Jaipur leg costs about $150 to manufacturer and includes some clever improvisations such as incorporating irrigation piping into the design to lower costs.

Mobile banking

Mobile banking solutions in Africa, like Safaricom‘s M-Pesa, allow people access to basic banking services from their mobile phones. Money transfers done through mobiles are also much cheaper than using a traditional method. While some services can be accessed on a mobile alone, deposits and withdrawals necessitate a trip to a local agent.

Nokia 1100

Designed for developing countries, the Nokia 1100 is basic, durable, and–besides a flashlight–has few features other than voice and text. Selling more than 200 million units only four years after its 2003 introduction,, has made it the best selling phone of all time.

Solar light bulb

In some Philippine slums, solar skylights made from one liter soda bottles filled with water and bleach provide light equivalent to that produced by a 55 watt bulb and may reduce electricity bills by US$10 per month.

Tata Nano

Designed to appeal to the many Indians who drive motorcycles, the Tata Nano was developed by Indian conglomerate Tata Group and is the cheapest car in the world.

 The Importance of Frugal Engineering

Frugal Engineering will be of great relevance to developing countries, as a flexible approach that perceives resource constraints as a growth opportunity. According to Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, at the current rate of consumption, by 2030 we would need two planets to supply the resources we need and to absorb our waste. As engineers, in the service of the humanity enabling the citizens to enjoy a better quality of life, we have an added responsibility these days to find engineering solutions – of course, frugal – to problems thrown up by all sectors endangering the environment.

Providing new goods and services to “bottom of the pyramid” customers requires a radical rethinking of product development.

A cell phone that makes phone calls — and does little else; a portable refrigerator the size of a small cooler; a car that sells for about US$2,200 (100,000 rupees). These are some of the results of “frugal engineering,” a powerful and ultimately essential approach to developing products and services in emerging markets.

To get a handle on what frugal engineering is, it helps to understand what it is not. Frugal engineering is not simply low-cost engineering. It is not a scheme to boost profit margins by squeezing the marrow out of suppliers’ bones. It is not simply the latest take on the decades-long focus on cost cutting.

Instead, frugal engineering is an overarching philosophy that enables a true “clean sheet” approach to product development. Cost discipline is an intrinsic part of the process, but rather than simply cutting existing costs, frugal engineering seeks to avoid needless costs in the first place. It recognizes that merely removing features from existing products to sell them cheaper in emerging markets is a losing game. That’s because emerging-market customers have unique needs that usually aren’t addressed by mature-market products, and because the cost base of developed world products, even when stripped down, remains too high to allow competitive prices and reasonable profits in the developing world.

Frugal engineering recalls an approach common in the early days of U.S. assembly-line manufacturing: Henry Ford’s Model T is a prime example. But as industries grew and matured over the decades, and as consumers prospered to levels few would have predicted a century ago, product development processes became hardwired and standard operating procedures worked against frugality.

In addition, the profit structure in mature markets reduced incentives for major change. Constant expansion of features available to consumers in the developed world, frivolous or not, has provided many businesses with their richest profit margins. Mature-market customers continue to accept price premiums for new features, leading companies to over-engineer their product lines — at least from the point of view of emerging-market customers. The virtual extinction of manual car windows in the United States is just one example.

Frugal engineering, by contrast, addresses the billions of consumers at the bottom of the pyramid who are quickly moving out of poverty in China, India, Brazil, and other emerging nations. They are enjoying their first tastes of modern prosperity, and are shopping for the basics, not for fancy features. According to C.K. Prahalad, author of The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid (Wharton School Publishing, 2005), these potential customers, “un served or underserved by the large organized private sector, including multinational firms,” total 4 to 5 billion of the 6.7 billion people on Earth.  Although the purchasing power of any of these new consumers as an individual is only a fraction of a consumer’s purchasing power in mature markets, in aggregate they represent a market nearly as large as that of the developed world.

Attracted by the size and rapid growth of emerging markets — concurrent with a growth slowdown in the developed world — companies in a range of industries are establishing distribution and manufacturing operations as well as research and development centers in these regions. However, some of these companies may not fully grasp the challenges that competition in emerging markets entails. The prospect of high-volume profit streams may be enticing, but those profits must be earned in the face of lower prices, lower per-unit profits, and stringent cost targets.

In addition, too few companies realize how demanding emerging-market customers can be. They don’t spend easily, because they don’t have much to spend. They require a different set of product features and functions than their developed-world counterparts, but still insist on high quality. Global companies, therefore, must change the way they think about product design and engineering. Simply selling the cheapest products on hand or reusing technologies from higher-priced products will not cut costs enough and is unlikely to result in the kind of products these new customers will buy. The central tenet behind every frugal engineering decision is maximizing value to the customer while minimizing nonessential costs. As already stated the term frugal engineering was coined in 2006 by Renault Chief Executive Carlos Ghosn to describe the competency of Indian engineers in developing products like Tata Motors’ Nano, the pint-sized, low-cost automobile. Companies such as Suzuki paved the way for the development of low-cost automobiles, but there may be no better example of frugal engineering than the Nano, which will allow millions of people with modest means to reliably drive their own car. The Nano is not — like so many other low-cost vehicles — a stripped-down version of a traditional, more expensive car design. Like other newly engineered products selling well in emerging markets, ranging from refrigerators to laptop computers to X-ray machines, it is based on a bottom-up approach to product development.

Even global companies uninterested in the growth offered by the world’s lowest-income consumers will have to pay attention to the lessons of frugal engineering: Products developed with this approach are beginning to compete with goods sold in developed countries, a trend that’s likely to continue. Deere & Company, for example, designed and sold small, lower-powered tractors in the Indian market, but didn’t begin selling such models in the U.S. until an Indian company, Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd., beat them to it. Mahindra & Mahindra has proven an able competitor to Deere in larger tractors as well. General Electric (GE), on the other hand, has been more proactive; for example, it has sold a revolutionary new low-cost handheld ultrasound scanner in developed markets by incorporating frugal engineering lessons learned in its Indian medical research and development lab. A low-cost GE electrocardiogram machine, developed at the same Indian lab for the local markets, is now being sold in the United States and Europe as well.

Meeting all these challenges will require a change in corporate culture. Some companies will be up to it; other companies will not. A successful approach to frugal engineering involves new ways of thinking about customers, innovation, and organization.

Understanding the Customer

The ultimate goal of frugal engineering couldn’t be more basic: to provide the essential functions people need — a way to wash clothes, keep food cold, get to work — at a price they can afford. Critical attention to low cost is always accompanied by a commitment to maximizing customer value. The Tata Nano development team’s decision not to include a radio on the standard model wasn’t a simple move to avoid cost. The team understood that the typical Nano customer places far more value on extra storage space. Using what normally would be the radio slot for storage not only avoided a major cost, but also added value for the customer.

Such carefully calculated trade-offs, made at the product planning stage, serve the dual purpose of maintaining low costs and increasing the product’s overall functionality and utility for the buyer. Assessment of those trade-offs requires close, careful observation on the part of planners if they are to arrive at a deep understanding of the ways a product fits (or doesn’t fit) into customers’ lives.

Again the Nokia 1100 cell phone is another example. Experience has shown that when low-income people in just about any country begin to enjoy a bit of economic prosperity, one of their first purchases is a cell phone. Many new cell phone customers in emerging markets are agricultural workers who spend their days outdoors. When Nokia developers watched field-workers using mobile phones in India, they noticed that the intense humidity made the phones slick and hard to hold or dial. So the phone was built with a nonslip silicon coating on its keypad and sides. The handset was also designed to resist damage from dust that is common in arid climates and some factory environments. The phones are otherwise basic: They can send and receive phone calls and text messages. The screens are monochrome. Because the phones lack fancy software, the power draw is smaller, so they can operate longer between charges. The only real extra is a tiny, energy-efficient flashlight that’s proven popular in areas where power blackouts are common — in other words, in most rural villages and many emerging-market cities. At a price of $15 to $20, the Nokia 1100 is the best-selling cell phone ever.

More than a year after coining the term “frugal engineering” to describe Indian engineers, Carlos Ghosn, the joint chief of Renault and Nissan, is still not frugal with his praise for Indian techies.

And his love affair with the country, which isn’t exactly globally acclaimed for engineering skills, continues.

Flying in to Chennai, which is fast becoming an auto hub, Ghosn once again recently lavished compliments on engineers.

“Frugal engineering is achieving more with fewer resources. The cost of developing a product in the West is high since engineers there use more expensive tools. In India, they achieve a lot more with fewer resources,” Ghosn said.

Between Nissan and Renault, there are now three joint venture companies with Indian partners for different products. Renault and utility vehicle manufacturer Mahindra & Mahindra have a JV to manufacture Logan cars in India.

Renault, Nissan and M&M also have a three-way JV to manufacture cars for the respective principals. Now, Nissan has a JV with Ashok Leyland for the light commercial vehicle (LCV) segment

. “We see a lot of opportunities for LCVs in India but we would not have come alone. We were looking for a partner. India is a sophisticated market that requires sophisticated products and we would have wasted a lot of resources had we tried to come alone,”

Ghosn told media persons here.

There could be more JVs from the group in the future.

Nissan, Renault and Bajaj Auto are in talks to develop and manufacture “ultra low-cost” passenger cars in India.

“We will enter into as many JVs as required,” said Ghosn, who flew out to Pune recently to hold interactions with Bajaj Auto officials for the low-cost car.

Ghosn operates out of two continents -Paris in Europe and Tokyo in Asia -and looking at the number of visits he would be making on account of the multiple business interest his group has here, Dheeraj Hinduja, co-chairman, Ashok Leyland, in a lighter note, said that he has a third headquarter in India.

India will be a centre of frugal engineering

RA Mashelkar, former director-general at the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), and national Research professor, has thought long and hard about Gandhian engineering— his version of frugal engineering, the term coined by Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn. Malshelkar, for his part, became aware of the true extent of the practice in India only when he instituted an award on inclusive innovation in memory of his mother. There were more than a hundred entries for the award that was given on December 17. The two joint winners had developed two low-cost solutions for rural India: a portable device to detect five eye diseases and a diaper that costs one-tenth its current price.

Nature is the best teacher of frugal engineering:

Every creation animate or inanimate is designed by nature with exact specifications, taking an example of atom, its number of electrons, protons, neutrons that determine the individual characteristics of every material. There was once a description of analysis of human body in TOI about half a century back. It quantified the calcium, potassium, magnesium etc contained in the human body, which was priced at Rs. 3.50 only. By this meager amount nature had created an automatic machine that could produce many more of its prototypes. In the end it had concluded that we are simply wonderful. So is the case with other creations right from infinitely vast universe studded with gigantic galaxy of stars, milky ways and black holes, our solar system, our planet earth and all the environment and elements suitable for the sustenance of life on it, to the creation of animals, plants, insects and microbes (not seen by naked eyes).

J&K Scenario

Many innovations have been recently made by the young entrepreneurs in J&K State, but it seems that they lack the support deserved by them to push their innovations ahead into manufacturing stage. The recent one is a joint venture of a professor and a student (as shown in a TV show- Good Morning J&K) invention of a turbine that can generate electricity just on running water without any water-fall, which has a tremendous potential in solving the power crisis of the State. Kashmir University is reportedly helping such innovators to promote their projects.

Similarly a young engineering student of Kashmir, Arif Moosvi developed web designing framework Hotsky, used for developing website, This is India’s first web designing framework. Earlier Asif Ahmad- a Kshmiri boy developed an android application- Droid Explorer which was hosted by Google Play. The application has witnessed 5000 downloads worldwide. Recently a 19 year old boy developed an android game based on basic principles of physics. Earlier a 23 year old software engineer developed an android application- “Dial Kashmir” that contains over 500 contacts of Govt. and private departments. Another young engineer developed an online platform where people can share and get any information regarding Kashmir.

Otherwise too, the Kashmiris have been practicing frugal engineering earlier than the advent of machines. With limited available resources, they had devised their own cheap devices like Wagu– a grass mat, Pulhur– a grass slipper, khraw– a wooden slipper, Tathul– a wooden tub, a watermill- (grath) for grinding maize, wheat and spices which has been in use for centuries together. The “Yinder” to spin Pashmina wool was a common domestic tool with its accessories. The “Kanz”and “Muhul” was used to pound rice, thereby by providing an exercise to our woman-folk. Similarly the copper teapot “samawar”-that keeps our tea hot, while we sip it. Then “kangri”/ “mannan” –the firepot that kept us warm in severe winters. So were our ‘hamams’ that made us face cool temperatures. Our mud hearths “dhan” had a water container called “matti” attached to it, whereby water would get heated along with the cooking of meals and the residual charcoal would be used in “kangris”. Similarly the popular dress of “Pheran”, “Tilla work” had its own charm and utility. Again the “jajir / hooka” used for smoking tobacco was also an indigenous innovation. The recipes of the balms prepared by the barbers for treatment of boils, wounds etc. are lost with their deaths. “Wazwan” too has its own identity and charm. Kashur Kagaz– the kashmiri paper was washable. In construction works dajji-diwari, panjra-kari, pachar bandi, khutum bandi etc. was indigenous innovation. Koshur put- the home spun Kashmiri pattoo, Kashmiri shawl with embroidery, Kani shawl, Pashmina, Shah-tush, Kashmiri silk were all local made. Woollen Namdhas and Ghabbas, Paper machie, silver work, copper work, wood carving, fur making, wooden boats, dungas, house boats, even tongas pulled by horses have their own individuality. Like that there are many more innovations which have been invented due to the necessity of the times and availability of the limited and scarce resources; confirming the saying that: “Necessity is the mother of invention”.

Thus a Kashmiri is born with an innovative brain, given the chance and encouragement; he can be a great contributor to the “frugal engineering” even in modern times.

Kashmir has produced many fertile brains in the form of saints, historians, scholars, poets, artists, painters, kings, politicians of international reputation, which include Saga Nila, Kalhana, Abhinavgupta, Nagarjuna, Lalitadattya, Lala Arifa, Shaikh Noor-ud-Din Noorani, Shaikh Yaqub Sarfi, Habba Khatun, Mulla Mohsin Fani, Mulla Tahir Gani Ashai, Akhund Mulla Kamal, Molvi Anwar Shah Kashmiri, Zain-ul-Abideen (Budshah) etc., Even the forefathers of Jawaharlal Nehru hailed from Kashmir.

Here I quote Dr. Iqbal (d. 1938) – the great philosopher poet who too was of Kashmiri origin:

  “Jis khak ke zameer mein ho aatash-i-chinar; mumkin nahin ki sard ho who khak-i-arjamand”

i.e. The dust instinct with the fire of Chinar—That fiery dust will never turn cold.

Again the son of the soil Nunda Reshi (RA)(d. 1439 AD) said:

I broke my sword and made it into a sickle.