It’s a manufacturing relay race at Marol, a suburb located in the heart of Mumbai. It takes roughly 15 machinists to build an industrial unit in this disorganised assembly line of independent machinists. When a machine unit is created here, you can rest assured that it has passed through the hands of an army of machinists.
The roads on this street are narrow, the rain leaves behind sludge and parked tempos offer little room to navigate. Yet, corporates from big pharmaceutical companies make their way through the mess in crisp trousers to meet their manufacturing needs.
Each workshop houses a single type of machine. Take 50-year-old Achakunju who runs AS engineering. His dingy 300 sq ft workshop, set up more than 10 years ago, he proudly tells us, is a lathe haven. A lathe is a machine tool which rotates the work piece on its axis to perform various operations such as cutting, sanding, knurling, drilling, or deformation. It is used to create objects that have symmetry. Think of the legs on a chair; a lathe uses tools on the wood while rotating it.
In the adjoining workshop, another machinist runs a milling machine setup. Three milling machines sit one beside the other. Those operating these machines must dodge piles of metal resting on the floors. Milling machines are tools designed to cut metal, wood, and other solid materials. Automated milling machines can be positioned in either vertical or horizontal orientation to carve out materials based on a pre-existing design.
It may seem like a single-minded existence. Alone, Achakunju’s business would not have survived the decade. The owners of these workshops understood early on that working in isolation was not an option. Together however, they have the combined power of a large manufacturing unit.
Achakunju tells us that his clients belong mostly to the pharmaceutical industry. They come to him to build complicated parts that will go into larger industrial units used for manufacturing medical drugs. When he accepts a contract, the raw material travels down the lane making a stopover at each workshop to conduct individual processes. It takes a month to create the final product during which it makes its way back to AS Engineering’s shed.
The Kerela resident made his way to Mumbai in the seventies. His educational qualification ends at a Standard 10 degree. “I worked with an electrical manufacturing unit. I learned on the job,” he tells us.
When he moved to the city, he took up an apprenticeship with another man who had a manufacturing unit similar to the one Achakunju owns and runs today. Machinists learn on the job and graduate to teach other newbies. When he set up shop, he had only one lathe but now business has grown to accommodate four machines.
The size of your establishment doesn’t matter, says Achakunju. He sips on a glass of cutting chai as he surveys the street. “Big companies have large assets. But they still come to me when they need something built,” he adds.
Herein lies the power of the small businessman; a disorganised street of skilled machinists catering to the multinational giants.