The Business of Frugal Engineering

Mitigating climate change and related crises requires strict constraints on our resource-consumption and emissions.  Frugal engineering is an emerging concept that builds such constraints in the methodical design and engineering of products. 

Frugal engineering is the process of using minimum resources and reducing costs, while coming out with high quality products and services. Frugal engineering creates advanced frugal products (AFIs). There are many examples of AFIs in sectors such as healthcare, automotive, aerospace, energy and others.  It should not be confused with the making of Jugaad innovations that are makeshift or put together by ingenious innovators without formal engineering. Frugal engineering will be a key driver of innovation since it will bear the best of scientific practices on a given problem.  In doing so, it will need a lot of research and development to create such products in various industrial sectors.

But what makes frugal engineering so special, and why is it important? Frugal engineering aims for zero wastage in design by focusing on all the stages of product development including manufacturing and salvaging. It also demands a high level of quality at an affordable price. Hence, frugal engineering can play a crucial role in this age of climate change because of the urgent need to meet the sustainable development goals (SDGs) for ending poverty, protecting the planet, and ensuring better living standards for all.

Frugal engineering not only utilizes minimum resources and lower costs while improving functionality, but the resulting lower emissions also make it environmentally friendly. Frugal engineering uses cutting-edge science and technology to make quality products that are green and affordable. Thus, frugal engineering will greatly facilitate achieving, at a minimum, SDGs 7 and 9 pertaining to affordable & clean energy, and industry, innovation, and infrastructure.

In this study, the authors Prof. Balkrishna C. Rao from the Department of Engineering Design, Indian Institute of Technology Madras, India and Prof. Dr. Ingo Liefner from the Institute of Economic and Cultural Geography, Leibniz Universitat Hannover, Germany have studied and explained how entrepreneurship could be enhanced by adopting frugal engineering.  Such entrepreneurs can significantly help to usher in technologies for widespread sustainable development.  

There are two types of businesses that come into play in most sectors. The first type is the large enterprise (LE) that includes big companies such as multinational corporations (MNCs) and national level businesses. Small and mid-size businesses (SMBs) are the second type that include middle and lower businesses.

Large enterprises have adequate capital to invest in frugal engineering. They can spend a good amount of money on research and development (R&D) which is necessary to get the most out of this emerging field. Small and mid-size businesses, despite lack of resources, are not at a disadvantage when it comes to implementing frugal engineering in their industries. Their advantage stems from their ability to work with minimal resources or lack of it.  They can also interact and collaborate with academic and research institutions to access cutting edge knowledge in frugal engineering.  Such collaborations with limited access to resources will significantly help SMBs create frugal products of a high quality.

Entrepreneurs need to understand the science and technology (S&T) aspect of frugal engineering to develop better frugal products and services. The government and large enterprises could help to finance small and mid-size businesses to produce better frugal products and services. The government can also give out incentives, like the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) in the United States. This act disbursed a massive monetary stimulus to industries for enabling global leadership and self-sufficiency in critical green technologies. Financial stimuli like this can improve the pace of sustainable development through widespread frugal engineering activities.

Large scale entrepreneurship in frugal engineering will also help to create jobs and fight poverty. This is because all engineering activities including design, manufacturing, and quality control would need to be ‘frugalised’ and this will need the participation of society at large. Accordingly, frugal engineering has the potential to reach the low-income segment, typically the domain of grassroots frugal innovations, thus contributing to inclusive growth.

An example of frugal engineering transforming a grassroots product into an advanced one is the development of MittiCool, made by an SMB in India. It is a refrigerator built out of earthenware for storing perishables for a brief period of time. It is useful for people who cannot afford an electric refrigerator.  Although MittiCool started out as a makeshift or grassroots product, it was subsequently supported by a well-known design institute to engineer it into an advanced frugal innovation.  Another example of an AFI is the use of M-Pesa in Africa. It is a mobile banking app that helped numerous people to adapt to mobile banking.

Widespread frugal engineering will add to the circular economy and thus provide many entrepreneurial opportunities in all sectors of the global economy.

It is to be noted that Prof. Balkrishna C. Rao was the ICCR Visiting Chair Professor of Indian Studies in Frugal Engineering at Leibniz University Hannover, Germany from June 2022 to October 2022. This is a prestigious chair awarded by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) for disseminating knowledge, technical and non-technical, associated with India.

Prof. Philippe Regnier, an expert in this field, from the University of Applied Sciences, Western Switzerland (HES-SO), Switzerland, explained the importance of this paper with the following comments: “As a regular international visitor to the IIT-M campus since 2002, we co-organized last February together with Prof. K. Varghese and Prof. B. Rao a workshop dealing with our co-edited handbook on appropriate technology and international development co-edited and published in Oct. 2022 by Edward Elgar Publishers.

This article by Prof. B. Rao is one key article not only as a continuation of this handbook but also as a major contribution in the November 2023 Special Issue of the Journal of Entrepreneurship (Sage).

Frugal production and consumption are intimately linked to sustainable development. Frugality is most likely an important recommendation for our common global future, and it includes frugal innovation in engineering R & D prolonged by new forms of entrepreneurship and commercialization. As shown so clearly by Prof. Rao, it implies a reduction of resource mobilization to produce, reduction in materials, finance and working hours invested in a product or a service.  Congratulations to Prof. B. Rao to invest his energy and competences in such a sustainable direction.”

Article by Akshay Anantharaman
Click here for the original link to the paper


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