It was a newspaper article on how Delhi’s T3 airport was entirely built by Chinese workers that caught Skillveri’s founder, C Sabarinath’s attention. “I realised there is a huge skill gap waiting to be filled. In a country with such high unemployment rates, why should we bring in workers from China? It got me thinking about how we can solve this problem,” he says. Sabarinath was working with Vortex Engineering, where he headed marketing at that time. Vortex Engineering is best known for its low-cost ATMs. L Kannan, the founder of Vortex Engineering and Sabarinath were already discussing some ideas around vocational training. “I felt the time was right for me to quit my job and do something in this area. We were already talking about a simulator project. Kannan advised me to do some market research and develop a prototype and that’s what I did,” says Sabarinath. He quit his job by March 2012 and the day after he quit his job, he visited a shopfloor in Hosur to understand how welding was done and what kind of training the welders got. There were a couple of areas that he was exploring to offer training and that included welding, spray painting and drilling. “I found that it was in welding, that the smallest intervention could result in a large impact,” he reasons. He found out that most welders receive no formal training. They joined in as helpers and learnt by watching other welders. While the helper’s salary was around Rs.5,000 per month, with proper training this could easily be doubled to more than Rs.10,000-12,000 per month, leading to a significant improvement in their standard of living. Some courses offered training for 3 months to a year for welders, but they weren’t really helping them earn better salaries since they couldn’t deliver the required skill set. India has around 10 lakh welders, of which only 10% have received some kind of formal training. With another 22 lakh welders needed in the next six years, fixing the skill gap was a problem that Skillveri wanted to solve by bringing in technology. The ‘veri’ in Skillveri derives its origin from Latin where veri means right or authentic. This seems appropriate in Skillveri’s case since it is focused on imparting the right skills to welders.
Skillveri started working on a prototype and developed the first version in October 2012. It was an app on a 7-inch tablet that would simulate the welding experience. Sabarinath realised they required a larger screen and needed to experience the welding process, so an app wouldn’t do. They met with Professor Ashok Jhunjhunwala of IIT-Madras who offered to incubate the start-up at their Rural Technology & Business Incubator. Sabarinath took the offer and with the seed money from IIT, they worked on developing a simulator, based on the feedback of training centres and industry requirements, keeping in mind that most welders were school dropouts, so the technology could not be complicated. They realised that the technology can be more learner-centric where there is intuitive training and feedback is obtained through gamification.
By April 2014, Skillveri had a product ready for commercial launch and even had some pre-orders. The simulator was focused on CO2 welding, which was mostly used in the automotive industry. The product, Aura, has a touchscreen attached to a computer and a welding torch, an exact replica of the ones used in the shop floors, that has embedded sensors. The screen displays how the welding is progressing and the sensors sends inputs to the computer on the holding angle, distance from the screen and the deviations, if any. It also creates real-life kind of sparks if the distance is too far and can measure the speed at which you weld. A composite score then appears on the screen with an elaborate break-up, showing where you went wrong and what you got right, along with a star-rating.
The cost of the simulators range from Rs.8 lakh-16 lakh depending on the features and the different kinds of welding they support. According to Sabarinath, their simulators are at least 30% cheaper than imported alternatives. He says though the initial capital cost maybe higher, the companies’ long-term operational costs are lower due to lesser training cost, shorter training period and higher efficiency. Companies are slowly, but surely, seeing the benefits. Ashok Leyland, Daimler-Benz, Hero Motocorp, Ador Welding Academy, Ambuja Cement Foundation (the CSR arm of Ambuja Cements) and ITIs in Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra are clients of the company. While companies use it for their in-house training, training institutes bundle Skillveri’s simulator along with their curriculum. The company is in talks with customers in the Middle East to export their first couple of simulators to be used for assessing workers and also train existing welders.
The company has trained around 7,000-8,000 welders through its customers. The duration of their training is around three weeks and costs about Rs.15,000, compared with the longer duration courses offered by the government. “The duration of the course becomes irrelevant if the practical component is low. Usually in some of the courses, due to budget constraints, they end up practising on two plates a month instead of 30 plates,” says Sabarinath. He believes that instead of offering courses free or at highly subsidised rates, the government can offer better quality training at higher prices and the students can be charged depending on the complexity of the course and what their earning capacity would be once they finish the course. For instance, he points out, a lot of the welders who complete specialised training courses in private institutes earn up to Rs.75,000 in Qatar and even up to Rs.200,000 in Singapore. Using Skillveri, students can train for as long as they want since there is no constraint of steel plates available. “Industrial courses require students to practise for at least for five hours but due to non-availability of steel plates students use to practise only 1-2 hours. Now with Skillveri, our students practise upto five hours a day,” says Laxmi Shetty, training officer and CSR in-charge, ITI Tumkur.
Skillveri has completed about 40 installations till now and the company achieved a revenue of Rs.1.1 crore in FY16. The company is now looking to develop other series of simulators in the manufacturing space where hand dexterity is involved. “We want to be the MOOC of vocational training and we are looking to get into spray painting next because everything that is welded needs to be painted,” says Sabarinath. The company is working with a large paint company to develop the training module.
The company raised a little less than a crore from Ankur Capital in 2015 is in the process of raising its next round of investment from them and a new potential investor. “We found their idea of providing standardised training, through a product-based approach, exciting. It can not only be used as an assessment tool, but can also define industry standards. Companies can build a workforce with a concrete skill set rather than guessing their capabilities before hiring them,” says Ritu Verma, managing partner, Ankur Capital.
According to Sabarinath, the biggest challenge for the company is to change the stereotypes related to welding that are embedded in youngsters. “They prefer to sit in the AC all day and work as security guards at shopping malls. Welding, as a profession, is risky because it is associated with partial blindness and breathing issues; but that is only the case when there is no protective gear,” he explains. Simulators like Aura are helping to change this perception. Dipal Senapati, principal, Skill and Entrepreneurship Institute under the Ambuja Cement Foundation in Roorkee, who has been using the Skillveri simulator over the past one year, echoes this sentiment. “Youngsters are excited about using a new method to learn welding and the gamification aspect makes it even more interesting. What’s more, it helps us reduce costs by 70% since we don’t have to use steel plates for training,” he says.
Apart from welding, in the next three years, Skillveri plans to launch two-three other such simulators in the market, beginning with the one on spray painting that is likely to be launched by the end of FY17. Sabarinath says that his dream is to be the best company in the world for welding simulation and also the go-to-company for dexterity training across verticals.