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Working with better standards

Venugopal Pillai ,  Thursday, August 22, 2013, 17:16 Hrs  [IST]

lead storyThe industrial electric panel industry – better known as the control panel industry -- represents a cross section of entrepreneurship ranging from a plethora of small scale fabricators to formal fully-integrated players. The control panel industry has been largely marginalized, receiving very little seriousness even from end customers. An abject ignorance of technical standards is just one of the problems that the industry is grappling with, finds out Venugopal Pillai.

The electrical control panel industry represents last-mile connectivity in the switchgear and control gear industry. Fabrication of panels and housing of switchgear and control gear, in accordance with requirements of the end-consumer, is the quintessential business. Control panel fabrication is a huge activity in India dominated by an inestimable number of companies in the micro, small and medium category. The industry size is estimated to in the region of Rs.5,000 crore and Rs.5,200 crore per year. The control panel industry has a value-addition component of around 50 per cent to the switchgear industry.

Owing to the fact that majority of the industry is accounted for by small enterprises, the control panel industry suffers from a very typical form of sluggishness. The industry is unable to grow rapidly—more so qualitatively—as most of the industry constituents prefer to think and act conservatively. A control panel, though a very important constituent in the power distribution chain, receives scant attention from end-customers. While the end-customer, say a manufacturing sector enterprise, would spend unreservedly on plant and machinery, he would not have much inclination to procure an efficient and safe electrical control panel. After all, switchgear, in most cases, is considered as a non-productive asset. Customers do not have much knowledge about technicalities of control panels, and there is not much inclination to do so. The services of electrical consultants that could form an efficient link between the end-user and the panel fabricator are usually not sought.

Electrical Monitor got in touch with a number of small and medium panel fabricators as well as electrical consultants to understand finer issues in the control panel industry. A point that emerged very strikingly was the lack of awareness of quality issues including general ignorance of prevailing quality and safety standards like IEC 61439, UL 508A, etc.

Several standards for industrial control panels exist globally with IEC and UL being the prominent ones. John Drengenberg, Consumer Safety Director, Underwriters Laboratories (UL) in an elaborate exchange with Electrical Monitor provided keen insights. (The full interaction is presented elsewhere in this story.) Explaining the difference between UL508A and IEC 61439, two leading standards in the context of control panels, Drengenberg noted, “UL 508A is a standard for custom-built, one of a kind assemblies of equipment. IEC 61439 covers specific designs of assemblies of equipment. UL 508A anticipates compliance through no testing. IEC 61439 includes both type and routine testing of assemblies of equipment to verify compliance. The basic safety requirements in both standards are very similar with slight deviations for each country.”

Main-PhotoG.P. Bhat, Secretary, Electrical Consultants Association, who also heads Bangalore-based Uma Consultants advised that standards for electrical control panels do exist, but they are not practised actively. Awareness of standards is quite low and electrical consultants usually go by “tried and tested” technical guides for detailing specifications like thickness of the metal enclosure, and other core parameters.

When it comes to the most informal segment of the control panel industry, the situation is very grim. Nizam Shariff, who heads Hitech Systems, a medium-sized Coimbatore-based control panel company, observed that small companies do not follow bare minimum quality levels. “Compliance with IS specifications is out of question!” he observed. Shariff lamented that electrical distribution panels are considered “secondary” even by the end consumer. “We will not easily get primary importance. The focus is always on the main equipment,” he said.

Mahesh Bodalkar, Proprietor of Nagpur-based MRB Electronic Control System concurred with the general lack of awareness. He observed that awareness of standards like IEC and UL were very low amongst customers, consultants and even fabricators. Bodalkar mentioned that around 60 per cent of his clients are small companies that have no inclination or interest in understanding, leave alone implementing, quality-related issues.

Switchgear & Control Gear

The term “switchgear” broadly refers to an entire class of switching devices that make or break an electrical circuit. Switchgear typically includes disconnectors, fuses and circuit breakers. Switchgear controls a distribution circuit more than just one load point, an industry player explained. Switchgear is used not only to de-energise the downstream equipment but also to isolate electricity supply to the circuit in order to carry out maintenance work.

In addition to simply making and breaking an electrical circuit, there are devices that are used to protect the electrical circuit and the equipment therein. These devices are collectively known as control gear and could include devices like relays, motor-protection/control apparatus, etc. Nowadays, control gear is based mainly on electronics, moving away from conventional versions. A digital relay that has since long supplanted the electromechanical relay.

Switchgear and control gear are indispensable not only in power transmission and distribution, but anywhere where there is need to access and control electricity supply. Switchgear could include anything from a mini circuit breaker to a high-tension circuit breaker. Simple switches that are used in association with lighting and other domestic appliances are usually not termed as switchgear, but isolation and/or circuit-protection devices like circuit breakers and earth-leakage current detectors are considered.

The Indian switchgear industry has been going through a rough patch, reflecting the overall trends in the electrical equipment industry. In FY13, according to statistics released by IEEMA, the switchgear industry recorded a fall of 2.4 per cent that came over an above a 1.5 per cent decline in FY12. With an estimated size of Rs.9,000 crore, the switchgear segment accounted for 15 per cent of the total electrical equipment industry in FY13.

The switchgear industry can be broadly classified as “high voltage” and “medium and low voltage”. The HV category has only large and established players—including multinationals. It is the LV & MV class that is characterized by small and medium enterprises, apart from a sprawling number of players in the unorganized sector.


The cost dimension: Quality always comes at a price. It is not a proposition of cost but that of value. Consumers of control panels do realize that quality panels, for instance those complying with standards, will entail higher costs. However, customers almost always resist the initial cost and do not fully appreciate that this cost pays off in the long run and is in the interest of the downstream equipment. N. M. Chandrashekar of Bangalore-based LnP Consultants explained, “End users are generally not aware of standards. Even if they are, they are often unwilling to pay for the quality.” Chandrashekar also highlighted the limitations of electrical consultants in this context. “For a consultant, adherence to standards is first priority and the first advice given to clients. Many times, a customer understands the issues but is reluctant for several reasons that could include time or money. Since the customer is the final decision maker, the consultant has to do his best within the framework available.”

Despite the overall perception of lack of awareness, there are incipient signs of positive change. According to Bhadresh Patel of Ahmedabad-based Sainath Controls, there have been signs of growing awareness of quality issues amongst customers, in the recent past. “Awareness of quality has improved over the past two years or so,” is what Patel felt. There is growing percentage of clients, mainly in the industrial (manufacturing) sector, that is insisting on quality panels and are willing to invest the extra rupee. “There are of course budgetary constraints for most small clients but there is a definite increase in the inclination of clients to go in for quality,” assured Patel. In his experience, Patel felt that consultants over the years are playing a diminishing role, at least in the context of low-voltage distribution panels. Clients appear to be equipping themselves with advance information, he felt. “We are seeing cases where clients are aware even of different types of switchgear and are making upfront specifications. This is happening in over half of the number of cases we handle.”

Improving compliance: Lack of awareness of standards seems to be an accepted truth about the industrial control panel industry. However, as compliance with standards has a positive bearing on key parameters of efficiency and safety, there is no way one could construe compliance with standards as a discretionary subject. There is lack of awareness simply because there is no strong mechanism to create awareness and ensure compliance.

Main-PhotoSoeb Fatehi, President, Control Panel & Switchgear Manufacturers Association (COSMA) discussed this subject in much detail and explained that government machinery needs to be bolstered up. Indian standards, set by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS), are nowhere near the international mark. Citing examples, Fatehi explained that the current Indian standard IS 8623 has been in vogue since 1993. Since then, the world has seen the adoption of IEC 60439 that was later upgraded to the currently-deployed IEC 61439. India is yet to move in the direction of harmonizing IEC 61439. UL 508 and UL 508A are well accepted global standards and India does not still have an equivalent. Further, no specific Indian standards exist for APFC (automatic power factor correction) panels, PLC panels or instrumentation panels, noted Fatehi.

India’s first national electrical code was formulated in 1985. Known as NEC 1985, it was in vogue for decades until recently replaced by NEC 2011. However, Fatehi observes that awareness of NEC 2011 is poor, even in 2013! End consumers and consultants are still found to be referring to the old NEC 1985 in their tender specifications.

Most respondents that Electrical Monitor interacted with were of the view that awareness and compliance to standards needs to be and can be improved. “Merely issuing standards does not help,” N. M. Chandrashekar of LnP Consultants strongly felt. Meetings with various stakeholders must be held regularly. Sustained awareness campaigns will be the stepping stone for future compliance. Chandrashekar gave the analogy of lighting where a firmly-ingrained but inefficient habit like incandescent lighting slowly gave way to efficient avenues like CFL and even LED. “There will always be some initial resistance, especially when the change involves costs,” he observed as a general tendency of the Indian consumer.
Demand Drivers

Switchgear and control gear are indispensable ingredients of any electric circuit be it on the “generation” side or the “consumption” side. Every new power plant will need switching and controlling devices, and so will every home wired. Hence, the demand for switchgear will be proportionate to asset creation in the power sector – that includes generation, transmission and distribution—as well as in the consumption sector that could include infrastructure, industry, commercial establishments, residential real estate, etc.

Prospects for the MV and LV switchgear industry will be linked directly to investment in the power T&D sector. For the current year, FY14, the overall plan outlay for the power T&D sector is Rs.9,049 crore that is more than twice the level of Rs.4,280 crore in FY13. Apart from Rs.1,500 crore apportioned for the discom debt restructuring, the budget has made a generous provision of Rs.4,041 crore for subsidizing rural electrification works under RGGYY in FY14, as against Rs.2,002 crore in FY13.

Much like other segments in the electrical equipment space, the switchgear and control gear industry will also benefit from investment in generic infrastructure. For the XII Plan period, an investment of $1 trillion is needed in the infrastructure segment, which represents business opportunity for a diverse spectrum of suppliers.

Another interesting point was brought about by Mahesh Bodalkar of MRB Electronic Control System. He argued that awareness and compliance to standards can be increased in procedures are simplified. Currently, the cost and document, even for type-testing, registration and certification are on the higher side. A typical small or medium enterprise would find it difficult since it is already working on a tight budget, he reasoned.

In summary, the market pressure for standardization is very low. If customers want quality and are willing to pay for it, the manufacturer delivers it. Most customers today though cognizant of standards are reluctant to imbibe them; this stifles the enterprise downstream. Therefore, the percentage of customers that appreciate safety and quality, and are willing to invest more, needs to increase. This will bring about the desired change. Fabricators will be under healthy pressure to scale up the quality of their deliverables. Bhadresh Patel of Sainath Controls was of the opinion that every fabricator must make itself eligible to be regarded as a “system house” of reputed switchgear manufacturers. The criteria for qualifying as a system house of switchgear makers like ABB, Schneider, Siemens, etc are quite tough. “If a control panel fabricator can match that quality even if he does intend becoming a system house, a positive change can take place,” Patel said. “Small players can move up the value chain,” he noted encouragingly.

Lack of awareness and implementation of standards presents an overall depressing picture. “An electrical panel is the heart of a circuit,” noted N. M. Chandrashekar. Just like a body cannot function properly without a healthy heart, so does an electrical circuit. “Unfortunately, it is this very heart that is being neglected,” observed Chandrashekar with disconcert.

The HV challenge

India is slowly advancing to regimes of higher voltages for power transmission. This warrants the need for efficient switchgear at ever increasing voltage levels. Multinationals have played a key role in offering efficient switchgear to the Indian industry. Today, for instance, India is already witnessing the use of 800kV circuit breakers. HV switchgear technology has also improved over the years. For instance, gas insulated switchgear (GIS) with a lower geographical footprint, is fast replacing air insulated versions. Secondly, the use of SF6, a gas considered environment-unfriendly, in GIS is being reduced or even substituted. Vacuum circuit breakers are being developed for higher voltages.

The challenge for engineers would therefore be do design switchgear that is efficient and safe— technically and environmentally—at much higher voltages. Apart from production of HV and EHV switchgear, India would need to also score well on the O&M front. Qualified personnel for upkeep of HV switchgear, availability of spares, etc. would be issues that would merit attention in the coming years.

It is often argued that the true malaise with the colossal SME segment in India’s electrical equipment industry is its inhibitive thinking. Several SMEs prefer to remain small; the complacence gets overpowering with time. The key ingredient for the growth of an SME unit is the aspiration and drive to becoming globally competitive. The same goes with standards. “India should not think about having standards that merely fulfill the needs of the local market. When we think of the global market, all the current issues relating to local standards will automatically get resolved,” Chandrashekar noted.

India’s overall inclination to formulate, imbibe and implement quality and safety standards is rather low. The control panel industry is no exception. There is no particular link in the value chain that can be held squarely responsible. It appears to be a systemic shortcoming that originates from weak policy machinery, transcending to even weaker compliance downstream. It is time that end consumers and manufacturers give more seriousness to softer aspects like safety and quality standards. Mere acknowledgement of quality issues never helps; it should transmute into action. The power T&D sector is going to witness tremendous investment right from EHV power transmission infrastructure to household village electrification. While assets can be created without a modicum of thought to quality, the importance and value of quality unfolds only with time. Quality is a matter of choice between short-term gain and long-term pain.
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