Ashok Leyland’ digital path to growth

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To beat market cyclicity and achieve higher growth, Ashok Leyland is looking at digital initiatives as an enabler.

Story by: Bhushan Mhapralkar

With an eye on grabbing a greater share of the Rs.2.4 crore spent by an operator on a truck through out its lifecycle, Ashok Leyland has unveiled four digital platforms that promise to enhance value. Claiming to earn only Rs.20 lakh it typically takes to buy a truck out of the Rs.2.4 crore spent, Ashok Leyland is riding on the rapid growth of smart phones. It is hoping that its four digital initiatives – i-Alert, ServiceMandi, e-diagnostics and Leykart – will help customers to better manage their business logging on. Developed over the last year and a half, the four digital initiatives leverage the telematics solutions that the CV maker has invested in. Said to be the first CV maker to offer a telematics platform ‘Alert’ on its trucks since 2008, Ashok Leyland introduced i-Alert in 2016. The telematics platform was updated in July. If the i-Alert saw the company leverage telematics, the four digital platforms were piloted on 100 CVs prior to their unveiling.

Tapping the aftermarket

Looking at a Rs.60,000 crore opportunity on the Indian highways, the digital initiatives ride on a premise that Ashok Leyland continues to under-penetrate its own aftermarket. If the way in which the four digital platforms connect with each other could be termed as unique, Ashok Leyland is claimed to be the first company in India to do so to ensure an integrated approach for the user. Developed with an eye on a typical global aftermarket revenue benchmark of 25 per cent, the digital initiatives have been integrated with the company’s SAP architecture. Ashok Leyland uses the SAP architecture to carry out its various functions, including the identification and listing of parts, and more. The linkage with SAP architecture helped the company to price the parts it offers on the Leykart platform; to ensure that they could be delivered to the door step of the customer, and to connect 20,000 mechanics to the other initiative – ServiceMandi. With the aftermarket revenue benchmark in India at a low five per cent compared to the 25 per cent benchmark in the global markets, the digital initiatives signal a significant revenue growth potential thus.

Brand and platform agnostic

Said to use ‘Adobe Creative Cloud for Business’ as an interface, the digital initiatives are claimed to have been developed with close co-operation between various teams in the company. Part of the company’s broad plan to beat the cyclic nature of the CV market, the four digital platforms are expected to be made commercially available in the next one or two months for those who would want to opt for their existing fleet. To be expanded to Ashok Leyland’s export markets, and in-line with the company’s thrust on exports as it concentrates on margins rather than absolute market share, the digital initiatives are offered as standard on BSIV emission compliant trucks. What makes them suitable is the higher share of electronics they carry; the higher number of sensors they carry, and which makes them more receptive. Engineered to be brand and platform agnostic, Ashok Leyland is claimed to have engaged IT companies whenever the need for specialised knowledge and coding was felt necessary. Developed by a team of eight to ten young engineers with support from various other departments, the hardware bit of the initiatives includes a black-box. It is fitted inside the dashboard, and is hard to identify. Capable of working even on a two wheeler, if not on a CV of another brand, the functionality of the initiatives is best enjoyed on BSIV compliant Ashok Leyland CVs. On non-BSIV CVs or that of the other brand, the functionality of the initiatives may be limited to track and trace, geofencing, driver behaviour and seeking the nearest independent mechanic in case of the need.

Avenue for faster growth

Performing diagnostics and prognostics, the digital initiatives connect to the cloud. They inform as well as establish contact with the company’s nearest dealer outlet in an event of distress. Looked upon as an avenue that will grow faster in the scheme of things at Ashok Leyland, the way the LCV business of the company is growing, the digital initiatives are expected to grow faster too. They are expected to grow faster than the M&HCV business is currently growing. Offering the promise of enhancing operator efficiency, performance and profitability through an ‘anywhere and anytime’ support for his fleet, the digital initiatives, with an estimated potential to generate Rs.1000 crore in the next three years, are said to draw from the company’s use of digital medium for the past five years to dial process efficiency and operational improvements. The telematics-based i-Alert initiative among the four, offers a live dashboard, which displays vital information of the vehicle in real-time. Going beyond the track and trace function, i-Alert sends alerts directly to the smart phone if a Ashok Leyland CV needs attention. ServiceMandi connects customers with Ashok Leyland trained and qualified mechanics. Over 20,000 mechanics have been signed for the initiative, and with a focus that they use genuine spares sourced from authorised company channel. The mechanics have been star-rated according to their capability and skills. Their fees have been pre-determined, and can thus be pre-ascertained by the operator before choosing to entrust the job.

Providing live status updates of vehicle repairs on a smart phone, the operator can pay digitally on the pre-agreed rate once the repairs are executed. If this provides comfort to the driver, and gives him a feeling that he is not alone in his journey, the e-diagnostics platform is Bluetooth-based and pin-points the error by flashing the error code on the smart phone. A troubleshooting list pops up to help the mechanic or the driver to resolve the error in a simple step-by-step process. Offering a round the clock availability of genuine spare parts, Leykart helps to find out a specific part by entering the vehicle registration number, or by selecting the relevant part from the parts list. Customers can add their choice to the kart and pay digitally. The parts are dispatched to their location from the nearest warehouse through a shipment that could be tracked on the smart phone.

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Leveraging tech and knowledge

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Volvo Buses India is leveraging technology and knowledge to increase its market reach.

Story by: Bhushan Mhapralkar

Present in India since 2001 in the premium bus and coach segment, Volvo Buses India has delivered 100 BSIV emission compliant buses since the standards were implemented on April 01, 2017. Complementing the 1000 BSIV buses the company has delivered from before the BSIV emission regulations were enforcement across the country, the Volvo 9400 range of multi-axle coaches is claimed to be among the first BSIV emission compliant buses to be supplied to Indian customers. The development follows a localisation announcement by Volvo Buses at Busworld India last year. The company announced the deployment of BSIV compliant 330 hp (Volvo D8C) 8-litre six-cylinder engine in its 12 m B8R inter-city coach. The D8C engine is made at the Volvo Eicher PowerTrain (VEPT) joint venture engine plant at Pithampur. The 9400 multi-axle coach, at the other end, is powered by a 370 hp 11-litre six-cylinder engine. Finding use with institutional and private operators for long distance travel, typically in the range of 600 to 1000 kms, the driveline and powertrain of the Volvo 9400 range are designed to last the lifecycle of the bus. This is typically 10 lakh kilometres. Apart from long service intervals, the key aggregates of the Volvo 9400 range are said to significantly lower the running costs and NVH levels. Offering better travel comfort and lower driver fatigue, which elevates safety, the Volvo 9400 range features ABS, Electronic Braking System (EBS), disc brakes and hill-start assist. It also employs the I-Shift automated manual transmission.

Leveraging technology and knowledge

Displaying BSIV emission compliant multi-axle 9400 coach, and a 12 m low-floor hybrid city bus at the Prawaas 2017 exhibition held at Navi Mumbai, Volvo Buses India aptly hinted at a strategy to leverage technology and knowledge to increase the market reach. Speaking on the sidelines of the expo, Akash Passey, Senior Vice President, Business Region International, Volvo Bus Corporation, expressed that they have been talking of this (an bus operator event) even as the bus story in India unfolded. “For someone who has been associated with the bus industry for the last 25 years, it is good to see operators working in the same direction, and towards the improvement of the industry,” mentioned Passey. He described Prawaas 2017 fair, organised by the Bus Operators Confederation of India (BOCI), as momentous.

Defining GST as a pathbreaking development, Passey stressed upon rising unity among private operators in India as a sign of maturity. It is important to Volvo from a business point, he quipped. Opining that for a country that provides long distance and city bus services this is a game changer, Passey termed the Indian bus market as a combination of institutional bodies supported by the government, and small private operators. He drew a comparison with other markets of the world where the line separating the institutional operators and private operators is thin. “Every country has its own processes, procedures and needs. The public transport system works well when the government creates the right infrastructure and frames the right policies.” Passey explained. Opining that the success of an operator is beyond his status as a private or an institutional operator, Passey expressed that successful operators are operating across continents. He cited an example of a Volvo operator in Australia. The same operator runs buses in Singapore, London, Brazil, and Chile. With governments focussing on creating regulatory conditions that are conducive to business, and putting their demands clearly, contracts, said Passey, are given for five, seven, 10, or even 15 years.

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Global trend

Stating that attention is not on cost per km, but on the number of footfalls, Passey said that stress is on 90 per cent occupancy in many parts of the world. “City bus operators are running school bus loads during non-peak hours,” he highlighted. Pointing at LTE (land transport body), Singapore, Passey mentioned that there is a clear vision about what has to be achieved in the next 25 years, and in the next 50 years. There is an implementation plan in place, he said. Five years ago, the LTE opened more routes to global operators. and increased the number of operators from two to five. “In Hong Kong,” said Passey, “the government is focusing on creating a regulatory path.” Public transport there is run through 4000 buses, he informed.

Considered to be one of the most challenging bus operations with little road space and high population, every bus at Hong Kong is a double decker. A private company is running the service for the last 15 years. Drawing a comparison with Singapore and Hong Kong, Passey mentioned, “Unlike these countries and regions, India has a fragmented operator markup, which gives rise to unique challenges, and calls upon the need for the operators and the government to work together to achieve a common goal.” Expressing that the success of the governments is also high in such a situation, Passey stressed upon self sustenance, and operators operating not just buses, but also trains and ferries. Not just in one country but across continents. Pointing at the multi-modal nature of operations of many global operators, Passey expressed that the coming together of operators in India will lead to self sustenance. “It is also in-line with the global trends,” he mentioned.

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The wanted picture

Pointing at a situation twenty years ago when two operators with businesses 10 m apart would not see eye-to-eye, Akash averred that his wanted picture was to see an Indian operator run operations in other parts of the world. “This is irrespective of him being an institutional body or a private body,” he said. Stressing upon the need to arrive at this picture, Akash touched upon the shift in thinking of government and operators over the last few years in India. “It should not be forgotten that India is the second largest bus market after China,” he informed. India and China together account for 60 to 70 per cent of the global bus volume. In terms of population, India and China account for 2.5 to 2.6 billion people out of the seven billion global population. With every fifth person in the world a Chinese, and every sixth person in the world an Indian, China and India are logically the largest and the second largest bus markets in the world. It is in these countries that the need to move people is. Stated Passey, that he clearly sees India as the second largest bus market in the world with enormous potential. “The segment we are in, did not exist ten or twelve years back. Today it is in a small way playing an important role,” he expressed. Terming the rise in local content in Volvo buses as overdue, Passey linked it with the need to efficiently move people from one place to another. Pointing at the D8C engine finding use in Volvo buses the world over, Passey expressed that he looks at demonetisation, migration to BSIV emission standards and the implementation of GST as a way of life.

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Terming demonetisation, migration to BSIV and GST as long overdue, Passey averred that the industry and the government should work together. Pointing out at the BSVI buses rolling out of the Bangalore facility of Volvo for export to Europe, Passey opined that they are sending BSVI engines from here to all parts of the world for the last three years. Of Volvo Group and Volvo Buses moving up to BSVI, Passey said, that it will be a challenge to do it frugally. He mentioned that their premium positioning will add to the challenge, and technology will have to be leveraged to achieve the goal. “Euro6 takes a lot of technology, and we have it,” said Passey. The export of Euro6 12 m two-axle coaches is proceeding as per the plan. According to Passey, the bus bagged the tittle of ‘Bus of the Year’ in Spain. Spain is one of the two markets (the other is France) that the bus is exported to. With new markets for the bus opening up in Europe, Passey commented, “We are going slow and steady.”

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MG Group turns OEM

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The MG Group is looking at an exciting time ahead with new projects up its sleeve.

Story by: Bhushan Mhapralkar

Post the launch of tarmac coach Columbus and the sleeper version of Mammoth premium front-engine inter-city bus at Busworld India 2016, Mumbai-based MG Group is looking at tapping growth on various fronts. Keen to turn OEM by ‘productionising’ the Columbus, the Group is increasing its thrust in the OEM business by inking an agreement with Scania to build sleeper coaches on its 14.8 m chassis. Achieving a major milestone of 100,000 buses last year (100,000 buses were built in twenty years), the Group, according to Anil M. Kamat, Managing Director, MG Group, is aiming high. Announcing that the Columbus complies with the tarmac coach manual overall in terms of specifications, dimensions, etc., Kamat mentioned that a lean manufacturing system has been installed to produce the coach. Planning to launch the Columbus in January 2018, the Group is looking at supplying 50 to 60 tarmac coaches a year. “The tarmac coach niche,” explained Kamat, “befits the company’s bandwidth.” We are confident of supporting this product in the market, he mentioned.

Driving the Mammoth

Exporting the Mammoth to Africa, Bangladesh, Nepal and Maldives, The MG Group will soon deliver four Mammoth coaches to KPN Travels. These will be in the sleeper coach guise. Based on a MAN bus chassis (procured as per an agreement with MAN Trucks India), it took almost a year for the Alma Motors business vertical of the MG Group to develop the (front-engine) Mammoth. To attain the status of a premium offering, particular attention was paid to the design and NVH. Both, the MG Group and MAN worked on the NVH of Mammoth. While the 220 hp Mammoth is specific to the Maldives market, the rest of the markets are catered to by the 280 hp version. Competitively priced in the range of Rs.60 and Rs.62 lakhs, the Mammoth helped the Group to bag the Scania venture.

Paying attention to business areas that were not looking lucrative until now, the Group has begun pursuing the STU business with a hope to make it big. This confidence stems from the order bagged from Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation (MSRTC) for 250 ‘Shivshahi’ mid-premum inter-city AC coaches based on a 180 hp Tata LPO chassis. Stated Kamat that the ‘Shivshahi’ bus has been designed by them. As per the agreement between MSRTC and the MG Group, the design will be transferred to MSRTC, said Kamat. With 55 to 60 per cent of the STU sales originating from Karnataka, Maharashtra, Telangana, and APRSTC, the Group is finding it advantageous with its facilities at Belgaum and Zaheerabad. Strategically situated according to Kamat, the Zaheerabad unit is already catering to Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. The MSRTC buses are being built at the Belgaum plant. Responding to private hire orders from MSRTC, the Group is hoping to close the deal soon. The private hire buses are expected to operate on a BOT basis. Confident that the agreement to transfer the design may not rob it of its advantage of building buses in less time, the Group, according to Kamat is a mass producer of bus bodies. he opined that MSRTC may not be able to match the Group’s body building speeds.”

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Growth from OEM business

Crediting OEMs for the capabilities it has come to possess, Kamat mentioned that the future looks exciting. Supporting OEM clients as they embark on new projects and increase their market reach, it was Scania that identified and certified the Group to partner with them, Anil averred. The MG Group, through its facility at Belgaum, which has been renamed as MG Automotives Bus and Coach Pvt. Ltd. from the earlier Alma Motors, will deliver sleeper coaches on Scania’s 14.8 m multi axle bus chassis beginning January 2018. “There are some other products that we are working upon with Scania, the details of which cannot be shared now,” said Kamat. Marketed by Scania, the engineering and product development of the premium sleeper coaches will be done by the MG Group. The sleeper coaches will be co-branded, and the IPR rights will be owned by the MG Group according to Kamat. Describing the development as a feather in the hat, Kamat expressed that they entered the premium bus market with the Mammoth. The Scania development marks the next phase of the strategy. In-line with the development, the Group has revised its manufacturing footprint. The unit-one at Belgaum is being expanded, refurbished and restructured. It will be dedicated to the building of premium buses, and was recently quality certified by Daimler Buses as well. The unit-two will cater to smaller buses that were earlier being built at unit-one.

Flexibility and versatility

To continue to build buses for fleet operators, the MG Group may build some premium coaches on Ashok Leyland and Tata Motors’ chassis too. Focus would be on MNC business as far as the premium coaches are concerned. It will entail a different style of working according to Kamat. It will also entail a different culture of working, and a totally different manufacturing process. Not a big player in the fleet operator bus building market, the Group, Kamat mentioned, will continue to pursue school and staff buses as its primary business. Growth will come, said Kamat, as OEMs seek to increase their market reach and market share. “As far as the mid-segment AC coaches are concerned, we were never that big. It will not be our top-most priority. We will be concentrating on the premium end of the bus spectrum with the Mammoth, the Scania coaches, and coaches for other OEMs apart from our very own Columbus,” Kamat explained. The expansion of unit-two at Belgaum should enable the Group to build 4000 bus units per annum. In discussion with Tata Motors for their export business, the Group is well aware of the flexibility and versatility that is essential to succeed in the industry. Kamat is confident of working up to the expectations of his clients. He cited an example of the Group building 1500 refuse trucks on the Jeeto platform for Mahindra’s Value Added Products (VAP) business division in a short span of three months. “The VAP division bagged the order under the ‘Swach Bharat’ scheme for GHMC, Hyderabad. We displayed immense flexibility and versatility by developing as well as delivering 1500 refuse trucks in three months from our Zaheerabad plant,” mentioned Kamat. To cater to higher volumes, the Group is expanding its Zaheerabad facility. The plan is to turn out more variants from this plant.

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Growth from allied business

Setting up a modern facility for its business vertical MG Composites vertical at Zaheerabad, the Group is eyeing the advanced composites space. Supported by a R&D center, and technology secured from UK, the Group is keen that MG Composites expands its product portfolio to nasal covers for wind mills and other non-automotive parts. The current product range of the company includes bus front and rear fascia, dashboard, interior trim parts, etc. Expected to be operational by the end of the second or third quarter this fiscal, the new MG Composites facility is expected to reflect upon the change in skill sets that the Group is experiencing. Attention is being paid on team building. Team building is also on at the Group’s MG Grey Engines business vertical. The company will break even this year according to Kamat. Plans are being chalked out to double the turnover. Supplying wiring harness, passenger announcement systems, destination boards, LED saloon lights, and more, the company is developing new products. Like MG Composites, it is also independent of the bus and coach business of the Group. It is free to offer its products to other players, and will soon increase its thrust in the ITS and telematics space. To drive out of red this year, MG Grey Engines will aim higher, and innovate. The company will support the Group’s plan to play a role in connected CVs.

Looking at 100 per cent growth this year on the basis of the STU business, the Group hopes to maintain that mark, and progress at 10 to 15 per cent year-on-year. Currently employing 2300 people, the Group hopes to hire 700 to 800 more people by 2020. With the first Scania bus slated to roll out of the Belgaum plant by January 2018, the Group is looking at launching an electric version of the Columbus tarmac coach next year. It is keen to build electric bus bodies as well.

Ashok Leyland gets innovative

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In view of the changes affecting the CV industry, Ashok Leyland is banking on technology and innovation.

Story by:

Bhargav TS

After revealing the use of ‘smart’ EGR to help its CVs to comply with BSIV emission norms, Ashok Leyland has announced that it is innovating on various fronts to ensure that its products are relevant, and make a profitable business case. If the ‘Smart’ EGR technology, which the folks at Ashok Leyland call iEGR, has enhanced fuel efficiency by 10 per cent, and minimised the usage of electronics; have kept the weight constant and reliability good, the innovation is also expected to result in lighter, safer, efficient and world-class products. According to the chief technology officer Dr. Seshu Bhagavathula, the company is planning three upgrades to address a shift to CVs with higher power to weight ratio, and CVs with fully-built AC cabins. This, mentions Bhagavathula, will occupy our time and effort.

Market vibes

With the rise in operating speeds set to change the way the long haul segment operates, Ashok Leyland is finding an opportunity to innovate. It also stems from the need to match the duty cycle requirements; the need to change engine calibration parameters, and to collect data. “All this will have to be done in the next couple of years,” mentions Bhagavathula. He explains, “EGR is suitable for Indian conditions rather than SCR. SCR can be offered at the price of an EGR, but will result in higher maintenance cost.” Connecting higher maintenance cost of SCR to the need for urea dosing and electronics, Bhagavathula opines, “SCR systems are not bad. It is EGR that we believe will help our CV users in the long run.” A function of engine as much as it is the function of fuel quality, driver and the road conditions, EGR, mentions Bhagavathula, offers the advantage of less number of parts. The bill of materials is better. “We researched. We collected data. We found out that EGR is less complex,” he reveals.

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If the ‘smart’ EGR developed by Ashok Leyland has the ability to help a 400 hp engine to meet BSIV emission norms, much work has gone into the tweaking of the cooling system, the exhaust gas control valve among others. The in-cylinder combustion process was optimised. “We combined intelligence with EGR. We gave five per cent back and a maximum of 10 per cent exhaust gas instead of 20 per cent. The intelligence thus is in the combustion chamber, and not at the EGR level. It reduces the role of a Particle Oxidation Catalyst (POC), and could even eliminate it. We optimised in-cylinder temperature as well,” Bhagavathula elaborates.

Optimising injection pressure by modifying the design of the nozzle, Ashok Leyland engineers claim to have upped the fuel efficiency, and the life of the engine. Planning to keep the electronic content to the bare essential, the CV maker is keen to gradually increase the complexity of its products. The current efficiency of the engine at around 40 per cent, states Bhagavathula. It leaves enough potential for improvement, he adds. Touching upon the potential to improve material technology, Bhagavathula opines, “Over 60 per cent of the engine efficiency can be achieved by using fine materials. There will be no corrosion or sound, and hardly will there be a need for oil.” Hoping that one fine day it will be possible to arrive at such a development in real-time, Bhagavathula draws attention to the engines they make. We make our own engines, and not source them, he says.

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Tech upgrade

At Ashok Leyland, a separate team is working to improve the combustion process. Products that have higher power to weight ratio will be launched. Also launched will be CVs with a power output of more than 400 hp. According to Bhagavathula, 49-tonne vehicles with 180 and 190 hp will rise to 200 and 220 hp. The AC cabs, he adds, will flaunt a different level of fit and finish. The use of light weight material is set to increase, states Bhagavathula, the future lies with the suppliers, and how they could help reduce the cost of the end product. Ashok Leyland is closely following alternate fuel technology developments. In the electric vehicle space, it is working on new management strategies. They are about controlling the vehicle and battery functions.

With Optare, Ashok Leyland has developed a strategy to enhance the bus range by 45 per cent. Efforts are being made to access new technologies. Reveals Bhagavathula, “Fruitful exchange of technologies is taking place.” In the direction of connected CVs, the work on driver warning systems is underway. Three systems would be offered. The basic system will warn the driver. The mid-level system will address the needs of fleet operators that are keen to deliver their cargo on time. The premium-level system is autonomous, and engineered to offer complete control. What Ashok Leyland currently offers is ‘iAlert’ and ‘Ley Assist’. ‘iAlert’ improves viability through state-of-the-art, innovative, user-friendly, and cost effective services. Through the ‘Ley Assist’ app., the owner or driver can avail of all the information about the truck through Bluetooth. This includes information about the problems faced too.

Full-range strategy

Keen to become a full range player, Ashok Leyland will launch one new product every three months for the next two years. With an aim to bag 30 per cent of the LCV market, the company is planning to invest Rs.400 crore over the next two years for LCVs. An electric LCV range is also said to be on the cards, and would be soon unveiled. With the Indian CV market set to change, it is natural of Ashok Leyland to innovate. It will not just benefit the CV buyer, but also the society at large.

Multix Maxim

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The Multix seems to blur the line between a small commercial vehicle and a personal utility vehicle.

Story by: Anirudh Raheja

On a narrow winding road in the hinterland of Konkan, the Multix came as a surprise. Exiting a blind corner, on a rough country terrain that could hardly qualify as one, the Multix, with five adults and the cargo tray full of food grain sacks, made for an interesting sight. It looked dandy, and capable. It gave an impression of blurring the boundary between a personal utility vehicle and a small commercial vehicle. Introduced in 2015 by Eicher Polaris Pvt. Ltd (EPPL), a 50:50 joint venture between Eicher Motors and US-based Polaris, the Multix is finding takers for the versatility it offers. The number of Multix sold till date may be a little hard to ascertain, it for certain is showing signs of growing beyond the vision it was expected to live up to. Measuring 3235 mm in length, 1585 mm in width, and 1856 mm in height, the Multix was developed to start a new segment of independent businessmen as buyers. Those, looking for mobility, and a means to fulfill their business needs. Homologated under the category of personal vehicle, and a business vehicle by the Automotive Research Association of India (ARAI), the Multix, states CEO Pankaj Dubey, is a personal mobility vehicle.

Riding on 13-inch dia. wheels, and 155/80 R13 79T tubeless radial tyres, the Multix flaunts a 172 mm ground clearance. Subjected to extensive testing in India and the US of over 18 lakh kilometres, the vehicle borrows from Polaris’ expertise in building ATVs and side-by-sides. The vehicle also borrows from Eicher’s expertise in building two wheelers, tractors and commercial vehicles. Developed to tap a population of 5.8 crore independent businessmen, the Mutix makes a strong case to combine business with pleasure.

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Business and pleasure

The sales of Multix may tilt in the favour of ‘white plate’ personal vehicle, its preference as a ‘yellow plate’ commercial vehicle is rising. Subjected to off-road durability, reliability and safety tests, the vehicle can be registered as either. For commercial application the preference is expected to be for the AX+ variant, which has a kerb weight of 683 kg (GVW is 1150 kg), and is priced at Rs.2.43 lakh ex-showroom approximately. Closer to the original design, and developed with an intention to address the needs of those that will indulge in multiple usage, the AX+, sans the doors, would make more room for passengers. Mentions Dubey, “The original design (AX+) we created was a primary model without doors. On the basis of customer feedback and our research, doors were added. This resulted in the MX.” The doors of the MX are made from Flexituff, a light-weight material that the company has patented. The bonnet of the Multix is also made from this material. It is according to Dubey, highly durable, resistant to rust, and easy to repair. If the AX+ and MX will meet the crash norms that are expected to be rolled out next year, Dubey avers, “It is debate-able to apply passenger vehicle crash norms to a vehicle that has a top speed of less than 60 kmph. Since we have to, we will adhere to the norms.” The MX is priced at Rs.2.82 lakh ex-showroom approximately, and weighs 775 kg. Its GVW is the same as AX+ at 1150 kg.

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On par in terms of load carrying capacity with many small commercial vehicles available in the market, according to Dubey, the Multix, states Dubey, offers a distinct advantage of independent suspension. Termed as Pro-ride, the suspension is made up of hydraulic McPherson struts at front, and double wishbones at the rear. Drive is routed to the rear wheels through a four-speed constant mesh gearbox. Capable of clocking better speeds over less than ideal surfaces should make the Multix appealing to those that transport perishable commodities like vegetables and fruits. Designed to sustain up to 20 per cent more than the specified storage capacity of 418.3 kg, the possibility of overloading is never far away, the vehicle, with the glass partition between the cargo bay and the cab dismantled, can offer a cavernous 840-litre storage capacity. The rear seats are foldable.

If the appearance and dimensions of the Multix make it appear unique, a strong tubular chassis is at the core. The body panels are a combination of flexituff material and steel. Offering unique engineering attributes like Power Take Off (PTO), which is called Xport, and can help power a generator or a water pump among other utilities with the help of a PTO shaft sold as an accessory, the Multix, Dubey elaborates, seeps less than one-litre of diesel per hour. Capable of generating three kilo-watt power in less than five minutes, the vehicle has a 11.5-litre fuel tank. Making for a 12-hour operation for a PTO linked utility, the Multix comes across as versatile. Affected by demonetisation because of high reliance on cash in rural and semi-rural areas, the Multix has turned its attention to urban buyers. Its ability to play the role of a commercial vehicle is drawing attention. The pan-India migration to BSIV has helped ther Multix to look at newer avenues and opportunities, to grow. The move to BSIV triggered a 20 per cent rise in the cost, says Dubey. He mentions, “The incorporation of EGR technology led to an increase in the cost.” Looked upon as an investment by a small businessman, the increase in cost is proving to be a challenge. Buyers are unable to understand the reason behind the cost increase, says Dubey. While new ways are being found to make the buyer understand, EPPL, to ensure a smooth transition, ceased the production of BSIII Multix in Februrary 2017. In March, BSIV Multix production was started. Some BSIII vehicles have been left over at the dealer level. EPPL, states Dubey, is taking care of these.

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Continuous improvement

Made at a modern manufacturing plant at Kukas, Rajasthan, spread over an area of 25 acres, and with an annual production capacity of 60,000 units, the Multix is subjected to stringent quality checks. With stress on continuous product improvement, a cell of 40 engineers, according to Dubey looks into customer demand and feedback. Necessary changes are incorporated to improve the quality and value. To ensure high manufacturing standards, the Multix is built with the aid of robotic weld lines, a modern paint shop, and a final assembly line. It will not be an exaggeration to describe the manufacturing facility to be almost as flexible as the vehicle. Mentions Dubey, the design flexibility of the Multix is a double-edged sword. It makes it highly versatile, but also leads to some limitations, expresses Dubey. He adds, “The roll-cage, which elevates safety, covers 70 per cent of the body structure, also poses certain limitations.” The roll cage is said to pose certain restrictions in making signtificant design changes to arrive at a open-top version, and a single-cab version. “Based on business requirements we will take a call,” quips Dubey.

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Pursuing growth

Financed by leading private and public sector banks, and NBFCs, the Multix is sold through a pan-India network of 76 dealers. Network expansion is underway, and three new dealerships at Delhi, Faridabad and Thane were recently commissioned. EPPL plans to bridge the 100 dealership mark by the end of this year. The target for next year is 150 dealers. Entry into urban markets like Delhi has created a need to offer a CNG version. EPPL is seeding a CNG model, but will take time to launch it. It is perhaps the need to expand the network to CNG markets to offer the right support. Avers Dubey, that a centre close to the customer plays a big role in satisfying his needs.

Having clocked 20 per cent growth last year, EPPL is hoping for a stronger growth this year. It is betting on market reach, and the availability of BSIV model, to enhance the urban thrust. The need, says Dubey, is to be certain. Uncertainty is not healthy for business,” he avers. Eyeing the exports markets of Nepal and Bangladesh, and in discussion for export to central American countries, EPPL is looking at many new avenues of growth. The simple yet dandy workhorse nature of the Multix should make it appealing. Seen in flesh, the Multix, with the front dominated by a steeply rising bonnet, does look purpose-built. The head lamps and parking lamps are recessed, and separated by a faux grille. The bumper doubles up as a moulding that runs along the lower portion of the body.

If the large windscreen with a single wiper adds to the tall-ish looks of the Multix, the overall impression is of a semi-forward cab layout. A rising window-line and wheel arches define the sides, and endorse the wedge-shape. The greenhouse and wheel arches, finished in a shade of black, add a touch of style. The rear is made up of a large trunk lid, held in place by two latches. The tail lamps are built into the rear pillars. Visible under the rear floor, and fitted snugly in the tubular chassis is an air-cooled single cylinder direct-injection G650 W Greaves Cotton engine. It belts out 13.4 PS (9.85kW) of power and 37 Nm of peak torque at 1600-2000 rpm. Power is routed through a four-speed constant mesh gearbox. The PTO juts out of it.

The Drive

The wide opening doors make for easy access. The large windscreen and ample glass area makes for good visibility. The simple dash, made up of a combination of lines, includes an instrument panel containing a speedo, and a fuel and temperature gauge. The gear lever juts out of what could be described as the centre console. The bench seat presents the possibility to seat three people at front. It provides fair amount of support. The rear bench seat can seat three people. The amount of room available is fair. An amount of noise accompanies the starting of the engine. The Multix may not score high in refinement when compared to cars, vibrations are well contained. Moving away from standstill, the Multix may not quickly gain speed, it presents a feel of being a tough workhorse. The tall first cog amply hints at a workhorse orientation. The second and third cogs bring some speed to the vehicle. Good momentum is achieved in the fourth gear. Speeds in the region of 50 kmph are achieved. A race against the clock is not the Multix forte. Rather than speed, the ability of the vehicle to lug impresses. If this make the Multix fit to be a commercial vehicle, its flexible nature impressesive, no less.

The ride is superior to that of a mini-truck. Less than ideal surfaces are displaced with ease. Bad stretches fail to discomfort the occupants. Handling is good, and the steering feels direct and precise. The need for a power steering is felt though. With an impressive ability to maneouvre through narrow spaces, the Multix with a turning radius of 3.93 m, offers 27.8 kmpl mileage under standard test conditions. Offering good fuel efficiency, the Multix costs as much as a small commercial vehicle would. Its tractor-like ability to power utilities through a PTO is an added advantage. The move to BSIV may have increased the price of the Multix, its ability to offer superior flexibility makes it appealing.

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Pankaj Dubey, Chief Executive Officer, Eicher Polaris Pvt. Ltd.

Q. What makes the Multix stand out?

A. It is targeted at businessmen who can use it for personal as well as business purpose. The vehicle can be used to carry passengers, and to move cargo. With a number of vehicles available in the market for load carrying, we may not be the best, we are however on par with some of them. Offering the comfort of independent suspension all round, the biggest USP of the Multix is the comfortable drive it offers. For those carrying perishable goods, or goods that may get spoilt due to road shocks, the Multix offers a solution. It offers a safe transit for products which are sensitive to bad roads.

Q. What about the load carrying capacity?

A. The payload capacity of the Multix is 450 kgs. Raising it by 15 to 20 per cent would not be an issue. We have come across customers who have claimed to carry 900 kg of cargo with ease. We do not support any form of overloading however, and it should be avoided at all costs for an improved ecosystem.

Q. What led to the development of the Multix?

A. We designed the Multix with a sole objective to serve customers that are looking at multiple usage. The Multix can perform various tasks, and deliver a fuel efficiency of 27-30 kmpl. It is equivalent to that of a two wheeler. When not carrying load, the Multix can be used as a five-seater car. Two-wheeler owners can have a bigger vehicle in the form of the Multix. They can have a vehicle that is comfortable, and saves them from weather changes.

Q. What went into the development of the Multix?

A. Both, Polaris and Eicher, combined their strengths to develop the Multix. Eicher brought in the PTO; Polaris brought in its ability to create a new segment and innovate. The Multix is an indigenous product. Its design is localised. It has been also developed locally. Eicher contributed to its cost effective development too. A Polaris contribution, the Multix employs flexituff material, which keeps the weight down. The contribution of both the partners ensured that the Multix would address the customer requirements. It is designed with a roll cage bar that covers up to 70 per cent of the vehicle area.

Q. The role the R&D played in the development of the Multix?

A. The R&D at Eicher Polaris comprises of a team of 40 engineers that look after product improvement, stimulation testing and development of a number of applications that a customer would like to see in the Multix. The team also looks at finding new solutions based on customer feedback. A lot of development is taking place, and includes an effort to make the Multix lighter, and more capable. The testing of Multix for new applications like transportation of liquids is carried out by the R&D. The R&D division is also developing and testing variants that would better fulfill the changing needs of the customers. There is a demand for open-top vehicle, and for a single cab version. A ‘flexi’ design, there are certain areas that are posing a challenge. The roll cage covers nearly 70 per cent of the vehicle, reducing the rear space. We are evaluating feedback received, and are carrying out feasibility tests based on the business needs.

Q. What is the homologation type of the Multix?

A. Mulitx has undergone homologation as a personal vehicle, and as a business vehicle too, at the ARAI. It can be registered as a yellow plate CV and a white plate personal vehicle depending upon the nature of its application. As for now, the demand for white plate Multix is more than that for the yellow plate. The demand for yellow plate is however rising.

Q. What is the difference between the MX and AX+ version?

A. The original design that we created was the AX. It was to be the primary model. Research and customer feedback however revealed that doors were necessary to better integrate the design. Both the MX and AX+ have similar features. The AX+ is more open and can be used for transport in rural areas where mobility is an issue. Equipped with a PTO, which is called the Xport, a feature that is common to tractors, the Multix could help to operate a number of agricultural units. An energy of three kilo-watts could be generated.

Q. Amid the talk of crash norms implementation, how do you see the Multix faring?

A. The top speed of the Multix is less than 60 kmph. To expect it to meet the norms that are applicable to cars that achieve much higher speeds is debatable. We have to adhere to them, and we will. It is a challenge that we are working on. Many changes, including the move to BSIV emission norms, and demonetisation happened in a short duration. This has brought about an amount of uncertainty, which is not healthy for the business. A number of rules are expected in the next few years, and will call for an amount of work. Both the versions of the Multix are offered with an accessory that turns them into a fully integrated vehicle for secure cargo movement.

What changes has the Multix undergone to comply with BSIV emission norms?

This being a low-speed vehicle makes it more challenging. We have introduced EGR. The exhaust gases are recirculated into the system. To comply with BSIV emission norms, we added various things like the ECU controller as well. The changes have led to a cost increase of 20 per cent. For a small businessman, even a vehicle like this is an investment. It is therefore proving to be a difficult task to make him understand.

Q.Is the demand for an alternate fuel Multix rising?

A. We have not seen much demand for alternate fuels. We have been present in small towns where availability of fuels like CNG is low. After introducing the Multix in markets like Delhi and Ghaziabad, we have started hearing the need for CNG variants. We are not in favour of introducing an alternate fuel version soon.

Q. How many Multix are produced? What is the plant capacity?

A. The Multix is produced at a modern plant at Kukas, Rajasthan. There are robots that carry out welding in the weld shop. The entire plant was developed in-house. The current capacity of the plant is 60,000 units, and can be scaled up to 1.2 lakh units depending on the market demand. Currently, we are producing the Multix in a single shift., which can see increase in shifts. But again, it depends on the demand. We are supported by 104 vendors with whom we are working on cost optimisation.

Q. What was the effect of demonetisation? The changes GST would bring?

A. The impact of demonetisation was felt in rural India since most of the transactions are cash intensive. That was felt for a few months, and continues to be in the the minds of the people. The migration to BSIV has pushed up costs. It is a concern that we and our customers share. The value that the customer sees is not very high. He is not ready to understand the reason that made the same vehicle, which was cheaper a few months back, costly. There’s been an impact, and will continue until people do not understand that price increase was inevitable. To ensure smooth transition, we did not produce any BSIII vehicle in the month of March. We started producing BSIV vehicles instead, and began our supply of BSIV vehicles to the dealers. Our dealers are left with a few BSIII vehicles, and we need to take care of those.

Q. What is your current dealer strength?

A. We have 76 dealers. By the end of this year, the number will rise to more than 100 dealers. We plan to elevate the dealer strength to 150 over the next one year. With BSIV in, we are looking at an all-round growth. We are closely monitoring the markets like Thane, Delhi and Faridabad, which we have just entered. These, we feel, will help us to gauge customer appetite. If Tier-one cities respond positively, we will get a head room to expand our reach. Since after sales support also plays a big role, and customers want a center closer to their area of operation. We are looking at strategies that will help us to address customer needs. All our dealers sell as well as service the Multix. We have also tied-up with a RSA to quickly address a complaint.

Q. What growth are you anticipating? What about exports?

A. This year we are growing at 20 per cent. Our aim is to double the growth next year. There are 13 big towns in India – big business centers, where we were not present. They are now our focus area as far as market reach is concerned. We recently began exporting the Multix to Nepal. We will soon find our way to Bangladesh. We are also looking into inquiries received from central American countries. Talks are on.

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Singrauli hosts Volvo Fuelwatch Challenge

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Volvo Trucks hosted the eighth edition of Volvo Fuelwatch Challenge at Singrauli.

Story by: Bhushan Mhapralkar

The eighth edition of Volvo Trucks India ‘Fuelwatch Challenge’ was held at Singrauli, Madhya Pradesh. Home to five thermal power generation plants with an estimated power generation capacity of 13295 mega-watt, Singrauli, saw 29 top contenders – winners of regional rounds, from 29 different Volvo Trucks customers, pilot the new BSIV Volvo FMX 460 8×4 mining tipper on a 3.4 km track in the Dudhichua coal mine. The Dudhichua mine is one of the largest mines among the 10 mines that Northern Coalfields Limited (NCL) operates in the Singrauli region. With rich coal deposits spread over an area of 2,200 sq. km, Singrauli has 15 Volvo Trucks customers, including its biggest customer BGR Mining & Infra. Together they operate 850 FMX trucks. Given the need of the operations, Singrauli has no 8×4 Volvo FMX trucks. All the trucks that operate there are 10×4 FMX 520 and FMX 480. A total of 273 trucks out of the BGR’s fleet of over 500 trucks operate at Singrauli. The mines of Singrauli have 85 FMX 480 trucks, and 30 FMX 520 10×4 trucks. Replacing the mighty dump trucks, the 850 Volvo mining trucks at Singrauli have come to earn the respect of their drivers. They are ably supported by the Volvo service structure.

Choosing to hold the challenge at the Dudhichua coal mine to simulate the exact conditions under which its mining trucks ply, Volvo Trucks got a 3.4 km track, leading up to a discarded dumping site, built. With tight corners and loose surfaces thrown in for good measure, the track, 1.7 km one-way, saw each of the 29 drivers drive with load and without load.

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Aimed at enhancing driver efficiency and skills, which would in-turn help to elevate the energy efficiency of Volvo trucks that they drive, the eighth ‘Fuelwatch Challenge’ paid particular attention to how a Volvo mining truck driver planned his drive; employed his skills, and drove safely. In the desolate landscape of a coal mine, one error can lead to costly accidents and damage.

Held over three days, the ‘Fuelwatch Challenge’ saw the 29 drivers try all the tricks under the sun to ensure that their’s was the most frugal drive. The most tricky part of the challenge was perhaps the turn at the half-way mark, which required the driver to make a three-point turning maneouvre. Also challenging proved to be the loose soil surface. It called for the right use of traction. The weather was not the most pleasant during the three days of the challenge. B Dinakar, Vice President, Sales & Marketing, Volvo Trucks, expressed that the event is not a competition. It is a culture.

Volvo’s telematics platform, Dynafleet, was pressed into service to record the performance of each and every driver. With the new 8×4 Volvo FMX 460 BSIV (with I-Shift automated manual transmission) as the basis, Appana Babu of BGR Mining and Infra managed to be the most frugal and disciplined. Rajkaran Kushwaha of Baghel Infrastructures (Singrauli) came second, and Bablu Ghatwal of Coal Mines Associated Traders came third. Said Dinakar, that none of the 29 drivers that participated in this edition of the Fuel watch Challenge has ever participated in this event. He drew attention to a rule that restricts entry for three years to those who have participated. Expressed Dinakar, “Since its inaugural event in 2010, more than 20,000 participants have become ambassadors of the Fuelwatch community. They share their skills and knowledge to promote a more fuel-efficient industry.” Stating that it takes more than driving for the drivers to go further, Dinakar said that they are working towards a model where the ‘Fuelwatch Challenge’ turns out drivers that become trainers for other drivers in the fleet.

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To represent India in the finals held at Sweden, Babu expressed that it is not just about driving, but is also about understanding the terrain, the vehicle, and to move in harmony. Lauding the efforts put in by the drivers, and their ability to think quickly, Dinakar mentioned, “This also helps us to relook at the technology we offer, and improve upon it.” This edition of Fuelwatch saw an increased participation from over 400 drivers of 29 customers. “The fuel-efficiency margins clocked by the winners have achieved new targets for possible savings in a real-world context, which is testimony of the fact that driver training is pivotal to ensure increased fuel efficiency,” expressed Dinakar. Claiming to spearhead the Fuelwatch mission in the industry, Dinakar explained that they have trained over 55,000 truck drivers nationwide. Stressing upon drivers achieving up to 30 per cent better fuel efficiency over average drivers with regular driver engagement through driver training programs, Dinakar concluded that Indian truck drivers are proving to be top contenders. They are making their mark in the global Fuelwatch Challenge, he averred. If Babu wins the finals at Sweden, his efforts will bring fame to his friends, family and the energy generating region of Singrauli. It will also inspire others to follow in his footsteps.

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Driving the Volvo FMX 460 8×4 tipper

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In terms of appearance, Volvo FMX 460 does not look any different from the Volvo FMX 440 8×4 mining tipper. BSIV emission compliant, the FMX 460 flaunts a Selective Catalyst Reduction (SCR) exhaust after-treatment system. Most SCR components are away from the naked eye except the AdBlue reservoir between the left front and second wheel. An AdBlue pump is integrated into the plastic tank of 32 to 90-litre capacities. Claimed to require topping up every three days considering the continuous operation of the tipper, the FMX 460 features a day cab with comfortable and ergonomic driver area. Powering the truck is a 460 hp, D13K, 12.8-litre, six-cylinder common-rail turbo-diesel engine mounted on a robust and reinforced ladder chassis. Producing a peak torque of 2300 Nm at 900-1400 rpm, the engine has an I-Shift automated manual transmission coupled to it. Power is routed to the road through two live rear hub reduction axles.

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Behind the wheel of the tipper, a sense of sitting higher up is had. Behind the large four-spoke steering wheel is a large rectangular instrument panel. Slide the shifter into neutral, and turn the key. The straight six-cylinder motor comes to life and settles down to an idle. Slide the shifter to ‘A’, release the electronic parking brake on what looks like a thoroughly modern and well put-together dashboard, and step on the accelerator. There is no clutch. The truck starts moving. A noticeable improvement in refinement and noise is evident at once. The BSIV compliant machine is driver friendly and comfortable. In a desolate mining environment, the air-conditioned cockpit is a pleasant place to be in.

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With good visibility ahead, through the large single windscreen, the FMX 460 does not call for much effort to pilot. The overburden at the rear feels a matter of course. The FMX 460 moves away without hiccup. With small increments in speed, the 12-speed splitter and range gearbox with automated gearchanging system begins swapping cogs promptly. With the rev needle hovering on the ‘green’ band of the tacho, the FMX 460 amazes with its ability. A considerable improvement in refinement over the BSIII FMX 440 is evident at once. Having earned a strong reputation for its ability to go deep down into a mine, the FMX 460 further elevates the abilities the FMX mining tipper range is known for.

The Dudhichua coal mine where I had an opportunity to drive the FMX 460 is full of FMX 520 and the FMX 480 10×4 trucks. They operate in severe conditions. Exhibiting strong traction, the FMX 460, in severe operating conditions, impresses with its ability to keep noise and dust out. No wonder, one of the 29 drivers participating in the Fuelwatch Challenge expressed that they were longing to get behind the wheel of their trucks to escape the warm, humid and dusty environment of the mine! On the move, the engine brake of the truck makes for good control. The brakes exert a strong bite when called upon to retard the truck. Acknowledging the advantages had by maintaining good mining tracks, BGR has deployed a good number of water spraying tankers and motor graders. If the diff locks help to negotiate narrow winding tracks with loose soil, the inter-axle locks help to carry out the task at hand without interruption. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. Is that what the FMX 460 is trying to convey? I think, it is.

Indian bus industry is changing

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Last fiscal saw the Indian bus industry change; experience growth and excitement.

Bhushan Mhapralkar

Last fiscal was a good year for the Indian bus industry. The industry witnessed growth followed by the enforcement of the bus body code (AIS 052), and the school bus code (AIS 063). Posting good growth, the industry also witnessed the arrival of sleeper bus code (AIS 119), which is claimed to be a world first. Progress was also achieved in tarmac and double-decker bus code draft. Experiencing buyout times on the back of good orders from government run State Transport Undertakings (STUs) and City Bus Undertakings (CBUs) as well as private bus fleet operators, the bus industry grew at an average 10 per cent last fiscal. Apart from the homologation of a sleeper coach built by Bangalore-based bus body builder (converter), Veera Vahana, under the new sleeper coach code in April 2017, the bus industry in India saw some exciting developments during the last fiscal. At Busworld India 2016, Belgaum-based Alma Motors displayed a tarmac coach with aggregates like engine, gearbox and axles sourced from tier suppliers like Cummins and ZF. Pointing at empowering key bus body builders like Veera Vahana, Alma, JCBL and others, the bus code, it seems, has provided the much needed direction to the Indian bus industry it looks like. Expressed Prashant Kakade, Manager & Co-Ordinator MDC, Central Institute of Road Transport (CIRT), that the bus code has had an influence of turning bus body builders into bus manufacturers. “They are now looking at sourcing aggregates from key suppliers to make their own bus that complies with the bus code regulations”.

If bus body builders continued to gather speed and mass, traditional bus manufacturers like Tata Motors, Ashok Leyland, Volvo Eicher Commercial Vehicles, and SML Isuzu did brisk business as well. Operating at the premium end of the market, global bus makers like Volvo and Scania did well. The premium bus market, driven by rear-engine buses, hovered around 1000 units last fiscal. At busworld India 2016, in an effort to retain its leadership position in the premium bus market, Volvo Buses India unveiled a two-axle 12 m long coach with a locally made 8-litre common-rail diesel engine. This engine is made at the Volvo Eicher engine joint venture at Pithampur, Indore, called the Volvo Eicher PowerTrain. The 5- and 8-litre engines made at this plant, which mirrors the processes and layout of Volvo’s Skovde plant in Sweden, are supplied in Euro6 guise to many European locations of Volvo. Said Akash Passey, Senior Vice President – Business Region International, Volvo Bus Corporation, “The inclusion of a locally produced engine addresses the demand of our customers for localised products, and would reflect on the cost and maintenance of the vehicle.” Akash stressed upon taxation as one of the key reasons why operators take long to achieve Return On Investment (ROI) in the case of premium buses. This is also said to be the reason why many city bus operators are not very keen to procure premium, low-floor rear engine buses.

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Premium players eye mid-premium positions

To make a compelling case for buyers, Scania took an ethanol-powered bus route to the market. Its over three years after the first ethanol-powered low-floor 12m-long city bus began plying at Nagpur. Since then, the Swedish manufacturer is working towards supplying 55 bio-fuel city buses to the city of Nagpur. If, and how viable they are, will be known over a period of time. In a bid to tap into the emerging mid-premium position, which according to Joerg Mommertz, Chairman & Managing Director, MAN Trucks India, offers an opportunity to better specifications than the domestic budget producers, global bus makers have been introducing products while homegrown players like Tata and Ashok Leyland up their ante. In association with Alma, MAN introduced a Mammoth front-engine 12 m luxury coach in early 2016. Volvo has been pushing its UD mid-premium brand of city buses in India. It recently received an order from the twin cities of Hubli-Dharwad. Dharwad features on the Central government’s scheme of ‘smart cities’, which promises to overhaul the infrastructure and make cities ‘world-class’. Tata Motors bagged an order to supply 25 vestibule buses worth Rs.50 crore to Hubli-Dharwad in January 2017. The order followed a bigger order from 25 STUs and CBUs in September 2016 to supply 5000 buses, representing a healthy growth of over 80 per cent over last year as far as the order book went.

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STUs and CBUs as growth drivers

In FY2016-17, STUs and CBUs emerged as the key bus industry growth drivers. A big surge in STU orders was witnessed last fiscal, and after a gap of nearly four years, indicating renewed focus of various state governments and city councils on public transport. With the overall commercial vehicle market in India estimated to be 715,000 units, buses make up roughly 20 per cent of it. The Indian (medium and heavy) bus market grew 7.64 per cent in FY2016-17 with the sale of 47,262 units as against the sale of 43,909 units last fiscal. The light bus market grew 3.94 per cent with the sale of 50,864 units in FY2016-17 as against the sale of 48,936 units last fiscal. Leave for the 1000-unit premium rear engine bus market, and a small chunk of rear-engine premium city bus market (that saw the arrival of a new player, JBM last fiscal) led by Volvo and Scania, the Indian bus market by and large is made up of budget mass volume buses. It is here that Tata and Ashok Leyland lead. They are followed by Eicher and SML Isuzu and others. Prominently front-engine oriented, this end of the bus market is driven by low acquisition cost, fuel efficiency, service-ability and low cost of operation.

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On the back of good orders, Tata Motors grabbed the lead from Ashok Leyland in FY2016-17 as the number-one bus maker in India. For some years, the lead position separated the two by a minuscule gap of one-per cent. Said Ravi Pisharody, Executive Director – Commercial Vehicles, Tata Motors, “We clocked a growth of 22 per cent in FY2016-17 against an industry growth average of 10 per cent.” In the pursuit of higher profitability, Ashok Leyland pursued a strategy to exit some of the State Transport Undertaking (STU) businesses. Expressed Vinod K. Dasari, Managing Director & CEO, Ashok Leyland, “We decided to concentrate on innovative products.” Ashok Leyland’s stress on innovative products is not new. In 2014, the company introduced a front-engine flat-floor city-bus called Janbus. Providing a modern, albeit front-engine alternative to the low-floor rear engine premium city buses, the Janbus proved popular because it cost almost half of what a Volvo city-bus costed at an estimated Rupees one-crore. In addition to the lower acquisition cost, the Janbus was engineered to carry more people, and promised carriage of people at a lower cost. With AC optional, the bus, offering single-step entry, came equipped with an Automated Manual Transmission (AMT), an India first in buses.

700-03152889 © Siephoto Model Release: No Property Release: No Paseo de la Independencia, Zaragoza, Aragon, Spain

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© Siephoto
Model Release: No
Property Release: No
Paseo de la Independencia, Zaragoza, Aragon, Spain

 

Bus technology

With the bus codes influencing the Indian bus market during the last fiscal, much technology found its way into Indian buses. AMT has proliferated since. ABS has become standard on heavier buses, and also air suspension. The market for AC buses, including retrofitment grew steadily last year. It is an estimated 20,000 and 25,000 units strong according to Pramod Verma, Vice President, Sphere Thermal Systems. It was between 12,000 and 14,000 units five years ago, quipped Verma. The demand for AC can be linked with the rising market demand for comfort and refinement. If the demand for comfort and refinement drew the demand for lighter AC buses for school, staff and tourist application in FY2016-17, many government transport undertakings – CBUs, under the Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Hybrid and Electric (FAME) vehicles scheme, took out tenders to procure hybrid and electric vehicles. Under the aegis of the central transport minister, Nitin Gadkari, two 9m-long buses refitted with electric propulsion system were introduced in the capital city of Delhi to ferry the members of the Parliament. Tata Motors will soon deliver 25 diesel hybrid rear-engine low- and flat-floor city buses to the city of Mumbai. These mirror the CNG hybrid Tata Hispano city buses that ply at Madrid. Late last calendar year, Volvo delivered two diesel hybrid city buses to Navi Mumbai against an order for five such buses, making it the first manufacturer to supply a hybrid city bus in India. This bus is said to cost Rs.2.3 crore against the Tata Hybrid city bus, which is claimed to cost Rs.2 crore. High acquisition cost continues to be a deterrent despite a 50 per cent subsidy offered under the FAME scheme. To be precise, there is the challenge of gap-funding, which will need to be addressed.

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With electric vehicle infrastructure in India lacking, hybrid buses make ample sense. CBUs however are said to be already looking at electric buses! Last fiscal saw CBUs put out tenders for the procurement of electric buses under the FAME scheme. Perhaps anticipating this, Tata Motors, at the Auto Expo 2016 premier fair, displayed a 9m electric bus based on its Ultra platform. JBM in association with Solaris displayed a 9m electric bus with a pantograph. Not to be left behind, Ashok Leyland, which owns Optare, unveiled a 9m electric bus called Circuit in early 2017. The move up to electric buses traces its roots in the first phase of emission reforms in 2008, which led to Delhi city buses being retrofitted with CNG almost overnight. Most Mumbai city buses also run on CNG. CNG however has posed limitations in terms of availability and infrastructure. The operating costs of CNG buses are proving to be higher than LNG. Promising to overcome to limitations posed by CNG, Tata Motors recently showcased a LNG city bus at Trivandrum.

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As government run STUs and CBUs continue to call for modern yet cost effective buses, private operators continue to up the efficiency of their operations by deploying technology and modern buses. For private bus operators, complex bus rules and high taxation structures, which differ from state to state, continue to be a challenge. Business for them comes from government contracts, corporate staff transportation, tourist transportation, and from the transportation of school children. They accurately map the flow of people such that school and staff bus operators render to tourist transportation during weekends. Demand for large underfloor storage compartments in buses is on the rise when it comes to heavier, long-haul tourist buses. This is also driving the the need for powerful engines. With infrastructure improvements, the number of people travelling by bus continues to rise. The number of consignments transported by buses is also increasing. It serves as a good secondary earning medium. Especially during off-season. Expressed B Anil Baliga, Executive Vice President – Bus & Application, VE Commercial Vehicles, “A lot of the operator profitability comes from cargo.“

Comfort and fuel efficiency improvements

Increasing STU exposure, companies like Eicher are deploying technology to improve NVH and comfort on front-engine buses. Eicher is one of them. Said B Anil Baliga, that their focus is on NVH of front-engine buses. On the subject of high preference to front-engine buses in India, Baliga mentioned, “Indian operators are smart. They know their Return On Investment (ROI) very well. The trick lies in selecting the right route and the right bus.” The enforcement of BSIV emission norms from April 01, 2017, has ensured that most buses come with a common-rail turbo-diesel engine. Most heavy buses come with SCR after-treatment technology. This has had a definitive effect on acquisition cost, and operating complexity, what with the need to opt for annual maintenance contracts with authorised dealers rather than depend upon private garages that are much cost effective. With fuel efficiency at the forefront of operator equations, it will not come as a surprise that Daimler India Commercial Vehicles (DICV) is aluminium extensively in the building of its bus bodies. Use of such a technology is also expected to keep it ahead of its competitors, and body builders that are moving up the value chain. Taking advantage of the bus code, bus body builders (convertors) like Veera Vahana, JCBL, Alma Motors and others are investing to turn into bus manufacturers by procuring key aggregates like powertrain, suspension, etc., from the respective tier suppliers. Signalling bus industry transformation, the growing equation between convertors and aggregate manufacturers is starting to spring surprises. At Busworld India 2016, Alma Motors displayed a tarmac bus with aggregates procured from tier suppliers like Cummins and ZF.

Exports

If bus body builders are turning into bus manufacturers, CV majors like Ashok Leyland and Tata Motors are concentrating on exports for growth. T Venkataraman, Senior Vice President – Global Bus, Ashok Leyland, puts the domestics and export sales ratio at 58:42 as far as his company is concerned. Buses made by his company are exported to the Middle East, SAARC and African markets. In addition to this, Ashok Leyland also produces buses at a facility at Raas Al Khaimah in the Middle East. This plant has a capacity to produce 1200 units per year, and is helping the company to cater to the African markets. Ashok Leyland is also exporting Euro5 buses to Ukraine as well. Tata Motors is also applying thrust on exports. It exports buses to various African markets, Russia, the Middle East, and other destinations. The company claims to have achieved a leadership position in the medium bus segment in the Middle East. Eicher exports buses to SAARC markets; to the Middle East and African markets. Similarly, SML Isuzu exports staff, school and luxury buses to SAARC and African markets.

Light bus market

With the participation of Japanese players like SML Isuzu, the light bus market is transforming. Tata Motors continues to lead this market. Its lighter buses flaunt quality bodies built by Marcopolo. Daimler India Commercial Vehicles is BharatBenz lighter buses are also finding good acceptance in the market for staff and tourist bus transportation. A strong player in this segment is SML Isuzu and Eicher. Both has there own bus body building plants. Both have a considerable presence in the school bus sector. A pleasant change in the school bus market is Ashok Leyland’s Sunshine. Claimed to be the first bus to comply with roll-over crash norms, the bus saw the company seek the feedback of students, parents, school authorities, drivers and others. Stress was laid on minimising blind spots and offer a cheerful travel experience. The interior of the bus is thus colourful; there are safety elements built in, and the seats employ anti-bacteria fabric. With the Nissan collaboration behind it, Ashok Leyland is expected to bring out new products in the LCV people mover segment. It currently has the Mitr. A 8 metre-long version of the Mitr will be launched soon.

 

Industry future

With crash norms expected to roll out in next fiscal, and the move up to BSVI emission norms scheduled for 2020, the Indian bus market has only one way to go – to advance quickly to close the gap with buses that are offered in the advanced market at a fraction of the cost. The export of 12m rear engine inter-city bus by Volvo to Europe has proved that there is a distinct price advantage in buiding a world-class bus in India. Initiatives like sleeper and double-deck coach codes by the government is empowering bus body builders to turn manufacturers. This spells good for the growth of the Indian bus industry even as the traditional CV manufacturers look at increasing their reach into the international markets. It is not for nothing, that the Indian bus market is expected to grow at a CAGR of 10 per cent by 2020. It is all about progressing demand, value and luxury after all.