Demand for air-conditioned buses is on the rise.

Story by: Anirudh Raheja

Privatisation of education has given rise to a set of challenges that extend all the way down to securing admission at the kindergarten level. In Delhi, getting admission is a monumental task says Jasmeet Marwah, a businessman from a plush South Delhi colony. For the last one year, he has been desperately looking out to get his tiny tot an admission in a good school. He is also particularly concerned about logistics and the environment. His home is Air-Conditioned (AC), and he is looking for a school that has AC classrooms. He is also looking for a AC school buses that his tiny tot can ride. Reflective of the change that is taking place when it comes to buses, school, the market for bus AC manufacturers is looking good. With the demand for AC buses gaining prominence, especially as temperatures rise, bus AC manufacturers are expanding their operations and reach. The market for AC buses is expected to grow at a rate of 15 per cent, and in fair proportion to the growth of the bus market in India. Finding favour with corporates, educational institutes, and others, it is not just the private operators who are warming up to the prospect of AC buses, government operators like STUs and city bus undertakings are also warming up to the prospect of AC buses. In fact, most STUs and city bus undertakings already have AC buses as their flagship offerings. In an organisation like the Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation (MSRTC), AC buses may account for a meagre one-per cent of its current fleet of 18,150 buses, they make for a better earning potential however. It is not for no reason that MSRTC is keen to lease 500 air-conditioned buses from private operators under the ‘Shivshahi’ scheme.

Gearing up for growth

The number of AC buses in India may be estimated to be 10 per cent of the total bus market, there number is rapidly growing. Two years ago, the AC bus market was estimated to be in the region of 5000 units. Today, it is estimated to be over 10,000 units per annum. Looking at the rising demand, it is natural for bus AC manufacturers to gear up for growth. Claiming to be the market leader in India for luxury bus ACs, Eberspaecher Suetrak, the Indian arm of USD 4.4 billion German major Eberspaecher, is known to supply over 2500 units of its AC 353 model to large buses till date. It is aiming to make India the global manufacturing hub for mid-size bus ACs according to K P Singh, Director India, Eberspaecher Suetrak. Singh informs that the AC 505 model that was launched last year for mid-size buses has already attracted orders from Australia and the Middle East. Efficient than the AC 310 model, the AC 505, according to Singh, boasts of a local content of 70 to 85 per cent. It is engineered with MCHX condenser technology, and is lighter in weight and needs less refrigerant. It is easier to mount too. Expressing that the operations in India are stabilising, Singh says that it would be cheaper to source bus ACs from India rather than to buy them from Europe.

Post the acquisition by multinational automotive supplier Valeo, Spheros, which operates through a joint venture in India with Motherson is expanding its reach. Spheros Motherson holds close to 30 per cent market share in India, and is fully geared up to cater to the African market by riding on Ashok Leyland buses. A 100 per cent supplier to DTC AC buses, the company also caters to the needs of JBM. “We will supply 100 units of CC 350 model to Ashok Leyland for its buses that are set to debut in Ivory Coast. We are also supporting JBM for its Citylife bus venture with AE 350 model destined for African markets,” beams Cyril Xavier, Chief Operating Officer, Spheros Motherson Thermal Systems Ltd. The company recently supplied 50 units of AE 350 model for JBM buses which will be operated by Noida Metro Rail Corporation. An order of 20 units of CC 225 model was bagged by the company recently. The ACs were fitted in Tata Marcopolo midi buses bought by Shiv Nadar university in Delhi NCR. Spheros Motherson has also supplied 250 units of Revo Global 400 model ACs to Scania. Each unit of these is claimed to weigh 50 kg less than the AE 400 model AC, and offers better flow based on the virtue of the design changes that reduce refrigerant usage by 50 per cent according to Xavier.

Focusing on a full range of buses – small, medium and large, Thermo King has launched a TK-Cool series of products that offer a unique proposition to the customer. An Ingersoll Rand brand, Thermo King, catering to coaches, school buses, staff buses, tarmac and special application buses, has specially designed the CS 1100, CS 1000 and CF 500 AC models for modern buses. These models are claimed to offer superior operational efficiency and low noise temperature control. This is especially true of the CS 1000 and CS 500 ACs. These are one piece designs that are compact, and have a side air intake for higher system efficiency and better maintenance. Both the models come with an optional brushless blower and improved condenser coil, which enables higher heat transfer efficiency and lower noise. “The TK Cool Series ACs are tested and certified by ARAI for homologation requirement in India, which make them compliant with Indian operating condition standards,” states Sudarshan Ananth, Territory Vice President and Business Leader – Trane & Thermo King, Emerging Markets and India Territories. He adds, “When designing a product as per the customer needs, it is important to offer higher reliability and performance.”

A 100 per cent supplier of bus ACs to Force Traveller, ranging from 4kW to 8kW, Subros is an important player in the Indian automotive AC market. It has been busy expanding its reach in the Indian commercial vehicle market for some time now, and has launched a 45kW AC for low floor city bus application. According to Pawan Sabharwal, Director- Marketing, “The heat load in city buses and school buses is high due to frequent opening and closing of doors. For such applications, we have developed a design in collaboration with Denso that uses aluminium based condensors for weight reduction, and for lower air resistance.” He adds, “The design, results in reducing the refrigerant usage despite frequent opening and closing of doors, and brings down the overall power consumption.”

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Chinese ACs

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In a market that has the presence of global majors like Spheros Motherson and Eberspaecher Suetrak, Chinese bus AC manufacturers like Songz, Trans ACNR and Haiger are participating for a share of the market. Trans ACNR and Haiger are ensuring that Chinese bus ACs are not looked upon as low cost and cheap products. “The stress on quality,” says Shatrughan Kumar, Director, Trans ACNR. He adds that stress on quality is working to their advantage. “Since most of the transporters are connected to each other, reference lists and word of mouth publicity also plays a vital role in convincing and executing sales of our products,” he mentions. For better reach, the company has developed a wide product portfolio of ACs. Its Astro series offers copper tubes and aluminium fins. The SL series of ACs offer aluminium coils. Points out Kumar, that India is a price sensitive market. The demand is high for aluminum coil-based ACs in India, he avers. The flagship SL series AC that Trans ACNR offers, weighs 10 per cent less than a conventional AC that would ideally weigh 200 kg at least. This is achieved, says Kumar, by removing the condensor bottom and deploying aluminium coils. Where 10 per cent weight reduction can be achieved by changing coils, another 10 per cent can be shed by making making changes in the structure. Aware of the rising demand for ACs in city buses as well as school buses, Trans ACNR, to address the needs has been importing A & E series models from China. It is expecting a multi-fold rise in demand for ACs under the AMRUT scheme.

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With precise focus on the aftermarket, Haiger India is currently importing Completely Built Units (CBUs) from China. The company is working closely with a list of renowned schools and transporters, and has recently launched two new bus ACs, Alpha 21 and Beta 43 for mid and 12 m city buses. The ACs boast of multi-flow technology. This design is claimed to cool down the hot refrigerant quickly, enabling multi-point entry for the hot refrigerant, which reduces refrigerant usage. Avers Rishi Pathak, Director, Haiger India, “It not only cools faster but also makes the AC more compact, thus reducing weight, and making it easy to handle as well as install.” With an aim to reduce cost, Pathak says, Haiger India will began localising once volumes rise. To offer a complete solution in bus air conditioning, along with AC installation, Haiger India also undertakes high density thermocol and nitrile rubber insulation along the interiors of the bus to increase the efficiency of AC and reduction in load on the engine.

Future ready

The count of conventional buses running on fossil fuel may be more as of current, the same technology may not be used tomorrow. As new propulsion technologies emerge bus AC manufacturers are all set to cater to buses with new propulsion technologies including electricity. Eberspaecher Suetrak premiered the AC 230 model at Busworld Kortrijk. It is a roof top air conditioner that works on air flow reversal function along with a heat pump for electric and hybrid buses. It uses common refrigerants and serves customer specific needs. Eberspaecher Suetrak also offers an additional plate heat exchanger to take the heat out of the battery pack and other operational areas in an electric or hybrid bus. It also offers heat exchangers to address residual sources of heat in the vehicle.

Especially designed for electric and hybrid buses is the Thermo King Athenia Mkll model. With air-to-air reversible electric heat pump, it offers better performance based on reversible refrigeration circuit. Its battery unit works independent of the passenger compartment’s heating and cooling mode. This is claimed to effectively recycle the heat generated by the batteries during bus movement, thereby reducing energy consumption when the heat mode is on. For reducing total power consumption, the pump uses an electric variable speed compressor that modulates heating and cooling capacities up to a range of 60 per cent.

The Revo E bus AC from Spheros has been specially designed for hybrid and electric buses. Spheros Motherson has already supplied the Revo E to the two diesel hybrid buses Volvo has delivered to the Navi Mumbai Transport Corporation. The company is currently importing the model from Neubrandenburg in Germany because it needs special testing and validation before actual deployment. Avers Xavier, that safety is of paramount importance to his company, and it is therefore that the Revo E is tested in Germany before importing rather than test it here. From a cost point of view, Spheros Motherson is mulling to produce the Revo E locally. It is working closely with its German counterparts in this direction. Opines Xavier, that the government should have clear policies. This would help us to phase out and phase in technologies at the right time. “Policy and technology can’t go together, and have to be disconnected if we were to progress faster,” he adds.

Support is crucial

With the rise in demand for AC buses, support is turning out to be a crucial factor. Thermo King claims to have appointed 20 sales and service channel partners and 30 service affiliates across India. Ananth states that emphasis will be on increasing the reach by adding more touch points. “Apart from service training programs for OEM clients, we also conduct service training programs for dealers. We ensure that they are up-to-date on knowledge and have the ability to address the needs of the clients,” he adds. Thermo King has two R&D centres in India, one at Chennai and one at Bengalore. These centres, according to Ananth, help for application and customisation of products. The centres cater to the domestic as well as the international operations of the company.

Spheros Motherson has a network of 40 dealers. With close to 60 per cent of its revenues coming from OEM business, the company is working to expand its reach in the aftermarket by increasing its dealer network. The single shift capacity of the company at its Noida plant for 3000 ACs is already full. Work in the second shift has begun. Apart from bus ACs, Spheros Motherson is also looking at markets like reefer trucks and construction equipment. Claims Xavier that the company holds a 40 per cent market share in Karnataka and is looking at strengthening its market positioning in states like Kerala, Chattisgarh, Jharkhand and Tamil Nadu.

It is the Chennai facility of Subros that is serving the CV segment. It is expected to roll out 1,00,000 units annually when fully operational. Currently sourcing compressors from Valeo and Bitzer, the company, according to Sabharwal, could look at making compressors for commercial vehicles in-house once the volumes pick-up. Subros, in the meanwhile, has set up a team of 15 people to man its R&D centre. The centre is instrumental in the introduction of new products and increasing localisation. The plant is claimed, is to achieve a localisation of no less than 60 per cent in a short time. This would help the company to attractively price and position its products. Having dispatched 50 units of 36kW AC units for retrofitment in 12 m buses that will be plying in Qatar, the company has joined hands with Tata Motors for their buses destined for Bangladesh.

Not to be left behind, Haiger India is busy expanding its base in South India. The company has already set up a service station in Hyderabad, and is set to launch two new plants at Zaheerabad and Pune respectively with a combined area of over 1.3 lakh sq. ft. Once operational, the two units will hike the company’s manufacturing capacity to 1900 units in the next one year from the current count of 1000 units. Haiger’s capacity will almost double. This will help it to increase its market reach and address the market requirements better. Haiger sources draw attention to the 14 service centres the company currently has in India. Out of these, five are in Maharashtra. The aim, claim sources, is to have over 20 service centres across India in the next one year. Trans ACNR has five service centres for complete vehicle support in Delhi, Chandigarh, Bengaluru Chennai and Cochin. Plans are underway to add five more centres in the current fiscal. An amount of support is provided by the company through its resident engineers at Jaipur, Jalandhar, Jamshedpur, Kolkata, Patna, and Hyderabad.

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Towards a bright future

The need for bus ACs is rising. The demand for AC buses is growing. Rising disposable income in India is said to be a reason. The other reason is said to be the rising temperature levels in cities and towns across India. Rising urbanisation and growing infrastructure is creating a market for buses, and AC buses are no longer looked upon as costly alternatives to conventional non-AC buses. Travellers are ready to pay for comfort. With STUs and city bus undertakings warming up to the prospect of AC buses in their fleet, the journey towards a brighter future looks certain for bus AC manufacturers. Investment in additional capacities is certain to help bus AC manufacturers to increase their market reach and offer a deal that promises ‘best value for money’. Investment in R&D centres, application engineering centres and service networks are steps in the right direction. Such steps will ensure that the industry grows beyond the estimated rate of growth of 15 per cent.

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