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India needs a focused policy for the manufacturing sector

Venugopal Pillai ,  Saturday, October 08, 2011, 16:11 Hrs  [IST]

Neelam Kumar— Ms Neelam Kumar, Executive Director, Aplab Ltd

Set up in 1962 by P.S. Deodhar, a visionary and celebrated technocrat, Aplab is today India's leading T&M instrument company with a range of import-substitute products. Ms Neelam Kumar takes us through the growth of Aplab's power sector-related T&M business. She also gives valuable insights into the T&M industry, which undoubtedly has an exciting future but also serious challenges en route. India can gradually move up the value chain only through a concerted attempt from stakeholders, she asserts. An interview by Venugopal Pillai.

To begin with, please summarize Aplab's range of T&M equipment for the power sector. What have been recent innovative product launches?
Aplab has a very wide range of products. Our extensive range of products caters to every possible need. Some of them are for the power sector, active differential probe, analog power oscilloscope, DPS36000 series digital power oscilloscopes, general oscilloscopes, multimeters, spectrum analyzers, power clamp meters et al. These are only some of the most sought after instruments from our company.

The digital power oscilloscope which was launched recently is quite suitable for power testing including solar based power systems.

The power sector is expected to see investment of Rs14 trillion in the XII Plan period, with power T&D getting as much as Rs6.5 trillion. Given this, how do you gauge the demand for T&M equipment and services in the years to come?
It is true that investment in power sector is growing due to rising needs of growing population and on account of extensive developments in rural India. These remain the government's prime focus. We feel that testing tools for these sectors will result into higher demand and one will see more investment in this type of infrastructure.

How does Aplab plan to cater to T&M equipment related to EHV and UHVAC transmission infrastructure?
At present we are in process of understanding equipment requirements specifically meant for this type of industry. Our focus is always to make Indian products for specific customized Indian requirements.

Untitled - 23We understand that when it comes to sophisticated T&M equipment, India still needs to rely on imports. What is your view and what are Aplab's plans of making import-substitute products?
It is absolutely true that we are still dependent on imports. There are many reasons for this. The basic semiconductor industry is not wholly present in India. This is creating major weakness as this remains the basic infrastructure for the electronics industry.

We have to depend fully on imports. Sometimes this becomes a major hurdle in the development of sophisticated products. Aplab has so far managed to make indigenous products which remain an economical substitute for imports, but we know how difficult it becomes to bridge the gap in technology covered by countries in the West and the Far-East. Rudyard Kipling's refrain, "For East is east, and West is west, and never the twain shall meet" remains a call to action.

India can gradually move up the value chain only if there is a concerted attempt from multiple stakeholders to create active change. Aplab is a committed organization that weathered the test of time. We will disclose our plans in due course.

Experts feel that India's manufacturing base for T&M equipment is very narrow. Except for companies like Aplab and a few others, the number of world-class companies is very limited. What your opinion?
We feel that India in general has lost focus on overall manufacturing sector. The government does not have a clear focused policy to encourage manufacturing industry. They have taken careful steps to boost the software industry but remain entrenched in a time warp when it comes to the manufacturing industry.

Trouble intensified when cheaper Chinese products flooded the market. This is the case around the world, in different sectors. This is one of the reasons very few players could make globally competitive products. But we still feel that our engineers and technicians have taken efforts to make good quality products.

Within the power sector, what will be key demand drivers for Aplab in the medium term?
As we have mentioned repeatedly, the situation is being monitored regularly. We are developing certain products suitable for development of solar based electrical systems.

With shortage of other energy resources and looking at costs and hazards with nuclear power generation, solar energy is becoming a challenge for Indian engineers. Besides this, India is in a tropical zone where ample sunlight is available throughout the year except for intermittent rain.

How has Indian T&M equipment been faring in the exports market? What has been Aplab's performance in recent years?
Many of our products such as psophometer, selective level meter, function generator and multifunction testing equipment et al are in great demand for exports and business has been growing every year.

Untitled - 24How much of Aplab's T&M business caters to power utilities? Do you see this proportion changing in the years ahead?
Almost 40 per cent of our products are being used by the power sector industry. We are looking forward to growth in this sector and with sophisticated test and measurement products on the rise, we see ourselves growing further by 20 to 30 per cent.

What is your view on manpower constraints in the power T&M industry? Is this emerging as a popular professional field for engineering students?
There is overall shortage of trained manpower in T&M industry be it in power or telecom, or in any associated domain. Young engineering graduates prefer to work with the software industry where salaries and perks are higher and work environment is "cushy & comfy" as compared to manufacturing industry. So far we do not see any encouraging change in this sector. The test and measurement software arena does see some engineering students interested to learn on a fast track.

We perceive that test and measuring is no longer an "equipment-driven" activity but nowadays involves use of computer software and Internet  based applications. Please tell us more on this phenomenon.
This depends on application and usage of T&M equipment. However, the use of software and computers will be done only after the data is collected in real-time. And for that, equipment is required.

So it doesn't eliminate overall requirements of measuring equipment, in applications such as ATS (automatic test setup) that is a combination of hardcore equipment, software, and Internet-based application for using data in remote control and analysis. So sometimes, certain equipments are merged in common test set-ups and no longer exist as individual equipment. Aplab's RF test set up is one such example.

Untitled - 25Tell us more on the competition from China. Is it significant?
Well, definitely. The industry loses business merely based on price. However, we get the customers back after they realize the importance of buying the product from Indian manufacturers. But the process is long, intractable and you should be capable of suffering such losses. This can sometimes weaken the morale-especially of marketing personnel on the field who interact with clients and customers on a daily basis.

Aplab will soon complete 50 years of existence. Please summarize the journey with respect to Aplab's T&M business, and what are the major milestones that you would like to see Aplab attaining in the years ahead?
Aplab, the company was established in 1962 by wellknown technocrat, author and visionary P. S. Deodhar. It was very soon that Aplab began providing economical import substitutes to oscilloscopes and other test and measurement equipment, along with power supplies.

These substitutes were similar to what people used to get from Europe and America. Well, this helped strengthen Aplab's business and image in India. Aplab also started supplying many of its products in developed countries such as Germany, UK, Australia, and United States.

Even today Aplab is and remains a proud supplier of indigenous manufactured products from India despite stiff completion from Chinese suppliers (through stray traders) and increased labour costs.

But this has bolstered Aplab's confidence so that we can do much better. In the 1990s, Aplab supplied sophisticated equipment to telecom, defense and space research sector. With increased investment in the education sector and power sectors, we are looking forward to serve both these sectors, and more with reliable, economical and easy-to-use equipment.
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