If ever there was a disruptive force, the likes of which have never been seen before, then it simply has to be the Covid-19 pandemic. Growth plans and business models have had to be completely reworked by companies, people dynamics changed and timelines had to be rejigged.
If there was a positive, and that too early in the advent of the pandemic, then it was the cleaner skies seen the world over and in India, which is home to 22 of the most polluted cities in the world, as per the latest IQ Air report. It made people and governments realise what can be. In India, both the Centre and many state governments are aggressively driving the use of greener, eco-friendly vehicles that will help reduce emissions as well as help slash expensive crude oil imports.
The Indian automotive industry has, for long, been reliant on traditional fuels such as petrol and diesel but the government has been also promoting the use of LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) and CNG (compressed natural gas) — both for personal as well as public transport vehicles. While LPG did not see as much success as the government would have liked, CNG has garnered interest in many parts of the country, where buses as well as passenger cars are powered by it.
Among the many firms betting on CNG as a prime fuel in India is the Hexagon Group, a global provider of clean fuel solutions for medium- and heavy-duty commercial vehicles and headquartered in United States. Its offerings include an array of options like natural gas, hydrogen, battery electric energy storage and delivery systems, Type 4 composite natural gas cylinders, propane and natural gas fuel systems and propane dispensers. Its solutions support a variety of vehicle types, including Class 8 trucks, refuse trucks, transit buses, school buses, concrete mixers, and delivery trucks.
It may be recollected that in January 2020, Agility Fuel Solutions, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Hexagon Composites (now Hexagon Group), announced that it has developed a long-range solution for CNG buses, along with its Indian partner Advantek Fuel Systems. The CNG buses were being tested for efficacy in partnership with Indraprastha Gas (IGL) and Mahindra & Mahindra. The buses use a composite cylinder-based complete bus fuel system designed, engineered and assembled, which more than doubles the range of CNG buses. While these buses previously travelled 350km at best, the five buses with Agility’s technology have a range of over 1,100km each.
Speaking to Autocar Professional, Ravindra Vasisht, Director, Agility India and Hexagon Composites, explains the company’s offerings for the industry. “From a product/ cylinder manufacturing company, we are now a system solutions provider where we will design/source parts that we don’t manufacture. This includes even supporting the supply chain for the fuel — CNG/hydrogen — by using mobile pipeline/ cascades to the industry."
He added, "Further, we work across the entire value chain. This is because, often the efficiency of a solution depends on the support of a related segment in the chain. A large cylinder or battery pack that needs to be filled with energy in minimum time means that the energy provider needs to have systems to dispense energy faster.
Our range of solutions covers all forms of transport, energy options in the field thus making us a unique company that can offer a 360-deg solution to a client irrespective of their choice of energy or mode of transport.”
Looking at manufacturing in India
The global pandemic has created a new chain of thoughts and made the whole world realise that a knee-jerk reaction for supply chain cannot be a sustainable answer and thus the importance of local manufacturing.
“In December 2019, Hexagon Agility demonstrated a 1,000-plus-kilometre range CNG bus which disrupted the Indian market by breaking the myths whether such a solution was possible, whether there was a demand for it and if it was commercially viable. The pandemic delayed various development activities in India but now again the interest has gone up tremendously. In the Union Budget 2021, the government of India announced hydrogen as a thrust area. Given the rising cost of fossil fuels and the focus on clean energy options of CNG and hydrogen has increased substantially in the recent past and Hexagon Agility is constantly redrawing our plans to support the Indian market. As a start, we have established a strategic partnership with a local company Advantek Fuel Systems to give us speed in the short run in supporting the market needs. With the pandemic hopefully getting behind us, our plans for a large local manufacturing presence will gain momentum. The challenge is not intent or commitment but that as a global company with manufacturing presence in the USA, Germany and Norway, we must factor in the impact of the pandemic globally, the travel and operational restrictions. The Advantek relationship is helping us substantially in the short run,” explains Vasisht.
When queried about the company’s key clientele in India, he cites confidentiality and NDAs as a reason not to but adds “what we can say is that not just the major automotive OEMs but many fleet owners are actively exploring options and solutions with us.”
Being energy agnostic
One of the key challenges for the automotive sector is to understand the different factors that influence the future choice of fuel and energy. With a mix of legacy as well as new energy solutions, the global automotive market is looking to achieve the highest density with the lowest footprint possible. This means companies such as Hexagon need to be agile and support each customer’s needs individually.
“If clean energy everywhere is taken as a goal. then we are probably unique in the market since we are the only company currently that provides such a comprehensive range of solutions. Often companies which are in competition with us in certain product or market segments also end up as our supplier partners when an overall solution is being given to a client. Where we are unique is that we are agnostic to fuel energy, we are agnostic to a certain product-based solution and what matters is the end-solution required by a client. Between CNG or LNG, we would not try to promote one over the other but, based on client needs, suggest what suits them best. For example, if a client were to be looking at a small vehicle and short range yet needs our system design support, then we would gladly use a steel cylinder without suggesting using T4 composites cylinders that we manufacture. At the same time, we can even offer a hybrid solution with both types to bring costs down if customer requirement is met. Based on the situation, we can even source composite cylinders from others if that suits a solution that we offer. In short, it’s not just about how our solution is different; it's also about how different our solution strategy is. That is what makes us unique,” points out Vasisht.
One of the key concerns for companies when making new investments is the return on investment (RoI). And when it comes to the commercial vehicle industry, it can make a huge difference in the business strategy. When queried about the RoI benefit for customers working with Hexagon, Vasisht replies, “This seems like a slightly unfair question in the sense it seems to convey that it is expensive to work with us. If I were to stick my neck out a bit, I would say that based on how you approach the RoI, you can say it is even better. This requires a new approach. For example, if you have a truck or bus that can go say 1,200km on CNG, you cannot even find solutions with existing technology. If you take an average run of 350km per day and the price delta of CNG with diesel, a fleet owner can save around Rs 14 lakh per year. Here the RoI can be around one to two years. What I would say is that where technology is crucial especially with range, then the RoI is extremely attractive.”
With India’s push towards green mobility, and the government’s intent to set up more than 10,000 CNG fuel stations across the country, Hexagon seems to be well placed to cash in on the business opportunity.
This feature was first published in Autocar Professional's April 1, 2021 issue.