When EKA, the wholly-owned arm of Pinnacle Industries, the Pune-based component manufacturer unveiled its 9-metre electric bus in Pune in early April, it was undoubtedly a major milestone for the company. The company’s top leadership is categorical that it wants to play a key role in India’s emerging EV space, and be a disruptor.
As Sudhir Mehta, Chairman of EKA and Pinnacle Industries puts it, “We first began thinking of a foray into electric six years ago,” and when that was carved in stone, Mehta and his team went about putting in the building blocks for the project. Mehta said, “We realised that we would go through this transition to sustainability and therefore being ready for it was imperative. India’s import bills on crude oil are high and every hike has an effect on GDP growth.”
This led to the first foundational stone for the foray. Pinnacle Industries signed a joint venture with VDL, a European bus company that operates in the EV space, and has companies on the continent that are in auto segment including body shops. The JV began working in the body shop before expanding into other areas.
Pinnacle then realised that as it began to think intensely about the EV foray that “for India, we needed to develop specific EV technology”. And for CVs, the segment it wanted to be in. Setting a context, Mehta says that as far as Europe goes, an average e-bus costs in the region of 400,000 to 500,000 euros; the market is small and prices high.
“We wanted to create a new paradigm in CVs and a product for India,” he said. The flagship, Pinnacle Industries then started a company, Pinnacle Mobility Solutions and within it, an R&D department tasked with “reimagining what a bus or truck could be”. Explaining the focus on CVs, Mehta is categorical, “We knew that capabilities matter, and that the highest usage segments are buses and last-mile deliveries.”
The company then worked on a for a bus, and specifically a design for hydrogen. The platform, Mehta explains is that while it is at its base pure electric, it is “package protected for hydrogen”. The first hydrogen product is expected to be displayed in 4 to 6 months.
Explaining the framework for the foray into electric, Mehta elaborates saying that from the start, “We kept a focus on light weighting, and leveraged the use of composites. With a platform design equipped for both electric and hydrogen, Mehta is confident that we “have a unique platform for buses”.
The rationale for an offering to cater to last mile deliveries is, in his view, the fact that there will be movement to four-wheelers in the EV space, a parallel that he sees happening in the ICE domain with offerings like the Tata Ace.
EKA’s building blocks for the entry into electric are underpinned by the strategy that emphasises lean manufacturing, lower total cost of ownership, and sharing of technologies, each of which has been well-thought through. It helps that Pinnacle Industries is one of 20 companies that has been selected for the government’s production-linked incentive scheme.
On the manufacturing front, EKA’s plan which “is disruptive” in Mehta’s words is to have EV plants across the country that respond to the needs of customers in that region. The company also wants to licence its reach in India and abroad and encourage adaptation. That, he says, will bring down the cost of parts. Having said that, the company will not make all the parts it requires but bring them from other players. “Our strategic plan is based on a disaggregated model of manufacturing,” he says.
The licensing of various technologies that the company has developed will build on the patents that the company has applied, 12 at present with plans to file for another 15. It is these technologies that can potentially be shared and which include vehicle control software that the company has developed. “We need a totally Indian IP in this domain which is not only important from a product reliability perspective but national security,” Mehta emphasises.
EKA is also clear that if the product’s credentials – the platform - is green and clean, it is only logical that “ we would need to be sustainable in the manner in which it is being made. So the company’s buses have been built on a monocoque chassis, which he says is a first in India for EVs and a lego-inspired platform that will enable the company to make different lengths of buses and coaches. The other key feature of the product will be the location of the batteries below the floor and not on the roof, which allows for better dynamics and light weighting.
At present, the hydrogen-powered bus is undergoing homologation at the Automotive Research Association of India and the LCV at the Central Institute of Road Transport. The company hopes to launch the LCV in the third quarter of the current calendar.
People and innovation
Hiring the right talent has been a key part of EKA’s entry into the space of electric mobility. It is another building block that Mehta is only happy to elaborate at length. The team tasked with reimagining the bus or truck was a blend of experience “industry veterans and young people” because we wanted to bring in “fresh, non-OE thinking”.
As Mehta explains, the industry veterans have the experience and bring in the rigour that is associated with testing, validation and process. As far as the youngsters go, he says they come with experience in electronics and electrical. So, “you have senior mentors working alongside the young talent”, he adds.
He adds getting the right talent is always a challenge but once hired, “We threw them into the deep end so they would learn”. At the end of the day, he says, we wanted passionate talent and those open to learning.
The young talent brought much to the table. As examples of that thinking, Mehta says, “The company has a patent for wheel ramp, a low-cost ramp that is very accessible. He cites another example of an idea that came from the young team and that is the conceptualisation a glass look-through to enable drivers to see pedestrians, on the pavements, particularly kids, and this can help avoid accidents. “We are passionate about safety and am proud to say the idea came from our young folks,” he says. Above all, Mehta says some ideas are patented, and that the company is ready to share.
Changing the market
While FY23 is clearly going to be an important year for EKA with the two slated launches, Mehta dwells on the fact that his company’s larger vision is to “democratise the EV landscape”. It is, he elaborates, not about competition but rather changing the market. In his estimate, the EV sector is expected to grow at a CAGR of 90 percent touching $ 150 billion by 2030. There will be a market for everyone, he reiterates, and it’s all about partnership. Finally, he says, “ we have to aim at lowering costs so we have to bring the EV price down to conventional fuel products”.
India’s emerging EV sector, in his view, is a great India play for OEs and parts makers and a once in a life opportunity. We can be global leaders in this field, he says. At the end of the day, it is all about TOC not just brand saying that while for passenger cars, brand may be key, the TCO is an important point of reference for the CV sector. So, the objective is to get the vehicles ready.
In its EV foray, EKA has brought together all its resources and connect at its command. It has tapped Pinnacle Industries’ expertise as a leading player in seats and vehicle interiors. For manufacturing, it taped the engineering and manufacturing credentials of the its JV with the Netherlands based VDL. Interestingly, the EKA brand under which the company will launch products means “coming together”, and EKA’s journey symbolises this.
From a sourcing point of view, the company is clear that while it will source from India, it will tap outside source for battery cells “for some time till it can obtain them in India”. EKA is keen to work with the big names and is currently working on axles with Dana, and for batteries with Octillion, a California, US-based company with an India footprint. The company is also talking to Exide which is setting up a battery cell unit in Gujarat, Wabco-ZF, and Castmaster, an India-based company into die and tool making.
As the business into the electric mobility space deepens, Mehta says that there is a Chinese wall between Pinnacle Industries and EKA. EKA intends to work with all OEMs; Pinnacle with over two decades in making parts will supply them. It recently announced its intention to be an end-to-end EV components and solutions provider for precision EV components for two and three-wheelers.
EKA’s aim is to grow the EV market by focusing on the niches. For this, Mehta says, it has to be lean and have a startup sort of mindset.
No conversation with a head of a company in these VUCA time can end without some reference to the Ukraine war, now into its second month. In Mehta’s perspective, we will see more protectionist policies, and higher oil prices are here to stay for a while. That, among other reasons, will see a faster adoption of EVs. “Our move to EVs as a nation is not reversible, it will be good for our economy,” he avers.
In this calendar, EKA’s two products “are a lot”. Post-launch, the challenges will be many but as Mehta says, if a product is good and meets the customer’s expectations, it will be liked. The potential target for the buses will be state-owned as well as private players. Covid led to a virtual halt in the CV including buses but, in the months, and years ahead, the owners of these will look to replace fleets, and he sincerely hopes that will “look at our products”, and perhaps the next generation too will want a green product too he adds as “schools want to have sustainable products”.
The establishment of EKA was funded by Pinnacle Industries, and involved an investment in the region of Rs 150 crores. The aim is now to raise Rs 500 crore. The two products that EKA is bringing out has the company’s hands full, Mehta says. It is important that we focus on sectors in a competitive way and build scale which will help us. At the end of the day, he explains, “We are going to be a volume producer and cost competitive, and this will benefit the entire ecosystem.”
The feature was first published in Autocar Professional's April 15, 2022 issue.
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