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First National Chip Project – Electronics For You


The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) has recently concluded the SemiconIndia-22 conference with the aim to promote India as a global hub for semiconductor design, manufacturing and technology development and bring India on the world semiconductor map. It takes three to four years on average to set up a world class chip plant, however, the more important part is to load the plant when it is operational else it is a non-starter. The chip plant is invariably run round the clock to maintain temperature, humidity and dust count to perform chip making processes and running the plant is quite expensive. India needs to identify and start designing at least five to ten types of chips having large market demand to load the plant. The work on designing those chips should start now.

During SemiconIndia-22, many speakers stated that there are about 250 chip design and R&D centers in the country run by world’s leading chip makers and fabless companies for more than twenty years. These companies have been utilizing the talent of Indian engineers to design products and own their intellectual property rights but never ventured into setting up a chip making plant in the country. While speaking it was brought up that the missing link in the Indian semiconductor ecosystem is wafer fabrication, assembly, packaging and testing areas as there is enough market demand for semiconductor devices in the country.

This is a hard reality and the situation may not change unless India promotes its own semiconductor industry through the public-private partnership model. Theodore Roosevely had once said, “We must either wear out or rust out”. Indian engineers and scientists will have to soil their own hands to make this happen. The government should therefore, help Indian entrepreneurs and encourage them to come forward to this challenge. The author has also proposed a roadmap for setting up a mega chip plant in the country in an earlier article titled ‘India’s Resolve for Self Reliance in Microelectronics’ dated 12th April published in Electronics b2b.

Challenges of discoms

Our country has been incurring heavy Aggregate Technical and Commercial (AT&C) losses since beginning primarily due to theft of electricity, inadequate metering and poor recovery of electricity bills. This has enormously impacted distribution companies’ (discoms) financial performance 1.

Discoms’ Financial Performance (Source: Power Finance Corporation Report on SEBs)
Discoms’ Financial Performance (Source: Power Finance Corporation Report on SEBs)

The distribution losses in some of the states are as high as 56% (Arunachal Pradesh). Even after the enactment of the Anti-theft legislation of 2007, annual distribution losses are on the rise. The losses of 62 discoms put together were Rs 90,000 crores during 2021 with a national average of 24.54% compared to 4% in Japan, 5% in China, 6% in the USA and 8% of the world average2.. If large countries such as the USA and China can contain their losses, why is this a challenge for India? State-wise distribution losses are shown along with losses of other countries in the following chart.

National average, state-wise and other countries AT&C losses for 2018–19 (Source: Power Finance Corporation)
National average, state-wise and other countries AT&C losses for 2018–19 (Source: Power Finance Corporation)

If we bring down these losses to the world average of 8% through improved distribution infrastructure, administrative measures and installation of smart meters, we can replace our entire conventional 25 crore meters in a few years due to accrued savings on account of reduced distribution losses.

Electronic energy meter manufacturing

Historically, the installation of electronic energy meters started in India around the mid 90s. Semiconductor Complex Ltd, HPL India, L & T, Landis & Gyr, Secure Meters, Avon meters and Genus were some of the companies instrumental in manufacturing and sale of the electronic energy meters in the country. These organisations together produced more than 20 lac meters annually during the 2000s. Now more than a dozen private companies are manufacturing high quality electronic energy meters in the country.

During the last two decades, more and more features have been added to electronic energy meters to make these really smart similar to mobile phones to address needs of the Indian discoms and electricity consumers. The features include capturing of metering data, monitoring and control of power consumption and meter tampering, ability to convert postpaid meters to prepaid, integration with the power grid and auto meter reading capability. These features help discoms reduce their distribution losses and also reduces human intervention.

In view of the wide ranging features, the decision to install smart meters throughout the country replacing the conventional ones has been taken by the Ministry of Power and is a step in the right direction2. Other players operating in the Indian smart meter market include Triton Process Automation, Indian Telephone Industry (ITI), Advance Metering Technology Ltd, Maven Systems, Siemens, Satya Electrocom, Trinity Energy Systems, GEESYS Technologies.

Smart meter national programme – An opportunity

Under the Smart Meter National Programme (SMNP), the Ministry of Power aims to replace the country’s 250 million (25crore) conventional meters with smart meters on a build-own-operate-transfer model 2. Energy Efficiency Services Limited (EESL), a joint venture set up by National Thermal Power Corporation, Rural Electrification Corp, Power Finance Corporation and Power Grid Corporation of India has made a beginning and installed just about 1% of total meters, in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Haryana and Manipur.

The smart meter is a major component of the revamped distribution scheme proposed by the government in the 2021–22 budget. The total expenses to the tune of Rs 1.5 lac crores are likely to be spent on the SMNP project3. This brings a big opportunity to manufacture smart meter chips to help make these meters indigenous with higher local components. The demand for electronic metering chips shall remain high to cater to the demand of smart meters or electronic meters with anti tamper features.

Semiconductor Complex Ltd (SCL) had initiated design of the energy meter chip in the late 80s. The design, however, could not be completed due to devastation of the chip plant in a fire incident during 1989. Perhaps designing a meter chip by SCL was ahead of its time and the focus upon rebuilding the chip plant shifted to standard VLSIs, Application Specific ICs (ASICs) and strategic devices. Energy meter chips are still imported from Analog Devices and Atmel of the United States, ST microelectronics of France, SAMES of South Africa and a few Chinese companies.

Why is indigenous manufacturing of energy meter chips a good candidate for India’s first national chip project ? It is the author’s opinion that meter chips have a mass market and will remain so for a long time. Energy meter chips, unlike mobiles’, microprocessor and memory chips, do not necessarily require lower geometry technologies and can be produced in 90 nm or even 180 nm technology nodes. These meter chips can be standarised with minimal variants by electric distribution companies (discoms) based on nationally agreed meter specifications. The specifications, manufacturing challenges and operating requirements of meter chips are less stringent compared to automotive, memory, microprocessor and mobile chips due to their higher transistor count, processing speed and operating environmental conditions etc.

It’s time to manufacture meter chips!

To become self-reliant in meter chips, we need to prepare an action plan for manufacturing meter chips in a mission mode. The national chip project will also help load our chip plant when ready. The author proposes the following action plan:

  1. MEITY should help prepare and standardise specifications of single and polyphase smart meter chips in coordination with EESL, discoms, chip design companies and meter manufacturers.
  2. Get the chips designed through at least two design houses for an improved success rate.
  3. Produce chips in its own and a hired foundry, later transfer to the new chip plant when ready.
  4. Publicly announce the availablity of indigenised meter chips.

MEITY and the Ministry of Power should work together to make it a success which will be a first milestone to develop an ecosystem for the chip industry. The time to take action and start working on the first national chip project is now. We can also identify more such projects to develop chips having mass consumption to load our chip plant.

‘Roses do not grow on the road side whereas wild grass does’. It takes almost a year of hard work before a rose shows up after its stem is planted. The extent of planning, effort and dedicated work that goes into chip designing and manufacturing is a fitting analogy. MEITY has to strategise and make the first national chip project a reality.

References:

  • Report of Institute for Energy Economics and Financial analysis August 2020.
  • NITI Aayog Report “Turning Around the Power Distribution Sector- Learning and Best Practices from Reforms” August 2021.
  • The Ministry of Power ‘revamped distribution Scheme’ to reform discoms.





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