The switchgear market is blossoming thanks largely to an increase in technological capability, but also the realisation that shoddy electrical work isn’t acceptable in a modern world.
Perhaps more pertinent though is the fact that power interruptions result in huge economic losses of up to US $150 billion annually, according to a recent Frost & Sullivan report.
Distribution automation presents a viable solution to ensure effective asset management, minimal interruption, and enhanced efficiency in the grid network.
Switchgears are of course integral to this process as automation becomes a key requirement, particularly for large facilities.
In ‘Analysis of the Global Distribution Automation Market’, Frost & Sullivan predicts market earned revenues of US $7.32 billion in 2014 and estimates its total worth to reach US $10.33 billion by 2018.
“Emerging countries hold significant potential for distribution automation vendors,” said a Frost & Sullivan energy and environmental industry analyst.“In India, transmission and distribution loss is estimated at over 20% of produced power, while in Latin America, power distribution loss is estimated at over 16%. Hence, governments are urging utilities to adopt automation solutions and boost grid efficiency.”
There are of course costs with new tech and automation, as well as the switchgear elements in these projects, have few wholly-integrated projects to showcase.
“Distribution automation is in the early stages of its lifecycle and investments in complementary technologies enabling two-way communication, better asset management, and improved efficiency will help capitalise on the full potential of the technology,” explained the analyst. “The combination of technologies will yield significant benefits for all stakeholders.”
Taking up the issue of the cost associated with not utilising improved switchgear technology, Ashique Panakkat, sales director, Middle East, Eaton, highlights that according to the OSHA, the total cost of an electric shock incident is approximately US $200,000, not a sum of money any company enjoys paying out.
“A ten-year study involving over 120,000 employees performed by Electricite de France found that electrical arc injuries accounted for 77% of all recorded electrical injuries,” Panakkat continued.
Eaton has recently focused on developing its Power Xpert CH, Eaton’s global platform for IEC low voltage motor control centre and power distribution assembly. Not only tested for seismic and Lloyds Marine Certifications, its arc free system and fully-insulated main and distribution busbars are examples of how the switchgear sector has moved forward.
Another example of a company, which has noted the market potential is Bahra Cables, a Saudi Arabian-based manufacturer of medium voltage cables.
It recently entered the switchgear market through acquisition of other KSA-based companies and has put forward the idea of opening women-only factories to handle low voltage switchgear assembly.
Saudi Arabia is certainly a burgeoning market; Schneider Electric has signed an agreement with Saudi Arabian mining company Ma’aden for the provision of low voltage switchgear.
February, in Qatar, saw Al Bidda Switchgear, part of the Al Bidda Group, inaugurate its electrical switchgear manufacturing facility. The 14,000sqm manufacturing plant includes a seven-stage automatic powder coating system; fully-automated CO2 laser cutter and turret punch; automated CNC press brakes; CNC copper cutting, punching and bending systems; as well as testing, verification, service and repair equipment.
Through various international partnerships Al Bidda is targeting the oil & gas, power distribution, Qatar Rail, stadiums as well as industrial and commercial infrastructure. But while there are many examples of opportunity, as always, there are challenges. As with any market with, stiff competition there are quality issues. “Due to the unhealthy competition in this field there are many unprofessional panel assemblers,” said Mark Fletcher, head of MEP, SSH.
“It is always a challenge to get the right product from the right people in this field. We monitor and maintain this through regular factory visit to make sure that the products we use in our projects are always qualify from a stringent QA/QC.”
Fletcher isn’t alone in his cautious approach to product management. “Increased competition is happening locally as well as outside of the country,” said electrical coordinator Anu Alexander, AE ARMA-ELEKTROPANÇ. “Then you have fluctuating raw material prices like copper, increasing cheap imports and slow infrastructure development,” he added.
Certainly there are enough issues to warrant the occasional sleepless night for those looking to profit in the switchgear sector. As to be expected with a developing sector, the regulatory environment is adjusting in an attempt to keep pace and make standards universal – not easy with regional variations in systems and standards.
Modern switchgear technology has a particular emphasis on safety of operators and equipment. The main aspect to be taken into consideration is “internal arc withstand capability, which is the ability of the switchgear to safely contain and withstand the effects of an arc fault,” said Fletcher.
“Arc flash protection detects arc faults, while thermal diagnosis is the dynamic monitoring of the temperature inside the switchgear at critical hot spots so as to take preventive measures prior to a failure event. There is a preference for dry type technology rather than oil-filled equipment, particularly in case of transformers and the avoidance of SF6 gas, an active greenhouse gas, is promoted,” he explained.
Further to this, all materials used in the manufacturing of the switchgear should be ROHS compliant. And then of course there is the installation on the construction sites themselves, which Alexander highlights, where “a lack of knowledge, over stressing and modification”, can be disastrous.
Of course with all building developments in the region sustainability issue is increasingly at the forefront of many people’s decision making process. With heightened awareness, green issues have pushed local assemblers to focus on monitoring performance, power quality issues and identifying energy saving opportunities. “There should also be a focus on switchboard structure design so as to reduce the material requirement and reduces required space,” said Alexander. “Paralleling switchgears to manage critical transition from utility power to on site power sources to use alternative power sources is important as are automatic transfer switches,” he added.
An important requirement of the green building regulations is to tackle the problem of growing energy demand where ever possible. “Energy conservation can be efficiently done by closely monitoring energy and all parameters at all levels in the MV/LV network,” said Fletcher. “Switchgear manufacturers and designers should support this initiative,” he added.
Traditionally switchgear were used to provide protection against electrical hazards – short circuits, overloads and the like; however, more functionality is being integrated into the switchgear board as MEP contractors have to increasingly meet developer demands for lower cost of ownership, smaller environment and physical footprint and greater power management functionality. “Now devices are required to provide embedded energy metering and controlling capability, to be monitored and controlled remotely,” Fletcher explained.
According to Panakkat, Eaton’s products are born out of continual development in the sector. “Safety and ease of operation and maintenance were the key drivers in switchgear technology in previous decades,” he says. “Although safety is still paramount, the innovation focus in the last few years has been on multiple fronts – intelligence, connectivity, total cost of ownership, impact on environment, compact size and lowest footprint,” Panakkat adds.
The switchgear sector is expected to continue its development at pace as advanced technology will result in better, cheaper and faster products.
“Major advances in technology now seem set to change the design and traditional key components of transmission and distribution networks,” said Alexander.
“Technology in manufacturing enables innovations and processes that deliver higher value and reduce risk,” he added.
In the Middle East this trend is being driven by green building codes. “As per the green revolution technology, the source of power requirement will be reduced and make a huge impact in maintenance costs and pollution,” said Alexander.
These sentiments are echoed by Fletcher, who asserts that as a company there is an expectation that the technology will “evolve around ‘connectivity’”, prompting the need to manage assets very simply with concepts such as smart homes, smart cities and smart grids. He concludes that it is vital that switchgear manufacturers keep themselves abreast with the advancements in technology, making their products and solutions “more intelligent, transparent, cloud-based and contributing to solutions for the energy dilemma the world is facing today”.