Four hundred and five meters, 40 MRI’s and three DOS-based computers was the largest meter order we had in 1991. In the whole year we produced approx 700 meters. The customer was a utility in Central India and the order was for their energy audit project.
In 1991, the word meter ubiquitously meant a gadget with a glass window within which a red and white coloured, aluminium disk and energy counter was visible. People in their childhood were taught to stay away from such beasts owing to the threat of electric (and financial) shock. Those with a better understanding of meters could spot the coil and brake magnet through the glass window.
The meters arrived in the utility stores which led to the release of a material receipt certificate (MRC), which is one of the documents, besides three others that we need before our payments can be released. As one might expect, the store’s staff were not equipped to certify that the black boxes were indeed meters and they had their reasons: these boxes didn’t have a disk or a register – which was surely essential for a meter back then. The Meter Relay Testing department which dealt with this area was asked to certify that the black boxes were indeed really energy meters.
The Meter and Relay department is headed by a Superintended Engineer who is supported by a Divisional, Assistant and Junior Engineer, besides the crew, each having a precise job description like seal cutter, meter tester, relay tester, supervisor, driver and the list used to be long (and confusing). For the first ten days of the month, the entire department would travel around to read the meters of high-value industrial customers, so that they could prepare their invoices, hence there were only a few days left for their responsibilities back at head-quarters, like testing our meter.
Frequent calls from Udaipur asking for the status of the payment over STD, for which charges were Rs32/minute, were enough to put an engineer, fresh out of college like me, in a high-pressure situation.
Certifying meters for an energy audit was no one’s priority. After several days of waiting, obviously it was my lucky day and I met the Superintending Engineer and requested that he provide the certificate. He asked me to meet his Divisional Engineer and very soon, descending through the hierarchy, I was standing in front of the Junior Engineer who claimed that until they had tested and accepted the meters, they would not be in a position to provide the acceptance certificate.
A box of meters was opened and the demo started – one demo for each person in that building. There were no symptoms that anyone was interested in testing the meter. Analysing my day, I quickly realised that my audience had turned nervous when my fingers worked the MRI and PC while demonstrating the meter functionality. It could have been something to do with the new gadgets.
I wired a meter in series with a reference meter to prove that it worked and was accurate. The meters of that era did not have a Calibration LED, nor did the utility have a test bench with optical scanners. Error testing was performed using manual calculation of the increment recorded by the standard meter and our meter. In order to create significant increments to have the errors within a decimal place, the test period used to be pretty long- say 30-40 minutes – and that too with the MRI connected with the meter, which in turn displayed higher resolution energy.
I was very satisfied when the meter passed on all the load points the customer had set. I thought that my MRC is about to be handed over to me.
To my dismay, the SE announced that each meter, yes each meter, had to be tested and only then if found satisfactory, the MRC could be released. He had his reasons, chiefly because it was the first time they were buying electronic meters and hence testing them prior to use (and procurement) was equally important for their business. Late night, when the STD charges were one-fourth, I informed Udaipur about the change to the rules of the game.
The acceptance testing was to be performed by the Junior Engineer and his crew and I was warned not to help (read influence) until asked for. Testing a single meter at the given test points, within limited working hours, took two days if I managed the time well. An error when noting the initial or final values, or computing the percentage error could cost the team another day. The main time eaters were errors due to the operating of the MRI with its QWERTY keyboard, a multi-level menu, compounded by the fact that the MRI being a computer was perceived as a delicate piece of equipment which if spoilt, meant someone would be held responsible and punished. I found the technicians avoiding any interaction with such risky, unrewarding equipment. For me, time was running and I had to get the payment.
All told, I had three big problems to solve. I needed to increase the testing speed, to train the technicians on how to use the MRI/ DOS computer and third, make the crew believe that electronic stuff is robust and reliable.
By now I had realised that my success (getting the meters accepted) was based on the performance of the meter testing staff. I started befriending them, spending the entire day with them, pretending I was enjoying working with the MRI and occasionally, I would cautiously drop it and demonstrate its robustness. It took a while for them to believe that the computer and MRI were robust and would not go kaput with use. The staff was now proficient in switching the MRI ON/OFF and connecting its optical port to the meter. Still, the test speed did not increase much.
My parents’ house was being constructed and was at the wood-work stage. Looking at the inventory of raw material, it struck me that I could carry a big sheet of plywood to the meter test lab and hang meters on it, to multiply the test speed. I started working like a robot drilling holes to fix meter hanging hooks; I do not remember how I got the inspiration to make an arrangement to hang 40 meters in one go. A rickshaw was called and the board was taken to the meter test lab. Critics, those not yet be-friended, were laughing at my idea. I purchased the cable, tools and after days of hard work, I was able to connect 40 meters in series with the reference meter. The phantom load was able to support the burden of 40 electronic meters. Oh! What a sight to see forty meters with LED displays glowing after sun-set. My next challenge was to arrange 40 MRI’s one for each meter, so that these meters could be tested in a gang. That was an easy job.
The testing speed increased, not exactly 40 times as I was operating the MRIs and needed help in this area. I tried to train a few technicians regarded as “sharp” but soon realised that I was deceived by the scale of sharpness. I also learned that the sharper fellows in this closed environment did not want to be trained as this would bring them under scrutiny where they may lose their crown- it was safer to keep a distance from such learning.
I choose the mediocre to train. The hands-on training was provided and now a bunch of technicians were trained to support me reading the initial / final values. To celebrate their success, I would offer them a working tea-party announcing the mediocre as the champions. Sharp guys felt threatened, they felt their boat being rocked. Secretly, I knew they had started taking lessons without exposing that they did not know the concepts in the first place.
While the team was ready to read energy values by pressing the “kWh” option, they went blank if the MRI would boot and display b: (read b-prompt or B-drive). It was time for their next lesson, which was growing more complex, but, this fact was not to be shared – lest they decide that electronic meters are not good. That would jeopardise my testing.
Training technicians with 15-20 years of experience is a challenge; they believe they know everything and things that they do not know are not worth knowing. The training was imparted in a subtle manner, no one ever knew they were being trained, yet somehow, now they started to enjoy it.
I needed to train the group to load the data on the PC. The meter reading tool then used to be called a “SEMS-PACK”. Computer training at the time was an expensive affair. I used that pitch and started training them on the top-end PCs we had supplied. They had 20MB of hard disk! The SEMS-PACK and MRI manuals were now more frequently referred to.
The testing crew was able to turn around 40 meters in three days – two days of testing and one day of swapping meters. I could see the meter boxes moving from left to right passing through the plyboard test bench.
I did not find the same level of acceptance on the functionality of the software package as in accepting the meters. People would work if I guided them step by step on the PC, but, if I left the scene the testing would come to a halt. I realised that the operators were not able to understand the manual, chiefly because it was in English and to a certain extent it did not explain how to solve a problem. With a genuine desire to help my customer (and thereby helping my goal), I tried translating the manuals in Hindi. The first night I completed a chapter and left it in the test area. This was about running the MRI program “Calib”, reading a meter and dumping the values in SEMS PACK. To my surprise, things moved as if running on auto-pilot. The operators now did not need me. Encouraged by the response, I translated the entire manual in Hindi. The operators got the manuscript photocopied and preserved it for their reference. It was a remarkable experience to bring 20 odd people, from a point where they had no inclination towards my products and services, to one where they had become beyond conversant. Our friendship grew stronger, we surpassed the having trust phase.
Junior engineers who in these 2 months had developed confidence in the capability of our meter, started carrying a meter and MRI on their routine HT customer visits. Along with comparing the error of electro-mech meters with their reference, they would check it against our meter. Working without my support, their confidence increased. They did not say this directly to me, but somehow, the information reached their head office that our meters were as good as a reference meter.
After kWh, the tamper detection feature, three-phase voltage / current, a breakthrough in meter connection diagnosis, were the next areas the team was trained in. The lab where the testing took place was visited by metering engineers from all over the state. Staying in the lab for a day to sort out their businesses, they came to know a little bit about our meter and complained to the boss that they and their team should also be given exposure to new meters- which was now seen as fun.
The friendship with the utility engineers deepened. A few meters were installed at an HT customer’s premises and I was expected to accompany them on their 200 km venture, the monthly meter reading. I thoroughly enjoyed it. During the course, I found out that as a ritual they would record the voltage and current during meter reading, for which they needed to connect an ammeter / voltmeter, and they spent approx 45 minutes doing this. In my weekly report to Sunil Khandelwal, my branch coordinator, I requested that the addition of an instant parameter display be included in the SEMSPACK. Development speeds were great then. I was swiftly sent a copy of the new SEMSPACK with instant parameters read automatically during the meter read. This warranted erasing the old program on the MRI using UV light and reprogramming it, which I did in my DIY lab. I am proud to share that display of the instant parameters is now an industry practice.
A couple of our meters failed owing to EMI – the knowledge of Indian field conditions and our own experience in EMI/EMC was in the early phase of the learning curve. Mr Babel visited the utility to assure them that we were on top of the issue and had an appointment with the Executive Director, the boss of the Superintending Engineer. There was a 27 point agenda which Mr Babel handled in an inspiring way. I thanked my stars for the opportunity to see him and his innovative style in action. During the meeting, the Executive Director would call me my nickname “Raju,” talk to me as if I worked for them as a GET and was wondering why I was running in synch with Babel Sb. He was surprised to learn that I worked for Secure. We were offered special Jalebi’s. Inspired by the values, I did everything which helped the customers to serve their business and in turn, helped their customers. For a decade we were the preferred vendor in that utility. They still trust us for meters for high-value metering points.
Oh yes, the meters were tested within 2.5 months. We got our money in 5 months as it was routed through PFC, Delhi, I worked continuously for the money and making electronic meters aka Secure popular with the operators who work for the engineers. At half price STD tariff, I called Babel Sb to inform him that our money (a draft) was on its way to Udaipur. There was a silence which I broke, “Are you happy?” He replied, “I would have expected this earlier”. This incident still inspires me when setting goals. Stretched targets are what I have learned to set and meet and I do not want anything less than that. I still thank the customer who threw stiff challenges at me and the strong foundation built in my formative days.