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India's lack of electronics manufacturing ecosystem is hurting Isro's space plans

The absence of a robust homegrown electronics ecosystem is hurting its ambitious targets.

Last Updated: Jan 10, 2020, 12.41 PM IST
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The Indian Space Research Organisation plans to launch nearly 25 satellite missions this year, according to agency chairman K Sivan.
India’s space agency planned to build as well as launch 17 homegrown satellites in 2019. It, however, managed to deliver only about half due to a shortage of electronics parts.

The absence of a robust homegrown electronics ecosystem is hurting the ambitious targets set by the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro), which has lined up more than 60 missions over the next five years.

These include building new generation communication and earth observation satellites, heavier rockets, return missions to the moon and Mars, and its first human space flight endeavour.

Each of these spacecraft and rockets needs electronic components and systems, mostly imported.

Over half of the electronics components on a large satellite and nearly a tenth for a rocket are imported as they need to meet stringent standards. These components should be reliable, radiation hardened and work through the mission life of a satellite, which could be as many as 15 years.

The need, therefore, for such components is only going to increase as the space agency becomes more aggressive in pursuing cutting-edge missions.

Congress Party leader and Rajya Sabha member Jairam Ramesh has, in fact, raised concerns over the country’s high import of electronics, arguing it represents a crucial gap in Isro’s capabilities.

“Over 80% of electronics components are imported. Carbon composites are sourced from only one Japanese company. Microprocessor design capability is impressive, but the country still awaits a state-of the-art fabrication and manufacturing facility. All these gaps need to be filled urgently,” Ramesh, who is the chairman of the House panel on science, technology, environment, forests and climate change, is believed to have written in a letter to Rajya Sabha Chairman Venkaiah Naidu, according to a report by The Hindustan Times.

Ramesh did not respond to calls or text messages seeking comment.

“It is a direct correlation to what is happening in the smartphone industry,” says Parv Sharma, research analyst at Counterpoint Research. “We don’t manufacture them, only assemble (them) here. India imports smartphones (with) semiconductor chips and electronics in semi-knockdown or completely knockdown kits, and we assemble the phones here,” he explains.

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India is a big importer of electronics primarily because the homegrown industry is virtually absent. In fiscal year 2019, India’s electronics imports stood at $55.6 billion, most of it for use in smartphones.

Efforts to build local semiconductor fabrication units over the last two decades have been unsuccessful due to high costs and the lack of a stable policy.

“The key thing for electronics manufacturing is semiconductor fabs,” says Sharma.

FAB EFFORT
To be sure, Isro owns a fabrication facility that is capable of producing chips with 45 nanometre technology.

Since it took over Semi-Conductor Laboratory, a public sector undertaking a decade ago, it has upgraded the fab and developed a micro-electrical mechanical system (MeMs).

The biggest shift has been in building the Vikram processor, crucial for navigation and guidance control of Isro’s rockets.

“There are some critical components, such as the Vikram processor, that we have already built,” says Dr K Radhakrishnan, former chairman of Isro. The space agency has been collaborating with industry locally to produce electronics as well as systems for its satellites, he adds.

“We have to get the sub-systems from the industry or from our own (Isro) system. There are very few (global) vendors who can supply these systems,” he says.

Isro has stepped up efforts to build capabilities with local manufacturers to meet its requirements for electronics as well as tap the global opportunity for satellites.

According to estimates by Stratview Research, the global space electronics market is projected to touch $1.62 billion by 2024.

The growth is expected to come from increased production of satellites, especially small ones; the market entry of commercial space companies and as more countries look to build satellites on their own.

In September, Bengaluru-based Centum Electronics set up a new facility to design, develop and make electronic components for both Isro’s satellites and rockets.

“Keeping in mind the growing number of missions of Isro, we have made significant investments to ensure (that) we can deliver products with the right quality, technology and in required quantities to be a trusted partner for Isro,” says Apparao Mallavarapu, CMD of Centum Group.

The number of companies that are taking up the opportunity is, however, still small, says an Isro official who did not wish to be named.

“Earlier, we had the issue of volumes. Now, we are giving them our roadmap of satellites and spacecraft and assuring them orders. It is becoming difficult to get companies even to build rectifiers and Integrated Circuits,” says the official.

NEW POLICY PUSH
Texas Instruments chose Bengaluru to set up its first design base outside of the United States in the late Eighties, and since then India has emerged as a design hub for most global companies — Intel, Qualcomm, ZTE, ARM and AMD — to build their next-generation chips.

This has also helped spawn a startup ecosystem where entrepreneurs have set up fabless chip design companies — designing chips, but getting them assembled, tested and manufactured in independent foundries such as TSMC in Taiwan.

While India has emerged as a global hub for chip design, making them at foundries abroad could be an interim step before local fabs emerge, say experts.

India should tap the homegrown expertise in chip and electronic systems design, says Naga Bharath Daka, cofounder and chief operating officer of Skyroot, the first private sector company designing a rocket that will likely launch by 2021.

“The semiconductor fabrication industry...did not take off in India, mainly because it is highly investment intensive. Even globally, pureplay semiconductor manufacturing is becoming highly consolidated,” says Daka. “What we can only hope for is the emergence of a good number of fabless semiconductor companies based out of India, which we are seeing in the start-up ecosystem.”

The Hyderabad-based company, founded by four former Isro scientists, designs rockets that can carry small satellites into lowearth orbits.

“Isro should primarily target to replace all critical chipsets if any (where we are dependent on a single maker or vendor) that are currently being imported, with indigenous chip designs that can be manufactured in the required quantities from pure-play foundries externally,” Daka adds.

Sanjay Nekkanti, the founder of Dhruva Space, says “Isro builds large satellites weighing over 500 kg with over 10 years’ mission life. Mission delays of 1-2 years is inevitable with space agencies given the complexities involved.”

The company, which builds satellites weighing up to 100 kg, is using commercial electronics qualified for space using proprietary screening methods, he says.

A new electronics policy, unveiled by the government in February last year, could make the country a hub for electronics manufacturing, though.

The policy aims to promote manufacturing and export along the entire electronics value chain, with an emphasis on providing a special package of incentives for mega high-tech projects, including semiconductor facilities. It also entails creating a Sovereign Patent Fund to promote the development and acquisition of intellectual property in the sector.

The thrust is on fabless chip design, and intended to boost the medical, automotive, power electronics and strategic electronics industry. The plan is to make the local electronics industry generate over $400 billion in five years.

If the policy push works as intended, India could move one step ahead in reducing electronics imports significantly by 2025.
(Catch all the Business News, Breaking News Events and Latest News Updates on The Economic Times.)

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