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MS Unnikrishnan, MD & CEO, Thermax, has fostered innovation within the company, and made its engineered products & services world-class.

by Jayashree Kini Mendes

You may not see it or realise it, but Thermax is everywhere. It’s in the air you breathe, the power you consume, the fuel you use, name it, and you can be assured that somewhere Thermax has played a role. In short, its visible products offer numerous invisible benefits.
The heavy engineering company whose core areas are energy and environment has made its mandate to offer clean energy while doing so in the most sustainable way. That is a matter of pride for Thermax’s longest-serving MD & CEO, MS Unnikrishnan.
Of course, he also takes pride in the company’s ability to have engineered some of the most marvellous innovations that boils down to simple and reasonable mechanical engineering. “But that is the beauty of working with Thermax. Engineering as a profession requires one to invent and innovate continuously, where our company and our line of work offers us plenty of opportunities,” he adds.

MS Unnikrishnan. MD & CEO

Thermax has multiple products across its three divisions: Energy, Environment, and Chemicals. For instance, in energy alone, the range includes absorption cooling, process cooling, boilers & heaters, power generation solutions, solar technology, process heating solutions, and steam accessories, and within each has several offerings. Ask him how he straddles the gamut of products and solutions, and Unnikrishnan says, “We are well structured as an organisation. Multiple portfolios of similar nature are managed by an SBU (strategic business unit), who is backed by a financial controller. Between the SBU head and the financial controller, they take all decisions related to the business other than selling it or buying a new business.”
That’s the kind of freedom Thermax gives its employees. Multiple SBUs, which have a synergy of technology, or manufacturing or a process value chain or customer, are clustered under a business unit (BU), who report into the MD & CEO. At any given point in time, the company has several ongoing projects across the sectors it works in India and around the world – power plants, industrial, refineries, wastewater, automotive, solar, etc.

Process-oriented
Considering that Thermax operates mainly in energy and environment, sustainability has been at the heart of the organisation’s thinking. For instance, its heating products support the manufacturing process for various sectors (could be textile, pharma or food processing) and are engineered to operate at high efficiencies. “In terms of cooling, we’re one of the rare companies where the refrigerant used in the absorption coolers is only water. Whereas the air-conditioners you see uses freon, which when it leaks creates HFCs and depletes the ozone layer. Whereas if anything leaks in our chillers, it will be just water,” he says with a hint of pride.
Similarly, many of the captive power plants that Thermax builds uses waste energy. The heat sent out into the atmosphere otherwise is captured and converted into power. “We can generate approximately 10MW to 20MW electricity from waste gases alone from cement plants, which is almost equal to half the energy needed for their processes,” adds Unnikrishnan. He can cite several examples of how the company has looked at successfully using waste from effluents and converted them into fuel. Few know that it uses the spent wash (an effluent from a distillery) as fuel for boilers and the steam produced from that is again used to generate electricity.
What is novel here is that the company has designed boilers after ascertaining the large amounts of ready fuel that is available within the particular geography or region. So, it could be rice husks in Andhra Pradesh or mustard stocks in Punjab or high caffeine coffee waste in a coffee powder making factory – are all fodder for Thermax’s innovations.

Total water management system by Thermax for a fertiliser major.

“There are more than 100 different fuels we combusted that would have otherwise gone waste. It’s all about energy conservation. One only has to look around and understand the potential of waste products and how to convert it into usable energy,” he adds.
Thermax makes all its systems and products across its 14 manufacturing plants in India and around the world, with eight facilities in India alone. Each of these plants is equipped with top-of-the-line equipment and manufacturing processes that are world-class. With 13 different platforms of software, the manufacturing plants bring out superior products to be used in critical applications. Boilers manufacturing, which is Thermax’s main line of business, must adhere to quality standards that conform to the codes laid down by governments of the respective markets.
A centralised sourcing policy helps sustain a smooth supply chain. It works with a minimum of two vendors for a particular component, but only after they have been evaluated on quality and technology.

Seeing the light
Unnikrishnan has also gained a reputation for his strategic moves. In his first stint at Thermax, he was chosen to lead the projects business and move out of the Pune headquarters to Mumbai. He managed that successfully. Later he also participated in the turnaround of E.I.D Parry in 1987 that offered him a faster career growth. In 1997, he rejoined Thermax and was given the post of head of Water and Waste Solutions business, which again meant turning around the division. In 2000, when Thermax professionalised the organisation from a family managed company, Unnikrishnan was elevated as an Executive Council Member. There was no looking back since.
He later went to Harvard Business School for an Advanced Management Programme only to return to take over the reins as the MD of Thermax.
Today he’s more concerned with the potential water crisis that faces the world. “We have devised ways to create power by using waste. But as a country, we are water starved. Thermax has technologies ready to recycle water, and though it is an expensive affair today, we have little choice,” he says.
Innovations abound here too. The coloured effluent in a textile mill can be decolourised and then recycled. Sewage is one of the easiest wastewater to treat at an economically viable cost. Thermax was the first in the country to introduce bio-reactors to treat sewage in India, way back in 1998.

Danstoker AS, Denmark, an overseas subsidiary of Thermax.

New businesses
The government’s declaration to make all vehicles Euro VI ready has thrown new opportunities in Thermax ’s way. “We are probably the only country in the world who have decided to catapult from Euro IV to Euro VI despite limited financial resources. This means that all refineries in India will get refurbished with additional equipment to reduce SOX emissions. We have been entrusted with many of these modifications that will ensure that all refineries in India will be Euro VI ready by the deadline,” he adds.
As an aside, he says that people have the wrong perception that refineries cause the highest pollution. “They are some of the most compliant and least polluting. Most of the effluent and waste gas is captured and used most efficiently by the refineries,” he says.

Thermax’s hot water fired absorption chiller.

The management of the company is fully aware that the capex heavy business could experience volatility in both its revenue and profits. Steps are being taken to make the business resilient to economic cycles. It’s probably the reason Unnikrishnan is looking at new models of revenue. Solar is one such, he says. “We worked closely with the government to create a solar hybrid solution for the existing coal based Thermal Power plants. The first such 18 MW solar thermal hybrid is at an advanced stage of commissioning for a 210 MW PSU power plant at Dadri. Once satisfactorily commissioned, this can be replicated in all the existing coal-fired thermal power plants of India. The potential is approximately 5000 MW thermal power,” he adds.
Thermax follows a classical innovation process. At the individual SBU level, innovation is undertaken to protect the turf and to build the existing market share. These H1 level innovations are expected to bear fruits within a period of 12 to 18 months. The company also undertakes second horizon innovation based on emerging opportunities that may take upto 3 to 4 years for fruition. In the third horizon, Thermax is into blue-sky innovations which are expected to deliver viable options.

Thermax’s new manufacturing facility at Indonesia.

Thermax continues to collaborate with global technology leaders to bring cutting-edge products and solutions to the domestic market.
Customer service is the cornerstone of Thermax’s commercial success. The company provides lifecycle product support through its widely spread service network and franchises. It has also adopted “Internet of Things” oriented solutions to offer predictive maintenance to its customer spread across the globe.
Unnikrishnan believes in working for the ultimate benefit of mankind and only technology and innovation can help accomplish the wonders he has in mind.

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