Since efficient spark production is essential for smooth and consistent engine starting operations, acceleration and fuel efficiency, spark plugs are one of the most critical components of petrol and diesel engines. Established in 2006, NGK Spark Plugs India Pvt Ltd has been a leading supplier of spark plugs to car and bike manufacturers. We met Sudipto Sanyal, Senior General Manager, Sales & Marketing, NGK Spark Plugs India Pvt Ltd, to discuss the latest technological developments in the spark plug industry and the specific requirements of the Indian market.
A spark plug performs multiple functions for an engine – it serves as a ‘lighter’ that ignites the air-fuel mixture, and also operates under extreme conditions. This mandates the necessity for it to withstand high voltages of 20,000 to 30,000 volts, temperatures of 2000-2500 degrees Celsius, endure repetitive explosive pressures of 50 kg/sq cm and withstand corrosion from combustible products. For the last two or three decades, spark plugs have been selling like a commodity, based on pricing, discounts and schemes in Indian market. Very few initiatives were taken to market the product based on technological strengths and to educate decision makers (like aftermarket mechanics) on how to select the right spark plug for the right engine and application. Spark plugs thus became a traded commodity rather than a marketed essential, which did not really reflect their importance in the powertrain.
The spark plug industry depends on government mandates (currently, as per government mandates, spark plugs are traded as commodities) and the technological upgradation undertaken by individual OEMs, for the new generation of engines being introduced. With regulations for electromagnetic interference having been introduced in 2006, and non-resistor spark plugs being phased out due to emission requirements, the life of the engine ECU has increased manifold. NGK was one of the first companies to educate car manufacturers about the benefits of using resistor spark plugs and over the past decade, all OEMs (as well as about 90 % of the aftermarket) have started using resistor-equipped spark plugs.
Modern day engines run very high temperatures and generate large amounts of heat. It is essential to dissipate the heat from the engine effectively, without impacting performance. The use of copper cored technology within a spark plug, instead of a steel insertion, has helped in significantly reducing engine overheating in recent years. NGK India also launched their high performance G-Power and Iridium range of spark plugs, which have found ready acceptance among high-performance car and bike owners globally.
The company follows a three-level strategy for its customers, providing good/better/best spark plugs, depending upon specific requirements. ‘Good’ is Nickel type of plugs, ‘better’ is Platinum type and the ‘best’ is Iridium type of spark plugs, which form the top of the spectrum and are used for very high-end performance-focused cars and bikes. Iridium spark plugs offer optimum combustion while providing improved acceleration and throttle response.
The company also recently launched its new series of spark plugs called hi-ignitability spark plugs for next generation engines developed by various OEMs. It sits between the Nickel and Platinum series, and caters to customers looking for better quality within reasonable costs.
The OEM market and the aftermarket requirements for spark plugs exhibit different traits. The OEM market is prone to fluctuations and shifts in technological requirements, given the different environmental and government regulations that are in place. A spark being a vital component for the functioning of any engine, the plug needs to be modified by the supplier, according to changing norms, as specified by OEMs. Also, given the fact that the Indian automotive industry will be skipping BS V completely and moving straight to BS VI, some component makers have had to make radical changes in technology and application of their products for various vehicles.
The aftermarket domain for spark plugs witnesses technological changes on a slower pace, particularly in emerging markets like India, where customer awareness is less. Existing customers prefer to continue with their existing spark plug modules, despite the inherent risks to their vehicle’s engine. Till the time the engine performs normally, there is no inclination to shift to a more advanced product. However, with consumer awareness programs being undertaken by OEMs across the country, there is a positive trend being witnessed and change is gradually beginning to take place.
THE WAY FORWARD
The automotive sector is witnessing many developments today, from tightening emission norms to more stringent safety requirements, and from convenience features to engine upgrades. Sanyal believes that while the spark plug market will continue to evolve with market requirements, another key area that would evolve is the market for sensors. With BS VI coming in three years and BS IV for two-wheelers already in place, oxygen sensors will become mandatory across product segments.
A better quality, higher grade fuel enhances the performance of a spark plug. Using adulterated fuel makes the spark plug more susceptible to carbon fouling. Apart from lower acceleration and reduced engine performance, it will also require frequent removal of carbon deposits from the spark plug. All these can be addressed if fuel quality is up to the prescribed standards. The need of the hour is to have consistency between the quality of spark plugs available to OEMs, and the ones available in the replacement market. This will not only reduce counterfeiting, but also encourage customers to opt for a better quality product at the time of replacement.
TEXT: Anwesh Koley