World's Largest Metering Project

In June 2000, UK meter manufacturer Ampy Automation signed an agreement with ENEL Distribuzione SpA to research and develop two new remotely controlled digital meters for Italy’s domestic and commercial market.

This R&D agreement with Ampy forms part of ENEL’s project (called ‘Contatore Elettronico’) to provide digital electricity meters and a complete home networking solution infra-structure to over 27 million Italian households over a four year period.

Under the terms of the R&D agreement, Ampy is carrying out research activities aimed at developing new digital electricity meters for ENEL Distribuzione. Some initial development activities have already been completed; however, in order to enable the continuous technological updating of the project, Ampy will continue to carry out its research activities until 2004.

“This agreement is an exciting opportunity to work closely with one of the world’s leading utilities,” said Jonathan Elmer, Ampy’s Managing Director. “It underlines Ampy’s position as a global centre of excellence in electronic metering. Utilities around the world are starting to recognise the benefits that an investment in technology can bring to their businesses. A large-scale rollout of AMR can see a pay-back within a few years, just in terms of cost savings within the utility’s business. Some forms of AMR (such as power line carrier) also bring added benefits from the additional services that can be offered to consumers. These can be as simple as a tariff change remotely implemented all the way through to full interaction with the consumer’s home.”

Today, large utilities understand the benefit of working in close partnership with a metering supplier. At the outset of a major project, a clear project model must be adopted to ensure its success, consisting of the following:

  • A partnership approach, based on a win/ win for all parties
  • Deep involvement from the parties in all aspects of the project, including
  • specification;
  • product cost;
  • manufacturability; and
  • supply chain management.

Ampy is well placed to undertake such work, having in-depth knowledge of metrology, prepayment and AMR technologies. It is important to bring to any project a shared vision for the future of metering and for the benefits that an investment in metering technology can bring to a utility. But any major project is about more than technology and vision – it is also about the ability to deliver such benefits in a package which can be manufactured economically and in high volume.

AMPY’S HISTORY

The history behind Ampy’s market positioning for undertakings of this nature goes back nearly 40 years and is based on a close-knit team situated in rural Lincolnshire in the UK. Ampy Automation was founded in 1962, specialising initially in speed monitoring equipment and, from the late 1970s, cashless payment systems. The company pioneered the introduction of card readers into electricity meters, giving the UK a world-class range of prepayment electricity meters. The Ampy product range subsequently expanded to include polyphase meters, twin element meters, smart card meters, solid state credit meters and the Mainstalk remote metering system.

In support of this range of products, Ampy Automation expanded its production, commercial and research teams and now has a workforce of nearly 300, of whom over 40 are committed to developing new products. In order to maintain its reputation for high quality and on-schedule delivery, Ampy Automation has invested in a wide range of on-site facilities such as injection moulding, tool-room facilities, in-house calibration and certification facilities. The Ampy software development team is now one of the largest and most experienced in the metering industry. The company has a well-established training programme covering a wide spectrum of technical and managerial topics such as interpersonal skills, operator training and interviewing techniques.

The total number of Ampy metering products installed to date exceeds 3 million, with over 50% of the annual UK prepayment market being taken by the company. Ampy is also one of the leading suppliers of electronic kWh meters in the world. Its commitment to the concept of Total Quality Management, however, has not changed over the years. The four cornerstones of continuous improvement are the same today as they were in the company’s infancy:

  • first class quality;
  • on time delivery;
  • competitive prices; and
  • sensitive response.

Today, Ampy stands alone as a major UK supplier, exporter, innovator and technology partner. Sales & Marketing Manager Paul Taylor comments: “There is something unique about how Ampy operates that is difficult if not impossible to reproduce in another company – a mixture of communications, teamwork and commitment.”

At the heart of the ‘Ampy’ method is a recognition that the path from customer requirement to production is not short, and if production of a million plus trouble-free units per annum is to be achieved, each step must be covered thoroughly. According to Head of Electronics Design Andy Robinson, “We are expected to offer far more than working designs; manufacturability, parts availability, cost, failure rates, test procedures, documentation and transferability of technology are all part of the package.”

THE BENEFITS OF AUTOMATION

In addition to the activities connected to the R&D with ENEL Distribuzione SpA, Ampy carries out a number of other activities. Here are two examples.

The sealed-for-life 5196 kWh meter, or Budgie as it has come to be known has evolved from earlier generations of product boosted by a multi million pound investment in design, procurement and assembly techniques. Robotically controlled production reproduces a new meter every ten seconds with astonishing consistency. Each production batch is pre-programmed electronically with a data file to determine:

  • how many rates;
  • classification 1.0 or 2.0;
  • serial numbers;
  • facia markings;
  • choice of active and reactive energy register; and
  • display functionality, eg auto- cycling, reverse energy register etc.

Automation not only makes for faster, more consistent, lower cost production but it also removes the reliance on individual operative skills. The Budgie meter production line has not been pushed to the limit, but is thought to be capable of two million meters per annum.

To make this rate of production possible, Ampy has invested heavily in enterprise resource planning software, developed in the USA to support the product distribution and high tech industries. This ensures that the process of component supply for over 146 products and 8,500 components, each with its own lead time, is able to keep pace with production and customer demand. Full logistical control reduces stock and wastage, and the benefits are passed to the customer in reduced costs.

To cite another example; the advantages of full two-way prepayment metering have been reported in numerous articles in Metering International. Achieving the top-of-the-range performance at a price that would persuade major utilities to switch a significant proportion of customers to prepayment has hitherto been just out of reach.

Ampy saw this as an opportunity to re-engineer an old and proven smart card product from its range along the following lines:

  • re-examine the number of operations;
  • review the total component count in the meters; and
  • re-engineer the supply chain.

The resulting meter, the Ampy Smart meter, was released in June 2001 with a whole list of new features such as complex tariff structures and dual pulse inputs (for gas and water metering) and, as predicted, the cost fell significantly. The last word goes to Ampy’s Export Manager, Paul Curtis. “Our sales outside  the UK have increased five fold over the  last four years. In a competitive world of claims and counterclaims, it is ultimately  the customer who determines what is right. Looking at Ampy’s export record, it is  difficult to avoid the conclusion that Ampy has something serious to offer. I believe  that something is a business partnership with the customer."