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Mitsubishi Electric to tout smart trains in Asia

New tech on track to save energy and reduce unnecessary maintenance

A Mitsubishi Electric plant in China. The Japanese company is strong in "internet of things" technology.

TOKYO -- Mitsubishi Electric is developing train control systems to optimize energy usage and monitor consumable parts, hoping to capture demand from rail operators in burgeoning greater Asia.

The Japanese company does not build train cars itself but does make such related equipment as auxiliary power supplies; heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems; and ground equipment for stations.

"Our strength is that we make in-house the electrical machinery parts that propel, control and stop rail cars," said Hideto Negoro, who runs a Hyogo Prefecture plant that builds train-related equipment.

Mitsubishi Electric envisions train control management systems -- also known as "the brain of the train" -- that offer more functionality as technology advances. The systems have already enabled remote monitoring of the driver's-seat control panel and of equipment inspection. They have also helped save weight by eliminating communications cables.

The next step will entail using advanced sensors and "internet of things" tech to collect and analyze data from different components, such as power supplies, HVAC units and braking mechanisms.

The control systems could stop motors on certain cars to save energy and apply brakes on only some cars to make consumable parts last longer, for instance. They could support condition-based maintenance to replace consumable parts when they near the end of their lives rather than on fixed schedules.

Accurately detecting signs of wear and tear through data analysis will be a critical challenge in making this a reality. "We will utilize our know-how accumulated through continuous production of [train-related] equipment," Negoro said.

A majority of Mitsubishi Electric's rail-related business currently comes from operators in Japan, where shortages of seasoned experts in train service and maintenance pose cost and other challenges.

Mitsubishi Electric seeks to sharpen its focus on railway operators facing similar issues in greater Asia by touting its energy-saving control systems for new train cars sold in the region.

German company Siemens and Alstom of France -- the second- and third-largest global players by sales -- have agreed to merge rail car operations to reap economies of scale as they go on the offensive in emerging nations.

Most Japanese players specialize in only certain related equipment and so are often seen as at a disadvantage in scale. But Mitsubishi Electric has some of the broadest coverage in the range of train-related equipment it manufactures.

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