In January 2010, State Bank of India was about to open a branch in Sannyasidanga village near Jangipur, West Bengal — the Lok Sabha constituency of Pranab Mukherjee, then finance minister and now president of India. It would be the 100,000th village in its network. Mukherjee had consented to inaugurate the branch, the showpiece of which would be a brand-new ATM. Two days before the inauguration, SBI officers realised they had a problem on hand: the village got power in only one phase, while the ATM required power in three phases.
Running out of ideas, they got in touch with Chennai-based Vortex Engineering which makes ATMs that run on solar power. A Vortex ATM was airlifted and installed in Sannyasidanga. As feared, two hours before the inauguration, the power went off — it was a four-hour outage. But the ATM didn’t stop working. “Fortunately, we had four hours of power backup,” says Vortex CEO Vijay Babu.
Vortex developed these ATMs in 2008 in collaboration with Indian Institute of Technology Madras. While researchers at IIT developed the software and electronics, the engineering was done by Vortex. Thus, Vortex gives IIT a certain royalty on all machines sold.
So far, Vortex has supplied 6,000 ATMs which have all been installed in small towns and remote villages — from Ganga Sagar, an island off the West Bengal coast, to Dhordo, a small desert village in Rajasthan. Some 70 ATMs have been supplied to SBI alone, which is now Vortex’s largest customer. It has even supplied ATMs to Nepal, Bangladesh, Dubai, Madagascar and some countries in North Africa.
Vortex has been contracted to supply 2,000 more and hopes to bag orders for another 8,000. Expecting more orders, Vortex wants to ramp up the capacity of its factory from 150 ATMs a month to 1,000 ATMs. International Finance Corporation, Ventureast, Oasis Fund, Aavishkaar and Tata Capital Innovations Fund have invested in Vortex and together own 80 per cent of the company.
A conventional ATM consumes 500 to 600 watts of power. They consume so much power because they use conveyor belts to move the currency notes. Also they may stop functioning at temperatures above 35 degrees. The rugged Vortex ATMs, in contrast, use a different, patented technology to move the notes without conveyor belts. In conventional ATMs, cash is transported upwards from almost floor-level, which requires a lot of power. Vortex ATMs, on the other hand, have a gravity-assisted track in which the currency notes fall into the dispensing slot. So they consume very little power (less than 100W) and can function in temperatures of up to 50 degrees.
Vortex has also done away with the two PCs that run perennially within every ATM — one for interface with the customer and another for the bank employee who loads the cash. “Every ATM has an A4 printer, recording every single transaction. Even if you just put your card in, decide you don’t want to do anything and cancel the transaction, that is recorded on paper. We got rid of that. We record the data electronically, so that it can be pulled out by the bank remotely,” says Babu. Instead of communicating with bank branches through cables, Vortex ATMs use wireless-in-local-loop platform.
So, while a conventional ATM costs around Rs 800,000 to install, Vortex ATMs cost 30 per cent less; their operating cost is also significantly lower. Banks require at least 200 transactions a day to justify the investment on a conventional ATM; in Vortex ATMs, breakeven is achieved at less than 100 transactions.
Not that Vortex hasn’t had setbacks. In the initial stages, some ATMs supplied to SBI had to be recalled because they were unable to handle soiled notes. The design then had to be modified and improved. These are working without complaints now.