Composite materials nibble at metal markets
Mumbai: Composite materials made of carbon and glass are making rapid inroads into the traditional markets for building materials in India, threatening to take it over.
It is almost unnoticed, but a handful of conglomerates and institutions are making or are on the verge of making composites made of hardened carbon or glass fibres that are said to be 5-10 times stronger than steel and more than half as light.
In fact, almost everything we see made out of metals—from racquets to bridges—can technically be made out of this synthetic fibre and yarn, layered and bonded by epoxy resins and moulded according to use.
This few decades-old material is already well-entrenched in the aerospace, defence and automobile sectors that stand at the cutting edge of science and technology, but has only now become commercially viable for other sectors as well.
Boeing has used more carbon composites and plastics than before in its latest plane 787, the company says on its website. The airframe of the 787 has 50% carbon fibre-reinforced plastic and other composites that offers weight savings on an average of 20% compared with more conventional aluminium plane designs.
Companies starting to manufacture these materials hope to see an inflection point when increasing applications emerge and result in economies of scale, thus making them cheaper and more popular.
Tata Sons Ltd, Mahindra and Mahindra Ltd, Godrej and Boyce Manufacturing Co. Ltd and Larsen and Toubro Ltd have units making or developing composites, and supplying to high-profile clients producing spacecraft, aircraft and automobile parts.
“For the last few years, we have been talking about composites, but now we have got involved with it in a bigger way,” said S.M. Vaidya, senior vice- president and business head of Godrej Aerospace, a unit of Godrej and Boyce.
Godrej Aerospace is starting with the manufacture of glass fibre composites in another six-eight months, followed by the top-end carbon composites in two years and extremely high-tech ceramic composites—used in tip of fins, nose, and rudder of planes to withstand extreme heat—in maybe five years, according to Vaidya.
Likewise, Tata Advanced Materials Ltd has been supplying parts made out of composites to Boeing, Spirit and the UTC Group and has also been a partner for development of the light combat aircraft and Indian Space Research Organisation satellites, including the Mars orbiter Mangalyaan.
“Tata Advanced Materials has made investments in excess of Rs.200 crore in its manufacturing facilities over the years and its outlook on the demand for composites from the aerospace sector is very positive,” a Tata Sons spokesperson said.
Another Tata company, Tata AutoComp Systems Ltd, is a provider of glass fibre composites-based solutions to the auto industry and original equipment manufacturers in all auto segments, including farm.
“Sooner or later, there will be more thrust on it… I think it has already started reaching an inflection point,” said Satyam Suwas, associate professor at the department of materials engineering at Indian Institute of Science (IISc). “This will be strongly guided by the fuel economy as people say in another 50 years, oil would have depleted so people will start to look at light weighting.”
Simply put, carbon fibres are obtained by heating polymers such as polyacrylonitrile or petroleum pitch in the absence of oxygen, which results in long, tightly interlocked chains of carbon atoms which are then woven into fibre or yarn.
The yarn—that looks like shiny, dark, synthetic cloth, is then placed in a mould and epoxy resins are poured onto it. Layers of the carbon fibre are added depending on the strength and thickness desired, with the resin binding it all together.
“For more than two decades, the demand for composites has been rising, so it has the potential to see tremendous growth,” said H.N. Sudheendra, head of advanced composites division at the National Aerospace Laboratories, where another division is working on manufacturing carbon fibre in India, the raw material for creating carbon fibre yarn.
The size of the composites market in India is negligible as against a 90 million tonne steel market, with carbon fibres being imported, and glass fibres sourced locally from a handful of chemical and plastic companies.
Metals fight back
Metal producers are dismissing the advances being made by this sunrise sector. Steel firms that are on an expansion drive say the composite makers will only stay on the fringes of their market.
The world’s largest steel maker ArcelorMittal SA and largest Indian steel maker Tata Steel Ltd said the economic growth, research and development and the cost-effectiveness of metals will keep the demand for steel not just alive, but growing too.
These producers cite the disadvantages of using composites—that it cannot be recycled, or mended by welding and also that its price can be 25% higher than that of steel, which is priced at $502 per tonne.
But depending upon the grade and specification, the prices of the composite materials for aerospace could be as high as $250 for just a kilogram, according to the Tata Sons spokesperson.
“While there is a penetration of composites and plastics in interiors and non-critical components of vehicles, steel remains a preferred choice for the body-in-white (BIW) of the vehicle,” a spokesperson of Tata Steel said in reply to a questionnaire.
“Even till the year 2025, studies have predicted that steel will continue to form approximately 95% of the BIW…we are confident that plastics and composites will not be able to make a dent into steel usage of a vehicle BIW,” the spokesperson said, adding that Tata Steel has invested in high tensile steel especially for autos and is stepping up investment in research and development.
But the proof of the pressure the steel makers are facing from not just composites but other materials also, namely aluminium and plastics, is evident from the number of new launches in the pipeline.
Tata Steel generally works on over 30 new products in a year, while ArcelorMittal said it has 80 grades in development.
“Other materials talk about being 30% or 40% lighter than steel, but that’s only accurate if you are using the steel of 2005 as a comparison,” an ArcelorMittal spokesperson said.
“Today, we are working with completely different steels, which are the results of hundreds of millions of dollars of investment. Namely that steel can already achieve the required weight reductions. And we can do it in a more cost effective and environmentally friendly manner than any other material.”
The Tata group’s own diversification—two group companies are manufacturing composites that will eventually compete with their flagship steel business—is also proof that new materials are coming to stay and companies must take the early mover advantage.
What’s more, at an event at the Nehru Science Centre in Mumbai in September to mark the birth anniversary of Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya, a notable Indian engineer, and the Diwan of Mysore from 1912 to 1918, the writing was clear on the wall, when a prominent steel firm’s head made his speech.
“New materials are coming in such as carbon composites and the auto industry is also looking for lower weights and that is a big challenge for the steel sector,” Sajjan Jindal, chairman and managing director of JSW Steel Ltd said to the audience, mainly schoolchildren.
“So that is the big challenge we engineers face—everyone wants to make lighter and high-technology materials,” he told the schoolchildren, urging them to take up science and technology roles to advance metals.
Problems in setting up new plants that are a requisite for metals manufacturing and also the linkage for raw materials such as coal, iron ore and bauxite, that pose their own problems, could increase acceptability of composites, some top analysts said, who could not be named because of new Securities and Exchange Board of India guidelines for research analysts.
Like renewable energy
Composites are to building materials what renewable energy is to power. It is well understood that solar and hydel energy is better than fossil fuels, but even decades after their discovery and marketability, they have not come to the mainstream.
Composites also, to be sure, will grow on the same pattern as renewable energy until a whole manufacturing industry develops for wide-ranging applications across auto, construction and infrastructure sectors and costs come down, analysts say.
“Steel has been there for over 100 years. Its manufacturing, supply lines, its markets, everything is in place…this is not the case with composites and plastics,” Suwas of IISc said.
It is common to see lightweight bridges being built, lifted by a crane, installed over a canal and tested with a battle tank in developed countries where composites were adopted widely at least a decade ago. In India, the construction and infrastructure sectors may be the last to consume it.
The unethical practice of the builder community of taking funds from consumers, and usually delaying projects to take profit from the funds, will also be a deterrent in the use of carbon fibre composites in the construction sector, experts say, as composites would facilitate speedy construction.
Composites are not alone in competing with steel. Reinforced plastics are also taking a share of the pie, offering advantages similar to composites.
“Plastics can lead to a weight reduction of about 50% versus steel and 30% versus aluminium. Cars already contain 15% plastic, a shift from steel that reduces fuel consumption by 5-10%. There are many more opportunities for making a car even lighter with high-performing plastics,” said Raman Ramachandran, chairman and managing director, BASF India Ltd and head, BASF South Asia.
“We see a lot of opportunities for a significant further weight reduction, reducing fuel consumption by another 10% or so in the next decade,” said Ramachandran whose company offers plastic solutions as an alternative to metal, often developed jointly with consumers.
For some car makers, such as the Mahindra Reva electric car that has 33% plastics and composites in its body, the overall cost savings owing to fuel efficiencies, makes it worthwhile to use composites.
“It is actually more expensive but because of the benefits of reduced part count and lighter weight, at an overall system cost, it can be lower in some applications,” Chetan Maini, founder and chief executive of Mahindra Reva Electric Vehicles Pvt. Ltd, said.
While composites could be growing in double digits, the use of plastics is rising more modestly. Burzin Wadia, executive vice-president, engineering and technology at Godrej Appliances, said more of reinforced plastics are being used in place of metals, with growth seen around 1-2%.
But when the inflection point may be reached is debatable. In the near future, a few triggers are visible: the new government’s drive to encourage indigenous manufacturing, the growing trend for tighter fuel efficiency norms for automobiles, and also the falling crude oil prices which could make polymer prices fall in tandem.
Shally Seth Mohile contributed to this story.