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M Venkatraman, Senior Vice President and Head R & D, Product Development and Application Engineering, Essar Steel

12 Mar 2015

‘Self-reliance in special alloy steel is essential for India’

M Venkatraman, Senior Vice President and Head R & D, Product Development and Application Engineering, Essar Steel talks to Neeraj Dhankher about why it is important for the country to indigenously develop the technology to produce special grade steel and why his company is focusing on the defence sector. Excerpts.

What are your company’s plans for supplying steel to sectors like defence and what are the applications in this sector?

Defence is one of the segments which uses special advanced steel for building warships, submarines, battle tanks and other military equipment. Most of these products, which are of ultra-high strength and made with tough plates, were hitherto imported into the country. These products need to meet the stringent metallurgical conditions such as combination of high strength and toughness, ballistic resistance, weldability, fatigue and all-weather resistance. They should also be able to withstand the severest of hostile conditions of sea in terms of corrosion resistance and anti-fungal resistance.

Essar is focusing on defence segment to target high value-added plates apart from normal structural steel used for engineering construction. Since the commissioning of plate mill, Essar Steel has added several advanced special class of steels for key segments in India like boiler and pressure vessels, line pipes, energy, heavy earth moving equipment etc.

Last year, Essar had successfully executed the order for Mazagon Dock for building warships. Special ultra-high strength quench and tempered plates were rolled for Mishra Dhatu Nigam Ltd. for the first time in the country. It has also developed special alloy plates for manufacturing battle tanks for Indian Army. After extensive evaluation for ballistic and other critical properties, this product is now indigenously available and subsequently, Essar has won a commercial order.

Few months ago, it won another prestigious order from DMRL to develop plates for futuristic battle tanks, a special high strength steel, up to 80 mm thick, with a strength level of 1700 mpa as compared to strength levels of 900 mpa steel used currently. For the first time in the country, this grade is cast in a continuous casting route. It has also executed orders for Cochin Shipyard for making coast guard vessels.

What are the key reasons for looking at the defence sector?

In today’s geopolitical situation, dependency on technological know-how, products or other special materials from other countries is increasingly becoming difficult. We have been sourcing these products and special alloy steel from Russia for quite some time but subject to our foreign policies. Also, countries will cater to only those based on choose and pick policy to suit their interests. Self-reliance and indigenization are hence vital to develop the latest technology and equipment to safeguard our sensitive borders. In-house competence building is a must towards this end.

Essar has the technical expertise to translate the know-how to make advanced materials like special steels for army and navy in a short time. This not only adds to the pride of the company but for the nation as a whole. In addition, we save substantial foreign exchange and also it is economical because indigenous technology is always cost competitive compared to imports, especially special materials. Our efforts are also in line with our Government’s campaign – “Make in India”. Our advanced steel making technologies, sophisticated plate mill, one of its kind in India, coupled with specialized technical expertise in–house, make us ideally suited to cater to critical segments like defence. Further, our basic business goal is to maximize product mix of value added and niche products.

How have you prepared to meet the demand of steel for defence sector in terms of development of infrastructure and products? Do you plan to set up additional production units / infrastructure to meet the demand in future?

The existing steelmaking and rolling technologies are very advanced and fully equipped to meet the stringent quality requirements of products, in terms of cleanliness of steel and metallurgical properties. The plant capacity, being 10 million tonne, can easily cater to the demands of this segment. Our R&D works closely with Government establishments as well as defence manufacturing units to capture their needs and keep abreast of International developments. Further, our R&D is continuously engaged in developing new innovative products. We are fully prepared to meet the demands of this sector both in terms of technology, volume and quality.

Currently it is estimated that India imports over 100,000 tonne of high grade steel to meet defence requirements. How will Essar Steel’s initiative help reduce import burden?

Barring a few special steel grades which are used for making specific components, Essar is fully prepared to meeting the entire range of imported grades for defence.

What are the constraints, if any, with regard to procurement and supply of steel? What kind of support is required from the government to tackle these challenges?

Traditionally, defence requirements are high value-added and in terms of volumes, it is small. Integrated mills sometimes find it difficult to make out a business case. Also, the requirements are not consistent. Government can and should make it mandatory for foreign players who are awarded contracts to build ships, submarines or special tanks in India, to source steel from indigenous sources only. Also, export of the products should be encouraged and become part of trade agreements with overseas countries to import these special steels from us. These steps would help enhance volumes. Only few European mills today are exporting these products worldwide.

Apart from defence, what are the other sectors being considered by Essar for supplying steel?

Currently, Essar Steel manufactures about 50 per cent value-added steel out of its total capacity of 10 million tonne per annum (mtpa) at Hazira. We would now gradually shift our focus to utilize 70 per cent of Hazira’s capacity to manufacture special steel. Besides defence, India is set to witness increased demand for value-added special steel in sectors like space, research, mining, dumpers, earthmovers, infrastructure development, nuclear and wind power energy.

Essar Steel, known for high quality flat steel products, is also focusing on the automotive sector which is expected to see a surge in demand for high-strength grades for weight savings. It has developed over 300 grades of flat steel for different applications in the last 5 years. These include hot rolled, cold rolled, galvanized, color-coated, extra-wide plates and pipes, catering to industrial segments like auto, ship building, white and yellow goods, general engineering, power plants, hydrocarbon industry, pipe making, and defence, among others.

Some of its customized hot-rolled and cold-rolled products for automotive applications include: High strength steel ranges from drawing quality to ultra-low carbon interstitial free grade of steel, conforming to accepted international standards. These grades are produced by using the state-of-art clean steel making technologies such as vacuum oxygen decarburization (VOD) and RH degassing to make the steel free from inclusions and surface defects. These steels are specially designed to meet the stringent requirements such as good dent and crash resistance, good formability for high-speed stamping, controlled surface roughness for painting gloss and to prevent die wear.

Essar also supplies the entire range of grades of steels that is meant for wheel applications, be it a passenger car, trucks and tippers. Our latest products include high strength dual phase steels for disc applications. Its latest new generation grades include hot forming grades and high fatigue strength steels – a grade developed for the first time in India. One of the special hot rolled grades used for making long members of trucks is yielding a weight saving potential of 17 per cent. For line pipe applications, it has developed steels up to X-65 sour and X-80 conforming to the API standards.

Its Hazira facility is one of India’s largest single-location integrated steel facility, comprising three iron making facilities of direct reduced iron, corex and blast furnaces, which gives a flexibility in the usage of raw materials and energy sources.