As India’s aluminium producers gear up to take on their global peers in downstream products, their efforts need to be aligned with innovation in secondary smelting techniques, process improvements and tapping new markets to absorb the value added products. Driven by wide applications and growing demand, downstream aluminium processing activities are taking hold in the world and even more so in India where demand is on a strong wicket. Per capita aluminium usage in India at 2.4 kg is among the lowest in the world. But aluminium demand in the country is poised to log CAGR (compounded annual growth rate) of 10 per cent in the next five years, bettering the global run rate of six per cent year-on-year growth.
For a country like India where imported products cater to 51 per cent of the aluminium demand, secondary smelting needs that extra attention. What’s more, downstream products obtained from foreign players through imports of aluminium scrap look viable given India’s unsustainable cost of producing primary aluminium.
Presently, India’s contribution to semi-fabricated product shipments globally is noticeably low. This can be attributed to a slew of technological and non-technical reasons. Customers of semi-fabricated products are now highly sensitive to the stringent needs of the finished products and therefore seek highly specific product functionality- a need which warrants close linkages between the aluminium and consumer industries in order to transform already engineered and fully recyclable materials at each and every fragment of the supply chain. Currently, the bulk of aluminium-based products are designed for manufacture from primary aluminium – more downstream products need to be manufactured from secondary aluminium. This requires stringent manufacturing procedures to maintain quality and consistency.
Therefore, if positioning India as one of the major suppliers of downstream products to the world market, innovation has to be the key driver. This calls for developing predictive models retaining alloy microstructure to specific forming processes performed on secondary aluminium. Also, players in the secondary aluminium sector need to evolve their methods to efficiently and effectively roll out complex alloys. Innovating methods for continuously monitoring the fabrication process and opting for advanced forming technologies in processes such as rapid solidification, powder metallurgy, semi-solid manufacturing, aluminium foams and squeeze casting can help aluminium makers expand their footprint in downstream businesses both in their domestic market and beyond.
Automation & Innovation: The Game Changers
Firms operating in the semi-fabrication segment of the aluminium industry ought to opt for the automation of process control to optimise the production of high formability, low cost & high strength aluminium alloys, molten metal handling, metal loss reduction, solidification and flow modelling analysis and temperature sensors for rolling operations. The focus should be on significant cost reduction for various aluminium transformation processes- this can be achieved through the simplification of complex aluminium processes using correct knowhow, skilled workers, predictive models and use of newer alloys and processes. Inventing methods to achieve the production of large castings with thinner walls and high integrity, low porosity, low inclusion, low distortion after heat treatment and consistent microstructure and weldability can come in handy. Aside from preparing a ‘Best Practice Guide for the Semi-Fabrication Industry’ and creating facilities to produce high strength aluminium alloys, extruded plates and sheets can help the secondary players make greater inroads into sectors that absorb downstream aluminium products. Other areas that warrant special attention are lean manufacturing activities, reducing the cost of joining technologies compared with steel, developing advanced forming technologies for new markets and also going for advanced sheet and extrusion technologies. A complete understanding by the secondary smelters of the relative strength and formability of alloys as a function of hot and cold rolling, structure, reduction sequence and thermal history, factors affecting melt flow in extrusion dies, techniques/test methods to recognize sheet formability characteristics, surface qualities, computerized extrusion designs can help serve the potential customers better. On the sustainability front, the target should be on reducing emissions by up to 90 per cent, increasing reliability of manufacturing operations, improving scrap tolerant processing & alloys and making products from readily available liquid alloys.
Overcoming Technical Barriers
Unlike developed economies, secondary smelters in India are saddled with myriad barriers on the technical front. The manufacturing efficiency of such smelters is hamstrung by lack of methods to produce larger castings with thinner walls, production and application technology constraints for aluminium composites, lack of information for surface and metal chemistry, insufficient & inefficient tooling and inconsistency of incoming raw materials. Besides this, there are other technical shortcomings- lack of technology for casting hard aluminium alloys like billets, limitations in advanced forming technologies for newer and exploratory markets, limited understanding of performance of aluminium parts over a long-term and lack of automated technology to provide assured, dimensionally controlled fabricated products. Overcoming these barriers needs a focused, multi-pronged research and development agenda with emphasis on developing products that eliminate or reduce steps needed to produce end products, evaluating formability steps in manufacturing, developing integrated models that relate structural properties to manufacturing processes, performing studies on machinability of aluminium alloys, developing manufacturing processes for scrap tolerant alloys etc.
Game-plan for future: Leverage strengths to tap new markets
Finished aluminium products are gaining currency in several key markets including India. The secondary aluminium players in India can innovate to meet the emerging needs for aluminium in sectors like packaging, transportation, building and construction, and national infrastructure. India is ready for green buildings with enhanced use of aluminium as it looks to expand building floor space in a huge way. Automotive light-weighting though nascent in India, offers a huge opportunity for downstream makers to design products that cater to vehicles of the future. The makers can also explore and exploit applications of aluminium based foams in the defence sector. Another big opportunity in the offing is India’s penchant for high speed rail networks where aluminium components in rail applications promise a cut in weight of 20-30 per cent and consequential energy savings.