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Steel going strong

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The Essar Steel plant at Hazira has several firsts to its credit

BY INDIRA RAO

 

ssar Steel is completing its entire capital expenditure plan and now plans to ramp up production at its steel-making facility in Hazira and raw-material-processing plant in Odisha. This will increase the company’s revenues and operating margins. However, given the nature of the steel industry, most manufacturers are being challenged by a global slump in steel prices. According to a recent report by BNP Paribas, steel supply including imports in India grew by 13.3% in 2014-15, while demand rose only 3.1%, leading to sharp rise in inventories.

However, the country is currently caught up in the PM’s manifesto to manufacture at least one item domestically, which is currently imported. The manifesto also says that the quality of these products should be such that they not only remain import substitutes but also advance to a situation wherein we are able to export such items.

Essar Steel trotted on this path, way before, when in 2009 they commissioned their plate mill plant at Hazira, Gujarat. Set up with an investment of around Rs 2,500, it is the first plant in India to have rolled the widest plate of 5m. This is also the first mill in India to roll extra high strength plate in strength levels of 1,700 Mpa.

The general strength of the plates used in space applications and battle tanks is usually around 900 Mpa but Essar successfully manufactured steel with the strength levels up to 1,700 Mpa. “For the first time in India such steel was manufactured for defence purposes. This steel has excellent ballistic resistance properties,” averred M Venkatraman, senior VP and head, R&D, Essar Steel India.

Adding to their list of firsts is also the kind of steel being produced for rocket motor casings. Rocket motor casings need extremely high strength fire resistant steels. Today, maraging steel is used to make this casing which is most expensive. “Essar can commercially produce an equal, which is going to be used in rocket motor casings, for the first time probably in the world, and definitely in India. It is also an alternative for battle tanks to reduce the weight. This is our indigenous design using less alloy addition,” informed Venkatraman.

The company also caters to the nuclear arena. India Atomic Energy has plans to develop a neutrino detector, for which they need huge amounts of special magnetic steel and have placed an order with Essar for the same. Venkatraman added, “The India Plasma Research Institute has approved our soft magnetic steel to be used in the development of neutrino detectors. This is again a first time. Hence, it is not simple to say that Essar has developed steels which were earlier imported. It is an understatement of our capabilities. We are strong not only in developing import substitutes but also creating new kinds of steel.”

He adds that Essar also supplies bulletproof steel as well as personal armour carriers/armoured vehicles to the defence sector, which were imported until now. For the naval sector, they were the first to successfully execute steel for warships. This is in addition to the other sectors they successfully cater to including line pipes, yellow goods, boiler and pressure vessels and ship building and construction.

t’s interesting to know that the company started exporting the plate mills within a year of commissioning the plant. “In 2010-11 we mainly catered to the domestic market with import substitution products. Today, our share of exports has increased substantially,” says Santosh Mundhada, CEO, plate mill, Essar Steel.

Since these plates are specialised products they need to go through stringent approval processes. “We got almost 300 approvals from large customers, government agencies, etc. and because of those accreditations we could get our product in the export market.” They are also one of the few plate mills in the world to be permitted to use the American Petroleum Institute (API) monogram on the products as well as get an API certification. “This is a prestigious accreditation,” said Mundhada.

Elucidating the importance they lay on quality principles, he stated an example of a foreign oil drilling company that placed their order with them when the mill was just a year old. “Their tank had to go 130m deep in the sea, and it had four compartments. It had to stay there for a minimum of 25 years. Eight thousand tonne plates were required to make one single tank and I think this was one of our fastest delivered export orders. We manufactured, tested every plate and handed them over to the port within a month,” says Mundhada.

This couldn’t have been done without having an exceptional execution strategy. The manufacturing process at the plate mill starts when they take the iron ore and make pellets. Essar also has an iron making plant where they further use the pellets. “Pellets are solid refined iron, which are converted into liquid iron. Liquid iron is taken into the melting shops where impurities are taken out. Pure iron is made in these furnaces. We need to add metals to the iron, depending on what kind of steel we have to make. At this stage it is called liquid steel,” elucidated Mundhada.

Briefly the process consists of making steel in electric arc furnaces from direct reduced sponge and liquid iron from blast furnace and Corex. “It is then cast into slabs and these are rolled in coil or plate form. These slabs are heated in the reheating furnaces, up to 1,250o C. The moment steel comes out of the furnace and into contact with air, it gets oxidised and scales are formed. The scales formed are removed by a powerful descaler, a huge water jet machine, at almost 300 bar pressure. These slabs are then rolled at the rolling mill to the desired thickness,” explained Mundhada.

The final properties depend on the roll pass schedule as well as the cooling strategy. Even the cooling has to be controlled and uniform. When the plate enters the machine, it enters at a different temperature due to radiation. Predicting this temperature, they have to adjust the water so that the portion cooled earlier and that of the plate is the same.

“It is not directly linear, because steel behaves differently. So when you cool it by the water, it has an internal chemical reaction. Hence, very precise control of rolling process and cooling is required,” asserted Mahadevan.

Also, in case where plates require special treatment they have a heat treatment line where they can induce further strength in normal steel.

he facility operates as a one stop solution for its customers as it is completely integrated. “We went for all the best technologies in the world and integrated it into this mill,” says Mundhada.

He added, “It is our indigenous design and technology to develop customised products that meet critical end applications as per stringent international specifications that sets us apart. This is done by adopting cost effective and high quality modern technologies and seamlessly integrating it with existing processes. Backed by a strong R&D team, our plate mill is geared up to meet any challenge the market demands.”

“Another factor that sets us apart is the plate mill itself. In the plate mill, even if slabs of the same chemical makeup are there and I heat, roll and cool it differently, it will give a different product. Most important of all is the tolerances/specifications,” stressed Mundhada.

This mill has 10,000 tonne capacity and is powered by two motors which are 10MW each. “They can run at 250% of their capacity,” says Mundhada. The company invested 0.19% of their turnover on R&D; approximately around Rs 20 crores in 2014-15. “There has to be value proposition to every product we sell. Quality is no longer the only differentiator especially in the plate market. It has to be highly engineered and therein lays our strength,” says Venkatraman.

He adds that their plates have excellent surface quality and finish and this is important because today’s cutting methodology is based on laser. “The gap between the plate and the laser cutting beam is hardly 6mm and if the shape of the plate is distorted then the final shape of the product will not be as per the design. Thus, our unique capabilities include wider width, excellent surface quality and finish, and also extreme flatness by removing the stresses,” says Venkatraman.

In essence, Essar has made some breakthrough initiatives and demonstrated it through efforts. It has for the first time indigenously developed key products for the defence, space and atomic energy applications. “Going forward, our plan is to enrich the product mix with value added additions,” concluded Venkatraman.

 

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