True as Steel
The versatile alloy continues to prove its mettle in construction, a fact that is resonated by the industry’s dependence on it
by Mitalee Kurdekar
As one of the most vital tools for construction, steel enjoys a pride of place in the construction material hierarchy. Of course, the resilient alloy has earned that spot. Whether it is used for its load bearing quality or as cladding, for its sustainability features or flexibility of use, the benefits of steel are endless. As a result, its popularity in the construction industry has only increased over time. In fact, about 50% of global steel consumption is attributed to construction alone.
China enjoys a dominant position in the world steel market, being the biggest fast-growing producer and consumer of steel. China is expected to retain this position at least up until 2025. India, along with other major countries in Asia, is churning out strong growth rates too.
Currently, India ranks as the world’s third-largest producer of crude steel, climbing dramatically from being eighth only in 2003, and is expected to notch higher and higher in the coming years. Easy domestic availability of raw iron ore and abundance of cost-effective labour contributed to this phenomenal rise in standing for the Indian steel industry.
But the most gratifying feature of this growth saga is that the Indian steel industry now boasts modernised mills with state-of-the-art processes implemented within. During this period, the industry has gone in for continuous up-gradation of production facilities, regardless of the high cost of such investments. Official statistics suggest that the steel sector in India contributes to nearly two per cent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and employs over 600,000 people.
The big boom
The steel that is needed by the construction industry has undergone significant changes over a period, in line with business requirements of users. Apart from specialised structural steel used in infrastructure projects, the steel used in realty projects requires to have higher strength and elongation to bear and sustain huge loads, while preventing any brittle failures over the life span of such structures.
Commenting on the same, Vikram Amin, executive director, strategy & business development, Essar Steel India, says that their products like E25, E350 and E450 are most relevant for the construction industry. He adds, “Till recently, the main product used in construction was E250, with a strength of about 250 N/sq mm. However, when one uses a low strength product, one has to use more quantity and this increases the static load of the building, which has an effect on the foundation and other areas. E350 of Essar increases the strength by almost 30% over E250, and this is benefitting construction companies. We believe many companies are now shifting to E350 products for construction. Interestingly, E350 is the standard product for construction in Europe.” Essar also provides another variant, E450, which has a still higher strength, albeit at a higher price. What a real estate developer uses is therefore a matter of individual requirement and choice.
Omkar Realtors & Developers, for instance, consume a whopping amount of steel, to the tune of around 20,000MT in a year. “We mainly we use steel rebars; structural steel members like channels, angles, plates and i-girders; steel pipes; and high tensile (HT) wires in our construction works. Of these, the major quantity is steel rebars for the construction of building structures,” states Rajendra Varma, director, Omkar Realtors & Developers.
Steel rebars, also termed as reinforcing steel or deformed bar, are made of carbon steel and most often used as a tensioning device in reinforced concrete or concrete masonry, making them an important element in construction. Structural steel, on the other hand, is used in a specific shape, size or cross section.
The Runwal Group relies on both versions, using them for their many benefits. “Steel’s primary purpose is to form the skeleton for the building or structure; it holds everything together. It does not take time for curing, which makes the construction process easier and faster. Moreover, it has a higher strength-to-weight ratio, thus making it an ideal construction material. Additionally, it possesses a consistency with 100% recycling efficiency, where the production of wastage is only 2%, which makes it more eco-friendly. This makes steel versatile and more acceptable by architects,” points out Prashant Mewada, EVP, projects, Runwal Group, adding that his company utilises about 7,500 MT per year.
Strength in versatility
Advancements in steel technology are making buildings safer, while their pre-assembly off site helps erect structures faster too. And with construction starting to pick up in recent months, steel consumption is bound to be on the rise. There is still a dichotomy regarding the cost of steel, when compared to other inputs – mainly cement – if one looks at it in isolation, without direct and indirect benefits. Therefore, vendors often would like to bring out the fact succinctly.
Amin clarifies this point well when he suggests, “The assumption about higher cost of steel is based on the cost of a tonne of steel compared to a tonne of cement. However, the amount of steel needed is lower than the amount of cement by several times and this narrows the gap in cost significantly.”
He also professes, “Further reduction is achieved by steel due to faster construction, lesser manpower usage, better quality, better end-of-life scrap value, etc. It has been proved globally that steel is less expensive than any other construction materials, if one takes into account the speed of construction, recyclability and longevity. Further, for buildings over 16 storeys in height, the basic design cost of steel structures is lower.”
Varma agrees, saying, “The use of steel rebars and HT wires for prestressing in concrete members has significantly reduced the sizes of these concrete members and increased the space utilisation to a maximum extent. Apart from this, use of light-weight steel members, like pressed steel members in construction, has reduced the handling efforts significantly, thus increasing the speed of construction. The composite structures are more strong, durable and high resistant to environmental impacts, hence extensively used in high-rise construction.”
Ashok Mohanani, CMD, Ekta World, echoes this sentiment, saying, “Steel not only provides support and strength to the building structure but also adds to the style and enhances the look of a building. Being a light material, the use of steel, as a construction material, speeds up the construction work with reduced maintenance and cost. Without the use of steel, we would see a considerable rise in the cost of construction as the other substitutes are more expensive and are not as resistant to corrosion.”
Friend of the Soil
In addition to its versatility of use, steel is also known for its eco-friendly nature and can be recycled up to 95% after each life cycle. The pollution caused during the production of steel from scrap is lower than from alternative materials, including cement.
Elaborating on this, Amin says, “Apart from easy recyclability, steel products do not spoil the environment from packaging waste or site work waste. Also, steel construction helps control sand mining and hence protects the green environment. Steel products can be brought pre-fabricated to site and simply bolted at site. In addition to this, steel super structures also reduce pollution indirectly by requiring smaller foundations due to lower dead load of building.”
In this context, industry analysts opine that companies are now likely to spend more on environment-friendly activities, because of the Government intiatives to uplift displaced/project-affected locals by allocating high percentage of their profits and implementing environmental laws.
Tata Steel, a major player in the industry, emphasises their focus on sustainability by claiming, “We first look at what we can do for others, while keeping a very close eye on what we do ourselves. We invest in the short term in energy efficiency programmes at all of our plants and in schemes to reduce dust, noise and pollutants from our processes. We also invest for the long-term in new technologies to make steel with less environmental impact.”
Advancing with technology
Steel produced today is made with advanced technology, known as Thermo Mechanically Treated (TMT) bars, which has a better strength than used earlier and also results in savings in the quantity of steel required. Explaining this, Vipul Shah, MD, Parinee Group, states, “Technologically advanced steel has helped in cost saving and results in a better product in terms of quality and reliability.” He proudly adds that they use the best quality steel materials across all their projects.
Maulik Sheth, director, Sheth Corp, confirms that they use approximately 2,800 MT of steel in a calendar year, adding, “We are using high yield strength deformed bars of Grade Fe 500, thus conforming to the highest standards. Because of high yield strength, the consumption of steel is reduced and we can avoid the conjunction of steel at junctions, resulting in better quality concrete.”
It is predicted that the steel industry will turn more and more high tech in the future, with a number of workers in plants replaced by robots. As a result, the steel business will evolve quickly over the coming decade. Besides cost advantages in the ultimate analysis, such lean and fit organisations would see opportunities to make quick technological advancements in such scenarios. When Foxconn in China recently announced its plans to swap workers with robots, nobody took them seriously, but they went ahead and replaced 60,000 workers with robots. It is proven that, today, robots can do everything to the finest detail.
The Government’s resolve
According to ministry reports, the Government of India is aiming to scale up steel production in the country. To aid in this, the Parliament of India has already approved amendments to enable companies to transfer captive mine leases similar to mines won through an auction, and this is expected to result in consolidations and economies of large scale, similar to China. The Government also has plans to invest in the modernisation and expansion of public sector steel plants such as those of Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL) and Rashtriya Ispat Nigam Limited (RINL).
Although the growth in India’s steel industry has been hampered these past few years by regulatory and environmental hurdles, land acquisition issues and public ire resulting from displacements, industry players are encouraged by strong governmental support. The demand for steel is expected to race ahead on the back of the huge scope for growth offered by India’s comparatively low per capita steel consumption and the expected rise in consumption, especially due to increased infrastructure development and construction, going forward.