Casting the future in Aluminium – Times of India

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Bharat Gite is an Indo-German product with a Master degree from RWTH Aachen in Foundry Technology and worked in multinational companies BMW, Mahle in Process Development in Fo … MORE
India defines its path in the world of intricate, customized aluminium castings.
Aluminium being the metal of the future, the developed world moved in that direction decades ago, to the extent that, on an average, their automobiles use close to 180 kg of it, against India’s 45 kg. In other sectors too, the world has moved ahead, with automotive making up 23% of overall usage, construction 22%, packaging 13%, electrical 12%, machinery and equipment 8.5%, consumer durables 4.5%, and others 4%.
There are attributes to the metal that has made the world change from ferrous metals to aluminium. It is lightweight, doesn’t corrode, is strong and durable, conducts heat and electricity, is flexible where needed and impermeable otherwise, and remains highly recyclable. A US study estimates a 6-8% fuel savings for every 10% weight reduction achieved by switching to aluminium in vehicles. With a life span of 40 to 50 years, it is increasingly finding application in the building and construction industry as well. Add to that the metal’s recyclability, which can take place endlessly for only a 5% increment in energy and emissions. A World Bank study states that the metal is extremely crucial to achieving a low carbon footprint when used in wind and solar energy generation, besides energy storage batteries.
India’s tryst with aluminium, on the other hand, has been a mixed bag. We are the world’s 4th largest alumina producer, 3rd largest aluminium producer, and 5th largest consumer, with abundant quantities of some of the best bauxite anywhere. Yet, our per capita consumption at 2.5 kgs against the world’s 11 kgs leaves a lot to be desired. It also gives hope of building an entire aluminium industry ecosystem. As of now, its usage is just 2% of the GDP, compared to steel at 12%, and cement at 9%.
That said, India has its share of both upstream miners and producers and downstream consumers in varied forms. The latter include extrusions, aluminium flat-rolled products (FRP), and standardized casting. Where India lags compared to other countries in the west and China is in the field of specialized, large-sized, non-standardized aluminium castings. While forming critical parts of industries as far apart as power generation and distribution, healthcare, defence and railways, aerospace and marine, these were, till a while back, majorly imported against large sums of forex. Used in industries of immense significance to India’s economy and security, their imports exposed India’s soft underbelly.
That, thankfully, could be a thing of the past. While the world battled the Covid pandemic, India went about quietly creating some of its most complex and intricate large-sized aluminium castings using a tough though innovative means, the proprietary sand-moulds. Backed by resources, including the right knowhow comparable to the west, products finally derived are of exceptionally high quality and meet the most stringent requirements of industries worldwide.
One industry that has found immense help from these home-grown aluminium castings is transmission and distribution (T&D) in the power sector. A YOY growth in energy demand exceeding 10% with a healthy mix of renewables and non-renewables is leading to an increase in the setting up of electrical infrastructure, including Air Insulated Switchgears (AIS) that for most parts, has remained the standard in power distribution networks. These, however, have some obvious drawbacks, like the need for large spaces for installation and issues arising from installing high-voltage components in the open with the potential risks. With open land getting increasingly scarce, space to install such equipment is pushing the industry into a tight spot, more so in urban areas and hilly regions. An option that simultaneously takes care of all these concerns is the Gas Insulated Switchgear (GIS).
Here, the entire gamut of fuses, connectors, switches, and circuit breakers are enclosed in a solid and secure aluminium casing that can be installed in relatively constrained conditions or even underground.
The aluminium outer casings of GIS, made entirely to order, cannot be standardized on size and weight. In most cases of immense proportions and intricacies, producing these calls for the use of the right technology, experience, and a high degree of expertise that few have globally and fewer still in India. That said, these are now made in India and supplied to known T&D entities within and outside the country.
Also on the cards are complex engine blocks and parts of high-performance machines of critical, defence-related significance that need to be made of aluminium to take advantage of the metal’s efficacious, including lower weight and zero corrosion. In some cases, despite being a single mass, these blocks are the fusion of numerous cores put together using contemporary technology, simultaneous engineering, and innovations.
Healthcare is another area where non-standardized large aluminium castings are making a difference, particularly in cath labs, scanners, and MRIs. Their enclosures and bodies being of aluminium, they get to take advantage of the metal’s relatively lower maintenance needs and other positives. Large in dimensions, they bring the added challenge of maintaining dimensional accuracy and to address the same for longevity, fall within the purview of a special alloy, a class with its own set of issues for foundries to cast to suitable parameters. The marine and aerospace industries in India are also creating favourable conditions for the use of aluminium castings in critical areas.
Aluminium being corrosion resistant, one industry benefiting immensely, is building & construction. Borrowing from the likes of the Titanic Museum of the UK and Commerzbank Tower of Frankfurt, India is seeing an increasing use of cladding, facades, beautification, and ornamentation in aluminium be it in the form of FRPs or extrusion-derived products. In the future, adding to this ensemble could be rough, cast-aluminium facades and products meant to bring out the right gravelly look and feel. These could challenge both wrought iron and plastics.
Examples such as these abound to show that while India has the needs, today it also has the capacity to challenge foreign know-how, both within and outside India, and bring about products that match the best in the world. In times to come, such marvels of aluminium castings shall make themselves available to a broad spectrum of industries worldwide!
Make in India we will. Supply to the world we can.
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Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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