‘Technology upgrades and re-skilling of manpower at all levels would be the way forward’

G Chandrashekhar September 23 | Updated on September 23, 2020 Published on September 23, 2020

Economic growth and consumption of metals are correlated. Metallurgy and materials engineering are integral to utilising the natural resources that mines provide. As a rapidly developing economy, India’s growing consumption of metals and alloys is set for a further boost in the coming years. Indian Institute of Metals (IIM) plays a catalytic role in promoting metals, especially critical metals and earths. BusinessLine caught up with Amol Gokhale (Professor, Mechanical Engineering at Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai), who recently took charge as the new President of IIM. Excerpts from the interview:

What is importance of metals for the Indian economy?

For millennia, metallic materials have played a critical role in the global economy as evidenced by Iron Age and Bronze Age, named after metals and alloys. The rise of UK, USA, Japan and, more recently China, was driven by metal industries. In the last fifty years, the importance of engineered ceramics, polymers and composites grew due to innovations in processing and improvements in properties. Although India is endowed with vast reserves of ores of major industrial and a few strategic metals, they currently contribute to a mere 2 per cent of the Indian GDP. India is forced to import many metals and alloys. Engineering systems are the key drivers of our economy and use metals heavily. While critical metals command higher revenues, India does not have a strong industrial base in this area, unlike China, for instance, which leverages its strengths in rare earth metals.

What are the major challenges that the Indian metals industry is facing, and possible solutions?

Very few Indian metal industries can claim technology leadership at the global level. In particular, small players face technology obsolescence and shortage of highly-skilled human resources. For certain metals, Indian ores are becoming scarce and leaner, increasing the processing costs. The metal industries that depend on imported ores or concentrates face price fluctuations in the international market. Also, industries which do not adhere to strict environmental standards find it difficult to stay in proximity to the growing residential areas, which forces them to relocate to remote areas. Secondary metal industries such as foundries operating at low margins are facing losses in the current Covid-19 situation, and their production levels have dropped to 50 per cent. Technology upgrades and re-skilling of manpower at all levels would be the way forward.

How will the metals sector face the dilemma of ‘growth v/s environment’?

IIM would like to promote the philosophy of ‘Growth with Environment’. Technological solutions to control effluents exist, but implementation is key. As awareness about environmental issues rises and land available for industrialisation begins to shrink, industries in close proximity to human populations and protected forests face risks. IIM advocates accepting and addressing (and not denying) the problems, find workable solutions and follow the path that is equitable to the industries and the people in the long term. There are opportunities in areas such as solid waste management, development of value-added products out of industrial waste, efficient recovery of values from by-products, recycling, etc. We would like to develop a platform to facilitate use of waste / by-products from one industry as an alternate raw material for another industry. It will address waste management and help reduce import of many critical metals and materials.

India has ambitious programs like space exploration, defence production and EV foray; but strategic materials are scarce. How should the country handle the situation?

Although strategic materials command high value, their demand is relatively low and unpredictable. The techno-commercial feasibility of establishing production of such materials is often poor from an investment view point. But we need access to such materials when required, since global supply risks are high. So, we need policies and strategies for stockpiling, accessing raw materials from friendly countries through diplomatic interventions, providing support to domestic production, investing in special infrastructure, and linking various players in a manner that the complete value chains for such materials become robust and sustainable. Importantly, science and technology need to be supported through academic, R&D and pilot production programs. The strategic program managers must continually interact with the materials community. Production of REE (rare earth element) metals will not be viable until industries are established to produce REE magnets and components that are ultimately used in systems required for defence, space and other strategic sector. There is a felt-need to establish complete value chain for critical metals for self-reliance.

Any thoughts on the future skill needs of the country?

For metal industries, digital skills will become important as Automation, Industry 4.0, Smart Manufacturing and Machine Learning will control shop floors of tomorrow. They will first penetrate secondary manufacturing industries and then enter the primary metals sector. Metallurgy professionals need to hone their mathematical, statistical and computational skills. Multi-scale modelling and simulations, and sophisticated characterisation of materials will pave the way for better understanding and development of tomorrow’s high-performance materials.

The Covid-19 crisis has demonstrated the need for digitalisation and remote access systems due to restrictions on factory attendance and travel. Industry needs to have more process and operational data available online which can be used by experts from any location for assessment and decision-making. Predictive and prescriptive models are also required for supporting the operation and for the control room staff to take timely decisions. This has changed the skill needs significantly. Metal industry will have to work hard to adopt these technology changes on a war-footing and this is only possible by reskilling the existing manpower and by recruiting new skills. IIM has already initiated programs for developing online training and reskilling in critical areas using the vast experience of its senior members from industries and academia.

How does IIM propose to advance the PM’s Atmanirbhar Bharat objective?

A country becomes self-reliant when it gains sovereign control over its resources and technologies. Thus, a self-reliant country can engage in import and export, and remain part of the global supply chain. Several Indian magnet manufacturers face the risk of shut down if they are not allowed to import rare earth metal from China until India is able to make and sell them at competitive rates. Similarly, our resources for many metals are too lean. So, we have to access mining rights in friendly countries.

Rare earth metals and products — tungsten powder, calcium, lithium, cobalt, high-end aerospace, Al-alloys and magnesium — are some of the metals which need to be produced in the country in a techno-commercially feasible manner. Titanium sponge is being produced, but the technology to use off-grade sponge will make it a commercially attractive venture.

Recently, IIM prepared a National Strategic Materials Policy framework and its implementation methodology. The policy, when promulgated, will pave the way to establish centres for critical materials technologies and allow stockpiling of critical materials and products. Further it envisages funding to create academic centres which work on long-term basis on issues concerning research, design, development and deployment issues.

Many critical metals need affordable and sustained supply of energy. The government can allocate renewable energy under the proposed agreements with State governments to energy parks where critical metals can be produced and recycled.

However, boosting consumption demand is a big question. Critical materials can certainly play their role in reviving the economy and give leverage to the government in future in international diplomacy. Our institute can help identify priority areas and advise on road maps to attain self-reliance in critical metals.

(The writer is a policy commentator and commodities market specialist)

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Published on September 23, 2020
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