Carborundum Universal Limited (CUMI) is part of Murugappa Group of Companies. CUMI was incorporated about 65 years ago as a tripartite collaboration between the Murugappa Group, The Carborundum Co., USA and the Universal Grinding Wheel Co. Ltd., UK. It is the first manufacturing venture for the group which was set up in Chennai in 1954. N Ananthaseshan, MD, CUMI in a video interaction with Industrial Products Finder (IPF) delves into the challenges before the Indian refractory market and attaining self-sufficiency in some segments.
Tell us how CUMI serves the industry?
CUMI was largely a manufacturer of bonded and coated abrasives. The company successfully did backward integration by manufacturing the raw materials. These are popularly known as synthetic ceramic ranges comprising aluminium oxide and silicon carbide, which are used in both refractories and abrasives.
Along the way, the company also ventured into refractory manufacturing and later on into manufacturing of silicon carbide in the late 80s. At the same time, the company became 100 per cent Indian company buying the stakes from both the other partners. Since 2000, the company started growing domestically and globally as well.
Today, the company has a presence in about 7 countries. Of all the 28 facilities, 20 are in India and rest outside. The largest facility is of silicon carbide manufacturing plant located in Russia, acquired in 2007. We also have a joint venture in Australia for industrial ceramics, a fusion facility for manufacturing zirconia in South Africa and conversion operations in Thailand.
Today, the company is a leader in the industrial ceramics segment. These are known for wear, corrosion and electrical resistance. Some key applications are high temperature wear resistance, high temperature thermal containment materials or the electrical resistance property, which is used for high voltage transmission, clean energy applications like solid oxide fuel cells.
The company also has a presence in the composites division, where FRPs and carbon reinforced composites addresses both mobility and energy sector.
How big is the Indian refractory market?
The term refractory means a material that withstands high temperature and takes high load while not changing its chemistry to avoid deforming. Refractories are broadly classified based on their alkalinity or the ‘ph’ of the material into acidic and neutral; or based on their form. Bricks are formed refractory products that can be used in a furnace and cement falls under the unformed type.
Considering the nature of their applications, refractories are largely well-poised in the iron and steel manufacturing segment globally. They are also used in industries such as cement, non-ferrous metals, glass, carbon black, fertilizers, chemical and many more.
India is a significant producer of steel. The Indian refractory market is estimated to be $ 1 billion. Indian refractory market comprises silica-based, common clay; high end products like fused alumina, magnesia, zirconia, graphite etc – as you go up you will find more performance materials.
Today, India has all the global refractory manufacturers which was not the case initially. The availability of the minerals like bauxite, aluminium, clay and other minerals is making refractory market viable in India. However, India relies on Chinese imports of fused-minerals. These minerals are available in India but not in the volumes required.
In India, CUMI manufactures about 50, 000 tonne of refractory raw materials. These materials are largely fused alumina and silicon carbide. The Russia facility produces 85, 000 tonne of silicon carbide.
Globally about 60-65 per cent of the refractory market supplies to the iron and steel industry which is quite similar to the Indian context as well. Other markets are cement, non-ferrous, aluminium, copper, zinc, glass and carbon black.
As the government increases its spending on materials other than steel then definitely the refractory market would grow.
How has Covid 19 impacted the refractory market?
CUMI is a manufacturer of shaped and unshaped refractories. The raw materials for these are largely sourced in house. Our raw material capacity is not merely restricted to serve our needs, rather is extended to the customers in India, including our competitors.
Due to our self-sufficiency, we have not seen any major disruptions in our supplies. This helps us to be available with our full range to answer all kinds of demands from our customers.
There have been some disruptions in the raw material availability from China. China went into lockdown in early January 2020. It was followed by a shutdown due to their new year in early February 2020. Most of the industries were closed during this long duration, keeping shipping lines choked. This led to a disruption in bulk raw materials supply from China. The Jan-March 2020 quarter experienced a steep slide in imports from China. This is also due to the demand contraction.
How is CUMI dealing with Covid 19 challenge?
Our 18 manufacturing facilities and 2 of our power generation units in the country are opened and running. Our Chennai facility is affected due to the lockdown and is currently operating with 40 per cent manpower. Due to the temporary labour moving out, there were some challenges in the power units but those have stabilised now. We have supported them by paying them their salaries on time. We also campaigned to create awareness on health and hygiene at home. We haven’t seen any major impact on our operations due to the migrant labour.
Tell us about some key
modifications incorporated in your operations due to the pandemic?
The MHE Guidelines were issued by the government by 2nd week of April stating some changes about hygiene and social distancing to combat the virus. We have implemented these guidelines at all our locations.
New arrangements at the operations are such as thermal scanning at the points of entry; sanitisation at regular intervals and changes in processes. For example, the taps and sanitisers across the plant are now converted into touch-free operation for safety.
We have social distancing norms in place. Restructuring of the processes has been done to maintain 6 feet distance among workers. We are currently focussing on identifying methods and investing in processes that would automate some of the material handling and movement between stations. It is easier to abide by the social distancing guidelines in factories where there is discrete manufacturing but in continuous process plants, becomes a bit difficult.
When would the refractory market stabilise?
China is the prime source of some raw materials. China has an edge over India in some raw material supplies like brown fused alumina, white fused alumina or bauxite. China is also bauxite supplier to the world and as it is available in plenty. It is not so easy to replace China overnight or in a short span but it is possible in some of the materials. In doing so, there would be a need to restart some of the closed down facilities.
We are currently looking at developing new products to our markets based on the demand. All our long-term plans that were decided and established in the pre-Covid time will continue its progression. We may have to make some corrections in the process or timelines.
Share with us about your recent expansion for abrasives?
Our facility at Sriperumbudur located in Kanchipuram district in Tamil Nadu manufactures coated abrasives. This segment of abrasives is growing faster globally. We also engage in manufacturing abrasives for precision engineering requirements like those of CNC machines. Before the expansion work started, the facility was already running at its 90 per cent capacity. Looking at the growth in the domestic and international markets we decided to expand the capacity. Abrasives have come a long way from shaping to finishing surfaces or polishing them. Once we move out of this Covid time, we will explore this arena well.
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