Lower capacity utilisation has impacted overall efficiency
In an exclusive interaction with ICR, Ashutosh Saxena, Director General (Actg.), National Council for Cement and Building Materials (NCB) is optimistic that with various infrastructure projects picking up traction, the Indian cement sector is well be on its way to recovery in the near future.
How open is the Indian industry to innovation?
Indian cement industry has been innovative and has adopted state-of-the-art technologies in areas such as resource conservation, environmental protection, energy conservation, waste utilisation, low carbon technologies, and so on. These have been witnessed in the form of increased production of Blended Cement, meeting the stringent norms of NOx, SO2 and particulate matter emissions, increased usage of alternate fuels and raw materials, formulation of code for new cements like composite cement, and a large number of other measures taken by cement plants at local levels. All these, stand testimony to the commitment of cement industry towards adopting innovative technologies and measures to meet the challenges nationally as well as globally. Cement industry itself is propagating the idea of holding seminars and conferences for dealers as well as users. A lot of knowledge is being proactively disseminated by the cement industry with the ultimate objective of promoting durable construction as also resource conservation. These two things go side by side.
What are the some of the new developments in technology that may get implemented in the near future?
We need to reduce the carbon footprint in cement manufacturing. We need to increase the utilisation of fly ash and slag in Portland Pozzolana and composite cements. That is one area. Another area is the thermal substitution of coal for its conservation. We need to use all types of alternate fuels, especially municipal solid waste (MSW) and hazardous wastes, available. Also, the ongoing research in cement seeks to minimise the clinker content. Then there are concepts of geo polymer cement and limestone calcined clay cement or LC3. In addition, concrete is in itself a very large area of R&D.
What would you regard as the most significant development in your segment?
The industry is very proactive in waste utilisation. Of late, there is a demand for banning the use of petcoke. Refineries within Indian and world over generate huge quantities of petcoke and other waste materials. The cement industry has upgraded technology and its operational skills to utilise even the low volatile content petcoke with several benefits. There is a substantial saving in coal consumption as it is directly substituted by petcoke. Moreover, because of the low ash content in petcoke, the cement industry can utilise low grade limestone even while conserving the high-grade limestone. There is a concern that that petcoke burnt in boilers releases lot of sulphur into the atmosphere. However, the intrinsic chemistry of the process is such that over 99 per cent of the sulphur present in petcoke reacts with the calcium carbonate content of the limestone to convert it into calcium sulfate. It is nothing but gypsum.
Since 4 to 6 per cent gypsum is anyway added to cement, the requirement for the mineral gypsum also comes down with the utilisation of petcoke. So, from a technical point of view, petcoke utilisation is good for resource conservation. As for the release of sulphur dioxide, there are wet scrubber and other technologies available to take care of the emission.
What are some of the other challenges before the cement industry?
The Indian cement industry's present installed capacity is over 400 million tonnes per year. But the production in the 2016-17 financial year was only around 280 million tonnes. As a result, capacity utilisation hovers around 65 per cent. Low capacity utilisation leads to overall inefficiency in every area of production. The present government is trying to do a lot for development of the housing sector and infrastructure. Therefore, I am very optimistic that within the next six months to one year, the industry will get back on course.
As India goes about vigorously building infrastructure projects quality management becomes a challenge. What is your own take on that?
As far as cement coming out of plants is concerned, there is no issue with quality because the system of quality control in India has matured over the years. We have various Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) benchmarks that have been developed based on vigorous research in institutions like ours as well as taking inputs from the European industry. Almost all cement plants in India are ISO 9001 as well as ISO 14001 compliant. In fact, some manufacturers are now going for ISO 50001 certification. The BIS has a very stringent and fool-proof system of quality inspection. It randomly collects samples to test them at our as well as other ISO 17025 accredited labs. But one concern that is lately arising pertains to mixing of fly ash at construction sites by builders. During production of slag or fly ash based Portland Pozzolana cement within the cement industry, proper care is taken about mixing and quality control. But the same slag and fly ash procured directly by the builder and mixed with Ordinary Portland Cement (OPC) grade 43 and 53 may not be as fail-proof in terms of quality. Concerned statutory authorities must take some regulatory action on controlling the quality of cement used by builders. We cannot afford to have substandard building materials to be used in infrastructure projects.
In the recent past, the very mention of the word cement implied cheap Chinese imports. Since, going forward, this might no longer be the case, what are the technologies that India can excel in and export to other parts of the world?
We are now part of a global economy. For example, FLSmidth's research centre in Chennai is its largest in the world. Similarly, there are lot of efforts for 'Make in India' in the cement industry. Several machinery manufacturers have got very large set ups in various parts of India. Designs for machines produced there are jointly developed through research carried out both within and outside India. The fabrication is mostly done by Indian companies, with specialised laboratory and quality control equipment being imported from other countries. I am sure that once the market picks up and our research and manufacturing set-up get further strengthened, we will also have facilities for world-class manufacturing of state-of-the-art laboratory and quality control equipment.
In Africa, we have line-of-credit schemes and the Indian government is doing lot of work for development of the continent. There is lot of export of cement machinery to African countries. We are also trying to expand the utilisation of cement manufacturing technology from India.
Is skilled manpower easily available for the purpose?
This is a very pertinent question. In fact, there was a trend for over a decade where the best talent would go to the IT sector. As a result, core engineering sectors like mechanical, civil, electrical, chemical and cement were deprived of best graduates or post graduates. This was a cause for concern. The government is well aware of the problem and that is why you find that some of the main missions taken up by it are in the area of skill development such as 'Skill India' and 'Make in India'. In fact, more the manufacturing sector grows, more will be the number of meritorious students taking up core engineering as a subject at India's top colleges. This will also benefit the cement industry. NCB is doing its bit in the area. We have a training centre for skill development called Centre for Continuing Education that conducts training courses for various levels of engineers in all areas of cement manufacturing as well as cement utilisation for concrete.