In an interaction with Industry Outlook, Jagmohan Sood, Director, Jindal Stainless (Hisar) Limited, shares his views on the current trends in the steel industry and the role of new technology adoption in the evolution of the industry.
India has emerged as the second largest crude producer of stainless steel. How do you see the current stainless steel industry in India? What are the major factors driving its growth?
production and consumption in India have been on a growth trajectory; total production reaching 3.92 MMT (million metric tonnes) in CY2019. With a per capita consumption of 2.5 kg in 2019, against 1.2 kg in 2010, Indian stainless steel consumption registered an increase of over 100 percent in a period of just eight years. This growth has been fueled by the transformation of the Indian infrastructural landscape in the last three decades, with stainless steel increasingly being adopted for modern public applications. The metal’s demand in India has been accelerating in various segments in both B2B and B2C spaces, with Automotive, Railways Transport (ART) and Architecture, Building, Construction (ABC) segments, including process industries like oil & gas, playing key roles.
The government’s consistent emphasis on optimizing Life Cycle Cost (LCC) for infrastructural applications has paved the way for all major projects in railway and metros to embrace stainless steel. The government has initiated upgradation and modernization of railway infrastructure, particularly with use of stainless steel in developing foot-over and rail-over bridges and station infrastructure, along with under-frames for railway coaches. Usage of stainless steel in the automobile sector is also increasing due to recently introduced BSVI (Bharat Stage VI) compliance. Despite the pandemic-induced plummet in demand in the first quarter, we are witnessing a V-Shaped recovery, with further improvement in domestic stainless steel consumption on the cards.
What are the major challenges in new technology adoption in the steel industry? How can those challenges be addressed?
Indian steel manufacturers stand at varied points across the spectrum of industry’s digital transformation. A few firms are already deploying AI (artificial intelligence) for production gains and minimizing losses, while others are exploring opportunities to upgrade business intelligence using AI and analytics. The steel sector is already amid challenges when it comes to technological transformation. These challenges have now been exacerbated because of the pandemic. Some of them are:
High Capex: The steel industry is highly capital intensive. This limits free cash flow allocation for investments in new or unproven technologies. Hence, the switching time from one technology to another is challenging. Since, initial costs associated with any new technology are high, capital is a major deterrence for initiating technology transition projects.
Trained Workforce: Limited availability of trained workforce for applying any new technology necessitates high expenditure on training of resources, with limited output at times, thereby making it challenging.
Infrastructure: Various companies (especially the smaller steel companies) have relatively old infrastructure, which make any modification difficult to implement and manage.
Despite the above mentioned challenges, it is evident that embracing new technology is inevitable for sustainable operations. The steel industry needs to address these challenges to further enhance competitiveness and productivity, and add innovative products to their baskets in order to target new markets. The organizations moving towards digitization must understand that it is a journey with long-term benefits. Rapid and smooth deployment of some market-proven tools and initiatives can help companies test the waters and solve existing problems in the short-term and prepare themselves for future large-scale digitization.
For most Indian steel makers, managing logistics requirements is arduous, challenging and costly. How do you propose to address this challenge?
Unlike China, Japan or Korea, most of the Indian steel plants are geographically landlocked. This adds to the challenge of managing logistics requirements for most steel plants in India. Transportation through roadways for bulk materials is economically unviable. Railways is therefore preferred by steel makers, with more than 80 percent of their total logistics requirements being met through the railway network.
However, Railways also face serious infrastructure constraints. Overdependence of the Indian Railways on revenue from freight traffic, especially from bulk commodities, is one of them. It is well documented that the freight cost of moving materials through the railways, both raw materials and finished goods, is amplified as passenger traffic is subsidized from freight earnings by the Indian Railways. NITI Aayog estimates a relative cost disadvantage for Indian steelmakers at USD 20–25 per tonne of finished steel.
Several initiatives can be undertaken to improve competitiveness, rationalize costs and ensure faster movement of goods:
- A major thrust on expanding railway connectivity
- Fast tracking the implementation of industrial corridors
- Upgradation of physical infrastructure