Flying High

Cover Story

SR Mukherjee, CEO, Tata Advanced Materials Ltd (TAML) on how the company is spreading its wings and making its presence felt in the aerospace sector.

by jayashree kini-mendes

One trend that has made flying pleasant and more comfortable is the use of carbon-reinforced plastic composites. Most passengers might not notice the difference, but when one is flying at 35,000 feet, the air pressure outside an aeroplane is extremely low, so airliners pressurise the cabin to bring it to a level closer to what is experienced on the ground or at 8,000 feet above sea level. Though flying is a sedentary activity, altitude can often hamper sleep and is the reason for jet-lag.

This is where carbon-reinforced plastic composites come in. If the airplane is all aluminium, then it is bound to struggle to withstand the larger pressure differential that would arise from bringing cabin pressure below the 8,000-feet level. Using composites allows the airline to control the cabin pressure much more effectively and makes flying pleasant.
Some of the common composite materials used on airplanes are fibreglass, carbon fibre, fibre-reinforced matrix systems, or a combination of the above. The composite material has been around for more than half a century, but it is only in the last two decades or so that the focus has been stronger.

Patience: The big virtue
Way back in 1989, Tata Industries believed that it had an unusual mandate. It sought to create core businesses that would not conflict with other Tata companies’ activities. With Ratan Tata at the helm, the company made several strategic plans and focusing on high-tech was the best answer. Besides other initiatives, one of them was Matrix Materials. Its core business was to manufacture various products utilising advanced materials and composites. SR Mukherjee, CEO, Tata Advanced Materials Ltd (TAML), says, “The early initiative focused on Kevlar and to a certain extent on carbon fibre, and the products were accessories for the defence segment. We started with ballistic vests and helmets and then along with Tata Motors moved to making plates for armoured vehicle. By the mid-90s, we had started working with leading industrial houses to make applications for medical technology.”

It has since then shed making medical technology components but continues with ballistic vests and helmets and parts of armoured vehicles. Simultaneously, it also donned a new name as Tata Advanced Materials Ltd (TAML).
Considering the volatile nature of the defence business in India, where L1 (Lowest Cost) is the criteria for awarding contracts, TAML found it difficult to find new applications for its products. In case of aerospace customers, there are hosts of safety and quality criteria that had to be met, which meant that everyone involved had to invest time and money. Aerospace customers also demand that the composite manufacturing company showcase a few of its products and TAML, at that time, found it to be an expensive affair. But patience, perseverance and foresightedness have always been the hallmarks of Tata companies and that is the reason TAML decided to invest for the future.

From early 2000 to 2007, TAML had bagged key contracts from ISRO and HAL who were looking for a supplier to provide critical composites to go on their satellites, launchers and helicopters. However, Mukherjee admits, that TAML got initial hand-holding on technology and consultancy from ISRO’s, Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre. This emboldened the company to make solar panel substrates, deck plates, yokes, inter-stage assemblies, among other things.

Today, its 16-acre facility at Jigani Industrial Estate in Bengaluru is a testimony to the grit and perseverance of what a company can achieve if it sets its mind to the job. It is now comparable to any world class facility for doing hand laid up composite parts anywhere in the world.

While personally, Mukherjee has not been part of that arduous journey (he joined the company in October 2014), nor has he worked with the aerospace or defence industry before, he has fully well understood the inner workings of the industry.

The use of composites has come a long way as far as aircraft are concerned. In the early 90s, composites formed a small proportion of 5-10% in an aircraft. Today, for instance, Boeing’s Dreamliner and Airbus’s A350 has over 50% of the aircraft made of composites. Mukherjee says, “I understand that the use of composites has even trickled to applications such as tennis racquets, surfboards, and performance cars.”

However, he is certain that the aerospace industry works on a different plane. “No other industry has the kind of checks in place like the aerospace and defence industry. When an aerospace company floats an RFQ, it typically takes six months to one year to assess the prospective supplier and finalise the company. To even bag a contract, one has to undergo manifold checks and certifications as the OEMs based out of Europe or US are averse to taking risks for an object that will ultimately carry millions of passengers when ready to fly. The lead times and gestation periods are long and an order placed now will only see delivery in 2018,” he says.

TAML’s decision to take baby steps paid off. With only the ISRO business in hand for a long time, it was only in 2009 that the company won its first major contract from FACC, a tier-I to Rolls Royce. That set the ball rolling. Mukherjee says, “Immediately after that we won our second major contract from Spirit Aerosystems, a super tier-1 to Airbus. We bagged the contracts in 2009 and started delivery in 2011-12.

TAML is now the only Rolls-Royce approved composite manufacturing facility in India that holds over 35 individual special process approvals. This makes TAML a pioneer and leader in composite manufacturing and solutions that caters to the demands of aerospace, defence and industrial composites across the globe.

Today, the company is happy that it has started making profits now, and that it is part of the some of the large contracts such as FACC (Rolls Royce) for engines, Spirit Aerosystems for A350 and A320 parts and also Boeing for Dreamliner parts. The company turnover has grown from Rs 76 crore in FY2012-13 to more than Rs 400 crore in FY 2016-17 at a CAGR of 40%+, and hopes to double its revenue over the next few years.

TAML also had a stroke of luck when Airbus and Spirit Aerosystems approached them to plug a capacity gap in their supply chain as a result of investments of their existing suppliers not keeping pace with the demands on the A320 aircraft. Having worked with TAML on the A350, the tier-I to Airbus approached our home-grown Tata company to manufacture the panels for the A320. Airbus wanted 60 ship-sets per month and TAML found itself ramping up its capacity in less than six months. Mukherjee says that instances like this are virtually unheard of in the history of the aerospace industry.

Make in India
Mukherjee firmly believes that composites manufacturing is a mixture of art and science. Composites are not sheets that arrive at a factory and are then moulded into place. In his words, “It is basically a fabric that is laid up layer after layer.” There are several aspects to making a full-fledged composite part before it is shipped out. Once it has been laid to a desired thickness in a clean room, then it is subjected to autoclave moulding, where it is cured under pressure and temperature for a particular time, which makes the mechanical properties better than aluminium and steel. Other ways of manufacturing are resin transfer moulding, compression moulding, resin injection moulding, hot press moulding, filament winding.

The components then have to be machined, and Mukherjee says that the CNC machining of the composites is different than CNC machining of metallics. The effectiveness and dominance of a supplier to the aerospace and defence industry is gauged by its ability to develop infrastructure within its premises and its capability to offer non-destructive testing (NDT). Considering that every part of an airplane is a critical part, it is imperative that NDT is conducted on every part that goes into it. “NDT methodology shows you the compaction level and whether there are any aberrations within the composite. We have a procedure that is akin to a C scan and these are conducted by only well-trained people,” says Mukherjee.

He is especially proud of the well-trained staff at his plant. “We have three levels of trained staff for NDT and Level 3 is certified by the OEM and only he can certify that the final component meets the requirements. You can understand the difficulty when such a person leaves the company. Overall, we have built both on the manufacturing and technology front and invested in clean rooms, equipment, vacuum systems, C scan, NDT technology, and people,” adds Mukherjee.

Over the years, TAML has acquired numerous certifications that are required if you want to do business with global OEMs. Beside the AS 9100 C, ISO 9001 and the NADCAP, TAML has acquired 7 approvals from Boeing, 29 from Airbus, 36 from Rolls Royce, besides being the first facility in India to hold four kinds of NADCAP certifications (composites, NDI, painting, and M&I) under one roof.

The deployment of SAP latest version is the ERP system and in addition the company has implemented Compass, which is a comprehensive composite planning and scheduling system. This unique system takes data from SAP and allows the manufacturer to dynamically schedule the parts keeping in view the changing scenarios due to customer urgencies, equipment breakdowns etc. TAML is also working on its own Vision 2025 which will be working towards becoming the preferred supplier for composite parts and assemblies to OEMs and Super Tier 1s. This will mean more business when the automotive industry decides to use more and more composites or helicopters choose to armour themselves with composites.
So the next time you sit in an airplane, you know why the experience is pleasant and how this came to be.


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