Strengthening India's Defence: CUMI's Seven-Decade Journey In Advanced Materials

CUMI’s Innovations and Collaborations for a Self-Reliant Defence Ecosystem in India

Subbu Venkatachalam

In this interview, Subbu Venkatachalam, Head of Marketing at Carborundum Universal Limited (CUMI), shares valuable insights on CUMI's significant contributions to India's defence ecosystem over the past seven decades. As a leading player in materials science, CUMI has played a vital role in strengthening India's defence capabilities by providing advanced materials and strategic solutions. With a focus on indigenization and self-reliance, CUMI is collaborating with various government and industry partners to develop cutting-edge materials and support their integration and testing for defence applications. Here's the full interview.

CUMI has been contributing to India's defence ecosystem for over 7 decades. How has CUMI's role and the range of advanced materials you provide for defence applications evolved over the years?

Over the past 70 years, CUMI has emerged as a leading player in the field of materials science. Since 2020, there has been greater focus on large-scale indigenization in defence, with impetus provided to significantly expand the participation of domestic private entities. Further, the government has mandated higher indigenous content, especially in raw materials, components, parts, and software. This has made the emphasis on advanced materials even more prominent since they form the base to design cutting-edge products and solutions. Hence, they have assumed even greater importance in the current defence strategy.

With ‘Make in India’ and ‘AtmaNirbhar Bharat’, the focus has not been restricted to just manufacturing the products but also to sourcing and processing right from the raw material stage. CUMI has helped ensure a fully integrated and localized supply chain, significantly reducing the country’s import dependence, especially in the area of defence-critical unavailable materials.

CUMI has expanded its defence portfolio starting with advanced ceramics for bulletproof vests and vehicle armour. Other products in our range of solutions include composites for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), thermal spray powders and thermal barrier coatings to protect critical aero engine components in aircrafts, and new-age materials such as graphene and phase change materials. Engineered from Reaction Bonded Silicon Carbide (RBSiC), high purity (99.5%) alumina, and zirconia-toughened alumina, our armouring solutions are designed to be remarkably lightweight, structured to offer effective dimensional stability and fracture toughness, highly durable to help our soldiers withstand the most extreme environments, and easily customizable.

In collaboration with DRDO’s labs to carry out tests and validation, CUMI is also pioneering the use of thermal spray coatings and thermal barriers coatings. Currently, India is completely import-dependent for this key product in defence, aerospace, and space applications.

By providing strategic solutions in abrasives, electro minerals, ceramics, refractories, and energy storage materials, CUMI is playing a vital role in strengthening India's defence capabilities.

You mentioned some critical new-age materials from CUMI being used in defence - Yttria-stabilised Zirconia for thermal spray coatings, graphene, advanced ceramics for armour, and phase change materials. Could you share a couple examples of specific applications where these materials are providing significant advantages compared to conventional materials?

Advancements in armour materials are a great example of how materials science has evolved to offer significant advantages over conventional materials. Traditionally, high-strength metals such as steel alloys were used to design body armour. High-performance ceramics such as reaction-bonded silicon carbide have emerged as popular material as they are remarkably lighter but offer high ballistic protection. Their density and weight are almost one-third of their metal counterparts. Additionally, their hardness and ability to shatter oncoming projectiles are better – improving the protection level three-fold. In fact, silicon carbide closely approaches a diamond’s hardness on the Mohs scale.

Another example is thermal spray powders and thermal barrier coatings (TBCs), for which India is among the fastest growing countries in terms of demand for civil and military requirements. These are required in the manufacture of aircraft engines as protective coatings in areas exposed to high heat, in maintenance and overhaul of aircraft engine components, and in space launch vehicles. Their high thermal resistance and anti-corrosive properties offering protection from wear & tear helps increase the longevity of these components. Yttria-stabilized Zirconia is used due to its superior thermal stability at cyclic conditions for prolonged periods, around 25,000 to 30,000 hours of commercial aircraft flying time.

Phase Change Materials (PCMs) technology pioneered by Pluss Advanced Technologies, a subsidiary of CUMI, has been gaining increasing attention recently. Also called passive cooling materials, PCMs are poised to be game-changers, especially in the field of defence, where they offer a broad scope of possibilities to enhance soldiers’ comfort and survival in the harshest of terrains and extreme conditions.

PCMs find applications in defence in:

  • Wearable tech such as jackets to help provide thermal comfort in extreme weather conditions

  • Portable transportation solutions that ensure the integrity of vaccines, blood, and essential life-saving drugs through precision in temperature control for up to 150 hours.

  • Sustainable accommodation for soldiers serving in remote areas with extreme weather conditions

  • Non-fossil-fuel-based refrigeration for trucks, which can be charged electrically to transport and enhance the shelf-life of perishable food products and refrigerate essential drugs

CUMI is the among the very few manufacturers of Yttria-stabilised Zirconia and graphene in India currently. What unique capabilities enable CUMI to produce these advanced materials indigenously? Are there plans to expand domestic production capacity?

Some of the unique capabilities that enable us to be at the forefront of producing these advanced materials indigenously are:

  • CUMI’s first-mover advantage and rich legacy in materials science for 7 decades

  • Completely localized production and end-to-end integration (from mines to market)

  • Deep manufacturing footprint

  • Supply chain integration

  • Presence of highly skilled technical talent such as researchers, subjects matter experts, engineers, and technologists

  • Extensive R&D capability creation in-house and through establishment of science & research labs and Centres of Excellence (CoEs)

  • Strategic technology partnerships with government and industry partners

  • Innovation and research leadership demonstrated by key patent filings

CUMI commissioned a special facility in 2020 to manufacture various grades of graphene and allied products suitable for applications in composites, coating and energy areas. The 12,000 sq ft facility can process 6 lakh litres/ year of varying grades of graphene powders, besides producing master batches in different kinds of elastomers, thermosetting and thermoplastic polymers.

The facility also offers proprietary formulations of graphene additives useful for applications in concrete, anti-corrosion, and anti-microbial applications. For the aerospace and defence industry, CUMI is working on developing graphene-based composites which can be used to create lighter and stronger aerostructures, body armour products, and also exploring possible stealth applications.

How is CUMI collaborating with DRDO and other defence partners to co-develop new materials and support their integration and testing for defence applications? Are there any recent joint development projects you could highlight?

CUMI is working closely with various DRDO labs to manufacture indigenous materials for the defence and aerospace sectors. Our R&D efforts are also closely informed and directed by Dr. S. Christopher, former Chairman of DRDO and CUMI’s R&D Advisor, and Dr. P. Sivakumar, Former Director of Combat Vehicles Research and Development Establishment (CVRDE), as Defence Advisor.

Some of our key collaborations include:

  • CUMI and DRDO’s Defence Metallurgical Research Laboratory (DMRL) are working together to develop stronger armour materials for Future Infantry Combat Vehicles (FICVs) that are lightweight, provide protection against higher threat levels, and enable superior vehicle performance.

  • CUMI has also expressed its intent to DRDO and IIT Delhi in participating to undertake advanced collaborative research for indigenous development, testing and validation of ballistic ceramic material for bulletproof jackets and wheeled armoured fighting vehicles.

  • In August 2023, we announced our collaboration with ideaForge Technology, India’s leading drone maker, to jointly develop cutting-edge nanomaterial-reinforced composite parts for drones. Nanomaterial-reinforced composite materials (such as graphene reinforced polymers) hold the promise of transforming structural parts for aerospace applications. They offer several improvements in physical properties over standard composite materials which can include higher mechanical strength, greater toughness and stiffness, better electrical and thermal conductivity, superior fire retardancy and higher barrier to moisture and gases.

  • CUMI is in talks with DRDO to explore further technology collaborations for future aerospace and defence electronics applications and to develop armour material that can provide protection against increasingly higher threat levels.

  • We signed a Memorandum of Understanding in May 2023 with Digital University of Kerala to set up a Centre of Excellence for further research & development and large-scale commercialisation of graphene.

With the government's push for self-reliance in defence through positive indigenization lists, how do you see the demand for advanced materials from domestic manufacturers evolving in the coming years? Is CUMI ramping up R&D and manufacturing to address emerging opportunities?

The import embargo on defence platforms/systems/weapons since 2020 with the five positive indigenization lists signalled a turning point for domestic manufacturers. As per international brokerage firm Nomura’s latest report, India’s defence sector presents a $138 billion order opportunity from FY 2023-24 to FY 2031-32. The advanced materials market for the aerospace and defence sectors, with a CAGR of 8% to 10%, is expected to hit US$0.55 billion in 2028 from US$0.31 billion in 2021 Penetration in key structural applications is estimated to reach 65% over the next 4 years, according to EY’s March 2023 report.

This translates to demand for indigenous defence products such as bulletproof vests and vehicle armour with advanced ceramics witnessing an upward trend. The market size for ceramic armour in India is expected to touch $0.28 billion by 2030, at a CAGR of 9.1% from 2023 to 2030. This will result from the increase in demand for durable and lightweight materials to improve the capabilities of the Armed Forces.

While ceramic body armour was earlier limited to special forces of the military due to its high costs and the need for imports, due to the embargo, there is now an opportunity to manufacture it indigenously in a cost-effective manner. Thereby, its use can be extended to all combat personnel of the military, state police and paramilitary forces, as well as civilian security personnel.

With our industry-leading R&D and manufacturing capabilities, CUMI is strategically positioned to help reduce India’s lower import dependence for defence-critical requirements.

Given cost considerations, timely supply of high-quality, globally-benchmarked and consistently processed raw material, precision engineering made-to-order, coupled with significant in-house R&D competencies for new-age materials, the demand for advanced materials is definitely set to expand exponentially. Being 100% localized and fully backward integrated, with considerable R&D strength in ‘materials of the future’ and nanotechnology-led innovations, CUMI is well-positioned to meet this demand.

Currently, CUMI Ceramics has been manufacturing and supplying technical-grade ceramic products including different varieties of silicon carbide such as RBSiC, alumina, and zirconia.

We are significantly expanding the manufacturing capacity of RBSiC ceramics – to increase by around 5 times – for bulletproof vests and vehicle armour. As one of the few manufacturers of Yttria-stabilized Zirconia in India, the primary material for thermal barrier coatings, CUMI has the capacity to scale up to entirely meet this demand.

As one of the few domestic producers of strategic materials like Yttria-stabilised Zirconia and graphene, how is CUMI working to strengthen supply chain security and reduce foreign dependence for critical defence raw materials?

As per estimates, India imports approximately $2 billion worth of critical materials annually. Through domestic manufacturing of these defence-critical materials, CUMI’s focus is to closely collaborate with key government and industry partners to bridge supply gaps and reduce India’s import dependence.

We have adopted a multi-fold strategy to strengthen supply chain security.

  • In-house production of critical unavailable materials such as Yttria-stabilized Zirconia

  • Scaling up production capacity to anticipate and meet fast-growing demand for critical materials

  • Expanding R&D with focus on new-age materials such as graphene

  • Collaborations with government agencies such as DRDO to support indigenization initiatives

  • Partnering with smaller vendors and integrators to strengthen the supply chain

  • Setting up research labs and CoEs to give impetus to research and further innovation