Solvay Performance Polyamides Global Business Unit (GBU), a world leader in polyamide (PA) materials, is one of the leading suppliers of high-performance polymers to the automotive industry. Already known for under-the-hood applications (metal replacement, thermal management and fluid barrier), its Technyl range also proposes a number of ‘e-mobility compliant’ solutions to tiers and OEMs. In this interview with Rakesh Rao, Jitender Bharihoke, General Manager India for Solvay’s Performance Polyamides GBU, discusses advantages of polyamides in automotive and growth plans for India.
How has Solvay Performance Polyamides’ business evolved over the years in India?
We have grown the business by leaps since the time we started our business in 2011. Our core Technyl business has grown at nearly 40 per cent CAGR and we claim to be among the top three suppliers of polyamide (PA) compounds in the country. We have two compounding lines in Panoli (Gujarat) with a total capacity of 10,000 tonnes. But capacity is not a constrain for growth with options of tolling and trading of imports from our other plants being available. We have a research and innovation (R&I) centre in Savli near Vadodara (Gujarat) which apart from core molecular research also supports our manufacturing and customers. In fact, all our six global R&I centres are interdependent with each having their own areas of excellence.
How is Solvay Performance Polyamides serving the automotive industry (globally and in India)?
The auto industry is very global in nature with most OEMs and tier suppliers having a global presence so obviously organisations like ours, which has a global foot print, brings a lot of value to the industry. We can carry out developments and support customers through our global resources at the same time across many geographies. Our technical and commercial resources are spread across the globe supported by a network of R&I centres and part testing labs which also work closely sharing data and results. Our part testing labs are recognised by most OEMs and we can certify components for many applications.
The India team has demonstrated a very high level of customer focus (rather obsession). This is not limited to only our front line sales team, but also all our support functions have customer visits as a part of their key performance indicators (KPIs) to get a better understanding of the customer needs. Over the past few years, we have created business infrastructure with a network of warehouses and distributors that any established industry player would need to conduct business and service customers.
Solvay Performance Polyamides has been very innovative not only in developing products specific to the customer requirements but also in terms of route to the market. Every customer has specific needs which depend upon product requirement and geographic location. One needs to understand these in order to decide how best the customer can be serviced. Quite often in our attempt to one size fits all, we end up pushing over engineered products. We have developed products that fit applications so that customers do not have to pay for over-engineered products. We have managed just-in-time delivery for most customers through our network of warehouses through our efficient customer service.
Our commercial and technical resources serve the customer and provide effective coverage. We are with the customer through the entire life cycle of the product right from inception through simulation, design, tooling, trials, commercial ramp up and day to day service thereafter.
Are you seeing an increased traction for Solvay Performance Polyamides' products in India?
We are a young team that came together to create this business and we have been hungry for growth. The Indian auto industry is among the fastest growing in the world and that itself is creating a lot of opportunities for growth. We have networked with the industry very well and have established ourselves as a preferred supplier of PA compounds in the auto industry. Once you are in that position you grow with your customers. As the customers develop new products, they engage you in those developments and help your growth.
Over the past few years, we have captured market share, created applications and disrupted value chains through innovative routes to the market. These initiatives have helped us create demand and grow faster than the industry.
Why are auto components makers increasing usage of plastics and composites?
The key reasons are light weighting, efficiencies and costs. Plastics provide you opportunities to drive fuel efficiencies, integrate functions and reduce layers of manufacturing.
The global auto industry is witnessing a push towards electrification. How is Solvay Performance Polyamides aiding this development?
India plans to ban ‘non-green vehicles’ by 2030, France and Germany by 2040. And even China, which produces about 30 per cent of the worldwide vehicles tend to develop a similar strategy. These decisions have a huge impact on OEMs strategies.
For example in India, Maruti and Toyota teamed up to introduce electric cars, Mahindra and Mahindra, Ashok Leyland are speeding up the development of their own electric vehicle (EV) platform. According to our projections 15 per cent of the global car production will be electric or hybrid by 2025 which represents 16 million vehicles.
E-mobility is a priority for us. Our strategic segments, thermal management solutions, metal replacement, fire protection, and fluid barriers are aligned to support this new field.
We are also developing new solutions to support our customers and answer to their new needs. For example, we are introducing to the market a range of signal orange grades for high voltage applications (connectors, circuit breakers, busbars, etc). We are also developing a full range of electro-friendly materials for sensors and connectors and even high-purity materials for fuel cell applications.
Lightweighting is also becoming more important than ever. Every single kilo saved is additional autonomy. Thus we are working on breakthrough solutions of PA66 that will help customers to further develop lighter components.
Indian auto industry is in a state of flux due to changes in emission norms (from BS IV to BS VI from April 2020) and the government’s focus on electric vehicles. How is Solvay Performance Polyamides viewing these changes as a solution provider?
These changes are a must looking at the pollution levels in our cities and we all need to support these efforts. Due to higher emission norms, engines need to be smaller in size, creating more heat. Therfore high performance plastics which endure heat are needed. We have been on the fore front of developing such products with our Technyl Red which can deliver performance even at 220°C.
EV segment, though still at a nascent stage, will very quickly pick up speed after certain initial challenges are overcome. We are working closely with many OEMs and tier suppliers and feel that EVs will throw up a different set of opportunities like connectors and components around the battery areas where temperatures are high.
What are the emerging trends with respect to application of plastics in automotive industry?
In India, we still consume barely 7 kg of PA compounds in a car which is much lower than about 12 kg in Europe and other countries. So, there is already a lot of opportunities in terms of catching up that we have to do. As we move to higher end from a small car manufacturing base, we will find that a lot of applications converting to PA especially as the engines get smaller and there is a need to integrate functions. Hence, high-temperature plastics will play a key role.
There are also other convention applications like engine mount and oil pan which are now converting to PAs. In fact, even applications like wheel covers which had moved to low cost plastics are now returning to PA66 based compounds and customers realise that the wheel traction creates a lot of heat which these needs PA66 type of compound to endure the temperatures.
The next big thing is obviously EVs, for which we are all preparing.
What is the current R&D focus of Solvay with respect to applications in auto industry?
A lot of the developments in the lab stage (especially around new molecules) are confidential in nature. But, we do understand the trends in the industry and are working towards meeting the future needs of our customers.
What are your plans to further expand your business in auto space?
Everything that we need in terms of the business infrastructure is already in place. We will continue to add resources and capacities as and when required. We will remain entrenched in the industry and grow with our customers and continue to innovate both in terms of products and processes to meet the future needs of our customers. We have an internal target that at least 35 per cent of our business each year should come from new products which are less than five years old.