How a relentless R&D approach propelled Tata Steel to the zenith

Written by Arindam Sinha | Jamshedpur | Updated: Sep 23 2014, 15:58pm hrs
Tata SteelFor Tata Steel producing steel for Kolkata?s landmark Howrah bridge was a major challenge ? it had not yet ventured into low alloy structural steel.
For Tata Steel, whose research & development (R&D) wing took off 77 years ago, when no other company in the country even dreamt of establishing one, producing steel for Kolkatas landmark Howrah bridge was a major challenge it had not yet ventured into low alloy structural steel.

For the company, whose R&D department has been a key force in its evolution, the specifications of the steel called for a tensile strength of 37-43 tonne per square inch. Developing this grade became the major focus of the companys R&D department.

Finally, however, the researchers were able to overcome all the challenges, and the new steel product they created was christened Tiscrom.

The researchers, thereafter, also started developing a high-strength structural steel amenable to welding, Tiscor, which had high yield strength and enabled use in thinner sections while its weld ability promoted its use in freight cars, ships, trams and various other vehicles of the times.

The Second World War was a challenge for the companys R&D, with the most outstanding achievement being the development and production of the bullet-proof armour plate.

It was a tribute to the researchers at Tata Steel when the Master General of Ordnance Branch, Simla, remarked that the companys armour plate was excellent and up to home specifications. (of course British specifications!)

The bullet-proof armour plate was first successfully used for armoured vehicles called Tatanagars that were fabricated by riveting.

A press item at the time mentioned, Safer than slit trenches during a bombing raid was a gunnery officers tribute to the cars during service in the 8th Army. An officer goes on to describe how a 75-mm shell burst on one side of the Tatanagars. The metal plates were buckled but nowhere pierced. The four occupants of the car emerged unscathed. Units possessing the Tatanagars swear by them.

Formally opened on September 14, 1937 by Sir Nowroji Saklatvala, then chairman of Tata Steel, along with Bharat Ratna Sir M Visvesvaraya (the latter being one of its founding fathers) having pointed out as early as in a 1932 Board meet that as there were no large factories in Europe or America without a provision for research, the company should establish one at the earliest.

The chief objective of research initially was to reduce costs and increase output with the new Control and Research Laboratory designed to deal with matters relating to research work, such as control of raw material (involving analytical and chemical problems for purpose of selection or investigation), study, observation and supervision of all metallurgical operations carried out within the steel plant including properties of special irons and steels, refractory materials, corrosion problems and development of new steels and new products of all kinds.

Today, Tata Steels R&D is leading a consortium of steelmakers in Europe in pursuit of a breakthrough iron-making technology, HIsarna. when commercialised, HIsarna holds the prospect of not only being a green technology, but also the promise of 25% savings in terms of both capital and operating expenditure.

At such a critical juncture in the companys history, the Jamshedpur R&D building stands tall. This is where it all started, and the research facility is a testimony to the foresight of the stalwarts it was designed to offer efficiency, comfort and flexibility, with rooms laid out to provide a straight line flow of work and were connected by wide corridors.

All services, including gas, water, power and vacuum, were supplied through a duct running below the floor so that maintenance access was easy and the walls were kept free of piping and cabling, with special attention having been paid to safe and healthy working conditions, with considerable thought given to ergonomics, lighting and ventilation.

Today, the steel majors R&D department is a state-of-the-art set-up where many breakthrough technologies were being conceptualised and designed with the company holding several patents and copyrights under its name.