Indian aircraft industry hit by non-availability of composites

While the pandemic left few or no markets for composites in the industry, the war has disrupted the supply chain.

aviation aerospace
Carbon fibre is a highly versatile structural material that can be moulded into any shape, making it simple for designers to work with. (Reuters)

By Girish Linganna

It is a double whammy for India’s aviation sector. The aerospace industry has taken a beating due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And now it is the impact of the Ukraine war. While the pandemic left few or no markets for composites in the industry, the war has disrupted the supply chain.

During the peak pandemic period, the transport of materials almost came to a standstill. And, the demand for new aircraft was drastically reduced, and even completing the projects on hand was difficult. Even now, the situation is the same, though it is for a different reason. India’s very heavy dependence on other countries for the supply of materials for making composites is hurting the aviation sector.

Earlier, aircraft as well as helicopter bodies were made of metal. But over time, composites like carbon fibre have replaced metal, making aircraft bodies lighter and stronger. In simple terms, composite materials can be explained as a combination of two or more materials that are not similar in nature. When they are combined, the resultant is a composite material that has superior qualities to the individual materials used.

Carbon fibre is a highly versatile structural material that can be moulded into any shape, making it simple for designers to work with. They are anti-corrosive. Their usage is extensive. Wing assemblies, seats, instrument enclosures, engine blades, interiors, brackets, propellers, fin blades, tailplanes, among others, are made of composites. Composites are not successfully applied in missiles and space vehicles.

Operation costs become lower when aircraft are lighter in weight. The trend of using carbon fibre has been there since the 1970s. Innovative designing and manufacturing techniques have made carbon fibre inevitable for the sector to use it for building parts of aircraft. The raw materials used for the production of carbon fibre composites are polymeric resins and carbon fibers.

Furthermore, resin types such as epoxy, phenolic, fiber, and fibre types such as carbon fiber, glass fiber, and aramid fibre are in use.The usage of composites is both in the military as well as commercial planes.

Aerospace composites are cost-intensive. When the pandemic silenced the world, the aerospace composite materials business almost stopped. The pandemic-induced liquidity crunch made many go out of business. Unless there is undisturbed cash flow, it is impossible for the aerospace industry to survive, not just in India but anywhere in the world.

India gets raw materials and composites required for the aerospace industry from many foreign countries, including Russia, Ukraine, and their surrounding countries. The Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, which is into manufacturing and assembling aircraft, is extensively dependent on foreign suppliers of composites for its work.

In order to cut its dependence on foreign supplies, HAL, in 2021, entered into a memorandum of understanding with Mishra Dhatu Nigam Limited (MIDHANI) to develop and produce composite raw materials. This is the first time that such an effort has been made to produce composite raw materials, mainly in the form of Prepregs, a reinforcing fabric which is pre-impregnated with a resin system. Now imported materials such as carbon fiber, aramid, and glass types are used for LCA, LCH, ALH, and LUH. Like the HAL, the ISRO, DRDO, and NLA also use composites. Usage of composites will only increase in the years to come. At present, India has no choice but to import because it is not self-reliant.

Even if the war ends officially, the business world in Russia or in Ukraine would not return to normal within months. Already, Ukraine’s cities are deserted by business houses. Who would dare to reinvest and build their business empire in a problematic country? If Russia takes over Ukraine, then no magic can be done overnight. This implies that composites supply to India’s aircraft, military as well as private and space sectors, would face short supply. The impact of war is on the entire West. The price of everything has touched the sky. This has not spared the aviation sector.

This sort of situation is the last thing India expects when it has to complete the LCA series, including the Tejas, which has a Made In India tag. The supply chain has been hit hard, and hence it is impossible for India to immediately find alternative suppliers of composites or spare parts for aircraft. Almost 80% of India’s defence supplies arrive from Russia. As long as global supply doesn’t resume, imports and exports are going to be disturbed.

Every crisis teaches a lesson about being better. One such lesson India is learning in a hard way is through the Ukraine war. It is the Atmanirbhar concept that can make India steady in all sectors. Some companies have taken initiatives to get into composite manufacturing for supply to aircraft makers. One such company is Reliance Infrastructure (RInfra). It is planning to make an initial investment of Rs 85 crore. It has collaborated with French aircraft company Daher to get technology.

America’s aircraft manufacturing sector is insulated from the wartime effect because it is self-reliant in manufacturing and component sectors. India can learn a lesson or two from America and China in the manufacturing sector to become self-reliant.

Political will goes a long way in treading the path of self-reliance. India, which has now been pushed to the wall, is bound to find alternatives in terms of suppliers to achieve its short-term goals and become self-reliant for long-term benefits.

(The author is Aerospace and Defence Analyst & Director ADD Engineering Components (India) Pvt Ltd (An Indo- German Company). Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).

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