The Russian Composite Market and the NCC’s Projects
First, the composite materials are increasingly used in civil industries that are not traditionally associated with the key customers of composite products like the defence, aerospace and aircraft industries. The second trend is an increase in the use of carbon fibre composites, although cheaper fibreglass items continue to dominate. The gap between these material volumes may vary but will not be overcome, same as titanium alloys will never replace steel. Thirdly, one can mention the development of standard solutions focusing on mass production. For example, the start of production of carbon fibre body for electric cars i3 at the new BMW plant in Leipzig (Germany).
How do you assess the state of the Russian composite sector, what issues does it face?
The composites industry in Russia is poorly developed as there are few raw material producers and virtually no process equipment manufacturers, and very few customers for the final products. The market growth and new technology development are mainly stirred through the needs of the defence and aerospace industries. It is not the right time to talk about any competition between manufacturers of composite materials as the main competitors for all of us are the manufacturers of products made of traditional materials. In the developed European countries, North America and Japan the composites industry went through the stage back in the 1990’s. Therefore, in my opinion, one of the main tasks of market players is to promote composites and explain the potential consumers the advantages of those compared to traditional solutions.
Like many other high-tech areas of industry, the world’s composite production made a big step forward in the 1990’s, when Russia experienced an economic turmoil. Now the Russian industry lacks major customers, the domestic civil aircraft industry cannot provide any significant volumes; we have not developed the wind energy sector; shipbuilders are starting to adopt composite materials – it is worth mentioning the projects of the St. Petersburg Sredne-Nevsky Shipyard and Rybinsk’s Vympel Shipyard, but it is only about the first steps. The fiberglass pipe production is also just about to develop; the country’s largest specialised factory built by the Composite Holding Company in Tatarstan has a small capacity by the world’s standards.
Of course, there are some positive developments, new enterprises are being set up, production volumes are growing, РК training is delivered and the government supports the industry development, in particular, we would like to mention the sub-programme14 "Development of the production of composite materials (composites) and products from them", the state programme "Development of industry and increasing of its competitiveness " due to which more than a dozen major projects have received public funding. The Rusnano corporation is actively working, e.g. our centre as well as several other projects are implemented with their direct involvement.
Do foreign manufacturers of composite materials operate in the Russian market?
For foreign manufacturers and suppliers of the finished products the Russian market is of little interest since it is characterised by the low demand at a high cost of logistics and customs clearance. When the rouble exchange rate was high, some products, such as fibreglass pipes were indeed imported but in the current situation they cannot compete with Russian products in terms of price. Foreign companies in the Russian composites market mainly supply materials and semi-finished products.
In terms of the quality, do the Russian composite products meet the international standards?
It is important that they comply with the requirements of Russian customers to the extent that they should find it unreasonable to turn to overseas companies. On the other hand, the exports of the domestic products of composites are disadvantageous for the same reason resulting in virtually no imports, due to the high logistical expenses. In addition, due to the small size of the market, in our country there are no enterprises large enough, so that they can compete with leading international companies in the international market in terms of the production costs.
How is import substitution realistic and appropriate in the production of components for composite materials and the process equipment?
The situation in the production of fibres, binders and equipment is different. The Russian fibreglass is competitive, and not only in the domestic market; given the rouble devaluation the export of products is quite possible. A similar situation can be recorded in the carbon fibre market, more than half of which is controlled by the Composite Holding Company. After commissioning of the Alabuga-Fibre plant, the demand of the domestic composites manufacturer can be fully secured by the Russian carbon fibre.
In the production of binders import substitution is still problematic because even the materials produced under Russian brands are made with imported chemical components. As for the Russian-made equipment, the appropriateness of its production is very doubtful as the domestic demand is too low.
Is the shortage of qualified personnel a relevant issue in the composite industry?
Provision of the engineering and technical staff is an out-of-the-industry problem faced by most manufacturing companies, particularly in Moscow. Modern Moscow is not a "city of engineers and workers", so we have to involve specialists from other regions and from abroad. It is remarkable that at the end of the first quarter, the share of foreign personnel in the total number of employees of the Centre will be approximately 15%.
Another common problem for innovative industries, out-dated standards ...
Obstructions are primarily created by the standards which regulate the application of the products that can be made of composite materials. For example, the older but still existing standards, codes of practice and other regulatory and technical documents often fail to mention the possibility of using products made of composites. Unfortunately, the development, approval and introduction of new standards in our country represent a slow process that involves overcoming a lot of bureaucratic obstacles. Thus, the heads of the Russian Ministry of Construction are making great efforts to ensure that codes and GOST standards ample can be rhythmically adopted and implemented in the construction sector but these initiatives "get stuck" in the complicated bureaucratic structure at various levels, from the administration of the same ministry to design institutes, state examination etc. Of course, this problem hinders the development of our industry.
The need to develop engineering is now subject to extensive discussion, are there any specific problems in the field of composite materials?
If we talk about the technical aspects, by virtue of the anisotropy of composites, modeling techniques used for traditional materials are hardly applicable to them. In addition, in the design of the products made of composites the requirements based on the specifics of the industry, in which they are used and not any general materials science considerations, will be of higher priority.
What role do customers from commercial companies play in the development of the Russian composite production? What solutions are well in demand in this sector?
The products of composites are diverse, the product range quite extensive, and it is difficult to distinguish between various customers as the same solutions are in demand among both governmental agencies and for-profit companies. A good example of products, which are in high demand in the commercial sector, is the carbon-based materials for the external reinforcement of concrete. Carbon fibre mesh, tapes and laminates make it possible to recover the carrying capacity of pillars, beams, floors and other elements of bridges, overpasses and buildings. Repairs can be performed without interrupting the operation of the facility, without any heavy machinery, with the involvement of the minimum number of workers by 2-3 times faster and 20-40% cheaper than traditional solutions. The demand for such materials increases by 20-30% per year. They are widely used in the commercial segment, for example, for the renovation of hotels and buildings of shopping malls.
Another example is reinforcing made of composite materials. About ten years ago there was no one in this market; today about 50 companies, including our Centre are engaged in production of the glass fibre reinforcement. If the first composite reinforcement was used mainly in low-rise construction, it is now more widely used in buildings designed for higher loads. In 2014, GOST regulating its use came into effect; and the demand is growing in the form of an avalanche.
What other manufacturing projects of NCC would you like to mention?
We signed an agreement with the Hungarian company Evopro, according to which we perform engineering, produce settings and a pilot batch of 50 bus bodies. These are the world’s first modular bodies made of just fibreglass and designed for innovative buses with electric or hybrid power unit. The decision to use fibreglass is due to the need to make the vehicle lighter due to the heavy weight of the battery pack. The modular design of the body makes it possible to produce multiple versions of buses designed for different numbers of passengers.
Another interesting project is the commissioned production of fibreglass railing for bridges. These barriers do not corrode, virtually maintenance-free and can be easily replaced in case of breakage. In 2014, we made barriers for 14 bridge crossings. This is a very promising item, the production of which we plan to foster.
Apart from engineering and manufacturing, NCC is also involved in investment activities, how can these areas be combined with each other?
NNСС was initially created as a sector-related centre, which combines a unique range of functions, i.e. engineering, research and development, small- and medium series production of composite materials, the delivery of training and re-training as well as investment activities. All these areas lead to the same goal, to develop the composites industry, and therefore they do not contradict each other. As an investor, we participate in a project to build a plant of NCC-Alabuga, which will manufacture elements of the exterior and interior for the commercial trucks and agricultural machinery. In the production, long fiber injection (LFI) and sheet moulding compound (SMC) methods will be used. The company has already begun to mount the process equipment, and in May-June it is planned to launch the first stage of production. Several investment projects are also implemented, and it is too early to say anything now.
How do you assess the cooperation with Rusnano?
The heads of Rusnano are making great efforts to promote high technologies, create a demand for them on the part of large public and for-profit organisations, initiate events at which we can present our products; so cooperation with Rusnano is quite useful for business development. ■
Thanks for the interesting interview.
The interview was taken by Dmitry Gudilin