Metals have played a vital role in the history of mankind with its uses in various aspects of life in agriculture, warfare, transport and even the entire Industrial Revolution from steam to electricity. Gold, the most attractive and precious of metals, continues to charm humanity even as other metals are proving their worth in singles and mixes such as alloys. Copper is one of these since 7,000 BC when a few neolithic communities begin hammering copper into crude knives and sickles. The use of fire led to development of metallurgy: the casting of metal, by pouring it into prepared moulds; and the smelting of mineral ores to extract metal. By about 3,800 BC, copper mines were worked on in the Sinai Peninsula and crucibles found at the site showed that smelting was being done as part of the mining process. Sometimes, ores of copper and tin were found together, and the casting of metal from such natural alloys may have provided the accident for the next step forward in metallurgy. It was discovered that these two metals, cast as one substance, are harder than either metal on its own.
The cast alloy of copper and tin is bronze, a substance so useful to human beings that an entire period of early civilisation has become known as the Bronze Age. The technology of bronze was first developed in the Middle East. The Hittites were the first people to work iron, in Anatolia from about 1,500 BC. In its simple form iron is less hard than bronze, and therefore of less use as a weapon. By the 11th century BC it has been discovered that iron, if reheated in a furnace with charcoal and quenched with water, gets hardened into steel. However, iron had been heated and hammered, but never melted due to its melting point (1528°C) being too high for primitive furnaces, which can reach about 1300°C and are adequate for copper (melting at 1083°C). This limitation was overcome with the Chinese developing a furnace hot enough to melt iron and enabling them to produce the world’s first cast iron by 513 BC.
Copper, however, is among the most important industrial metals due to its value in its heat and electrical conductivities and malleability, where it is used in electrical power cables, data cables, electrical equipment, automobile radiators, cooling and refrigeration tubing, heat exchangers, artillery shell casings, small arms ammunition, water pipes, and even jewellery. Copper has been in use for at least 10,000 years, though over 97 per cent of all copper ever mined and smelted has been extracted since 1900. By 2006, the Indian and Chinese economies were racing to catch up with the West, straining the copper supply, leading to increased prices and an increase in copper theft.
Today, the total world copper production is about 18 million metric tons per year and demand is increasing by more than 5,75,000 tons annually and accelerating. Based on 2006 figures for per capita consumption, Yale University researchers calculated that by 2100, global demand for copper will outstrip the amount extractable from the ground. China accounted for more than 22 per cent of world copper demand in 2008, and is nearly 40 per cent in 2014. For some purposes, other metals can substitute. During a copper shortage in the 1970s, aluminium wire was substituted in many applications, though improper design led to fire hazards. The safety issues have since been solved by use of larger sizes of aluminium wire (#8AWG and up), and properly-designed aluminium wiring is still being installed in place of copper.
Globally, economic copper resources are being depleted with the equivalent production of three world-class copper mines being consumed annually. Environmental analyst Lester Brown suggested in 2008 that copper might run out within 25 years – based on what he considered a reasonable extrapolation of two per cent growth per year. About 56 new copper discoveries have been made during the three decades 1975-2005. World discoveries of new copper deposits are said to have peaked in 1996. However, according to the US Geological Survey, remaining world copper reserves have more than doubled since then, from 310 million metric tons in 1996 to 690 million metric tons in 2013. While 2002 saw Chile, Indonesia and the United States being top producers of copper, 2013 witnessed this equation being changed with Chile, China, and Peru emerging leading producers with production of 5,780 K tonnes, 1,600 K tonnes and 1,380 K tonnes respectively.
In India, investment in copper still continues in a big way. Recently, Canbank Venture Capital Fund (CVCFL) invested Rs 10 crore to acquire a 25 per cent stake in Jaipur-based Shera Energy, producer of copper and aluminium products having diversified industrial use. The investment was made through a preferential allotment. The company is in the process of setting up the fourth plant in Rajasthan through its subsidiary Shera Metal with capital outlay of Rs 28 crore and enhancing its product offerings in the export market from the new plant that will be commissioned next month.
Naseem Sheikh, Chairman and Managing Director, Shera Energy Private Limited (SEPL), said the amount invested by CVCFL – Rs 10 crore – will be utilised by the company for meeting its Equity Requirement in its new project being set up through its subsidiary company Shera Metal Private Ltd (SMPL) and for other general corporate purposes, besides also to bring down debt of Rs 85 crore and reduce the interest outgo substantially. “We have plans to tap the capital market with an IPO in 2017.
We have secured fresh orders from the US, Thailand, Dubai and UAE. Exports are expected to touch 1,000 tonnes a month by end of this year compared to 600-700 tonnes currently,” he said, while describing the company’s start with manufacturing winding wire products of barely 100 tonnes annually in 2003 to its present capacity of 7,000 tonnes.
With the commissioning of the new plant, the company is expected to start producing high-quality copper and aluminium tubes alongside sales doubled to Rs 600 crore by FY18. In order to optimise its export capability further, Shera Energy plans to invest Rs 50-60 crore to set up another plant near a port city in FY17. “There is enough opportunity in the global market for quality products. In fact, we have managed to replace supply from China in six places in UAE. However, our next plant would depend on the currency movement as most of the machinery is imported,” he said, adding that Shera Energy Private Limited is a leading manufacturer of all grades of Copper, Aluminium, Brass and other alloyed products viz flats, rods, tubes and wires, besides the company also offering electroplating, enameling, paper covering and fiber glass taping on the metal.
Expressing excitement about the future in the copper alloy industry in India and globally, Sheikh said. “The Company has the distinction of supplying Copper Products having an IACS conductivity of 102 per cent (par excellence with European Standards) on a consistent basis. The Company has recently set up an expansion project through its subsidiary company viz Shera Metal Private Ltd. at Reengus, Rajasthan with an installed capacity of 4635 MTPA entailing a capital outlay of Rs 28 crore. The project – set up using latest and ultra modern techniques – has already started commercial production and is expected to go full stream by April, 2015. Apart from the domestic market, the project also intends to cater to the export markets such as United States, U.K., Middle East etc in a
Noting that the company’s tryst with copper began in 2003 with the idea of making winding wires and sales coming to barely Rs 50 lakhs, he said addition of more products and ranges witnessed sales rising to over Rs 300 crores. “In 2003, we started with only aluminium products till 2008 where we then included copper, and in 2013 we added the rods and other sections. Shera Metal is the subsidiary company to Shera Energy and it will be focusing on all alloy products. We are now one of the leading players in North India and are looking at the idea of making more alloy products – till now we had been doing with only base metal like aluminium and copper base raw – because the base metals are going to be replaced for some critical applications by some alloys to cut down price and enhance its ability to withstand more stresses such as thermal stresses, wear and tear stresses. So some alloy is required with non-ferrous metals also, for which the Indian market is eyeing foreign suppliers. We produce alloys in India also, but the facilities we have in India are not up to international standards.”
Sheikh said that bearing this in mind, he visited many companies globally, studied and learnt from them, and then incorporated the knowledge in Shera Metal Private Limited (SMPL). “Here we will be making copper sulphur, copper nickel, copper bronze and many brass alloys – all of which are used commonly in zip chains, or pen nibs, car tubes, and all the big thermal plants, sugarcane and desalination industries – which all use alloy tubes to match tensile, and wear and tear, strength. However, all these things can only happen with alloy products, not with base metals,” he said while pointing out that he is looking at tapping the international market also through the company’s office in Dubai, where sample products were exhibited and are now bagging orders.
“We expect our alloys to take SHERA to new heights and I want to thank the Central Government for their idea of “Make in India.” At present, special alloys are being imported from Thailand, Malaysia, some parts of Europe because nobody makes that quality of alloys in India now. We are aiming to tap this market – besides our ambition for the domestic market being to substitute the imports – and in this connection we have been successful till now where we are hoping to take SHERA much ahead.”
Describing the intricacies of the alloy manufacturing industry, Sheikh said, “Aluminium alloys are being made by big players in India but they are using the hot extrusion technique in this process. We are coming up with cold extrusion which is a new technology for the Indian market. Since
aluminium melting temperature is not very high, we can extrude that metal using cold extrusion process. The limitations of hot extrusion and cold extrusion are very simply defined. In hot extrusion, you can extrude the material to a certain length only. But cold extrusion is a continuous process where you can make coils after coils of these products. We are making high conductivity solid buzzbars which we are exporting right now to the Middle East including Dubai and even Thailand – which produces a lot of copper – where we are able to match their requirements and with better deals.”
“Fiberglass is a dry type insulation which comes in two types: wet and dry. The paper-covered one is a wet insulation and now, with greater awareness about fire hazards in the complexes, transformers – that have to be installed in the multiplexes, cinema halls or wherever more people are there – have to use the dry-type insulation which does not burn much and is basically fire-resistant. So, the upcoming future is for this product. The facilities we have inhouse is the rod-making plant, melting section and refining and casting section for the alloy process. Now we have achieved 102 level conductivity of copper according to international standards – which have specified some electrical properties to which level copper has to perform. We have excelled to that level. We do quality control using latest equipments. We have now participated in many exhibitions to display our product range including in Dubai where global awareness is created for our products. We are focusing on product quality and prices which is a sensitive issue in the markets. Looking at Indian conditions – if we compare to China – I feel we have an edge as we are more competitive, and in some places we have replace the Chinese suppliers,” Shaikh noted.