By P Venugopal

There is soaring demand for highly specialised rubber products in various sectors such as aerospace, railways, defence, sports, energy, healthcare, mining and earthquake engineering. The recent advancements in tyre and rubber technology have facilitated development of new uses and applications of rubber. There is an imperative need for the industry to invest in a big way in the up-gradation of technology and long-term Research & Development to make the best use of emerging opportunities

When the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) launched its prestigious space missions Chandrayaan-I (Moon Mission) and Mangalyaan (Mars Mission), not many had even the least idea that the smooth operation of these space shuttles were also facilitated by rubber that had gone into the making of some of their critical components!
From aerospace to railways, defence to sports, energy to healthcare, mining to earthquake engineering, rubber finds increasing applications in a number of highly specialised fields.
Rubber components like Flex Seal, Ablative Tile etc. are used in the production of space shuttles and indigenous missiles like Agni and Prithvi. Flex Seals support the main booster motor that control the direction of the rocket.

In the manufacture of highly specialised rubber products for space missions, Kerala-based Vajra Rubber Products(P) Ltd.’s is a rare success story. It has supplied critical rubber components for India’s first Moon Mission – Chandrayaan – and first Mars Mission – Mangalyaan. Vajra has also developed the Ablative Tile for ISRO’s Human Space-flight Programme (HSP) which is expected to take off in 2021

Major end-users

The Indian Railways offers the biggest market for finished rubber products in the government sector (see article by Rajkumar Makwana, Chief Materials Manager (CMM), Western Railways). The Railways procures approximately Rs. 500 billion worth of different spares required in maintenance of locomotives, coaches and wagons, of which rubber goods account for almost Rs. 350 billion.

The Ministry of Defence, Government of India, is another top procurer of rubber components for use by the Armed Forces, the Navy and the Air Force. India’s Ordnance Factories use rubber components in the production of military vehicles, parachutes, support equipment, inflatable boats, floats for K M bridge etc. for the Defence forces. Critical rubber components are also used in India’s Defence submarines and oceanographic laboratories.

Rubber also finds application in the production of Seismic Isolation Bearings for buildings/bridges which protect the structure from the destructive effects of an earthquake. Malaysia is a major supplier of rubber seismic bearings to high-seismic activity countries like New Zealand, Iran, Indonesia, Turkey and China.
Strides in rubber technology

The development of new applications of rubber is aided by the recent advancements in Tyre and Rubber Technology.
With the growing insistence on lower emission levels, lower weight and enhanced fuel efficiency, the Indian tyre industry is embracing new trends in the manufacturing process. With increasing focus on corporate average fuel efficiency (CAFE) norms to curb the alarming levels of pollution, companies have immense pressure to build products which have minimal friction and offers higher fuel efficiency.

The companies are stepping up the manufacturing facilities with technologies that improve heat development in tyres with effort towards less usage of carbon black, which in turn contributes to lowering emissions.
Another trend in the manufacturing of tyres include usage of higher component of ‘silica’ which helps in the manufacturing process and in improving tyre performance by lowering the rolling resistance as well as improving cut and chip resistance.

The emerging Nanotechnology has various potential applications in the rubber industry. Rubber nanocomposites have several benefits over conventional rubber composites such as lighter weight, improved material properties and new functionalities like antimicrobial and flame retardant, and easier processing.

Nanoparticles, at present, are relatively more expensive than conventional materials and a wider application of nanotechnology is expected to bring down the cost of nanoparticles.

Lucrative career option

Till a few years ago, there was very little awareness about the emerging career option in Rubber Technology, the branch of engineering that deals with the processing of latex, natural rubber or synthetic rubber, to transform them into useful products.

The country has now about 6,000 rubber units. With the rising number of automobiles and increasing use of rubber in industries, Rubber Technology is becoming a preferred career option for students and the demand for Rubber Technologists/Engineers are soaring high in recent times.

There are several institutions in the country, including the IITs, offering Diploma/BTech/MTech in Rubber Technology, but their annual intake is quite inadequate to meet the needs of the industry. Their infrastructure in terms of faculty, laboratory, workshops etc. are below par. The government needs to create more avenues for pursuing rubber technology education, considering the lucrative job opportunities awaiting qualified hands in both private and public sectors.

In this context, it’s heartening to note that the royal city of Mysuru is fast emerging as the hub of Rubber Technology education in India with the newly opened Raghupati Singhania Centre of Excellence (RPSCOE) and the Dr D Banerjee Centre of Excellence for Rubber Technology Education, Training, Research, Testing and Skill Development being set up by the Indian Rubber Institute (see accompanying story).

Growth potential

Contrary to what some sceptics believe, rubber is not a sunset industry. As the world economy expands, rubber will find new exciting applications.

As pointed out by Dr Ranjith Matthan, President of Indian Rubber Manufacturers Research Association (IRMRA) in an accompanying interview, India’s anticipated GDP growth is expected to drive domestic per capita rubber consumption and take the country to the second position in global rubber consumption by 2030, overtaking both the US and the EU.

There is an imperative need for the industry to upgrade technology so as to make best use of emerging opportunities. The government and the industry too have to ensure that the world production of rubber matches the projected demand. If natural rubber producers abandon production, manufacturers will suffer.

Apart from stop-gap measures such as market intervention and price subsidy, natural rubber producing countries must invest more in longer-term Research & Development to find new uses and applications of rubber and encourage value addition. That alone will take the global rubber industry on a higher growth trajectory.