GCPA panel discussion; Role of Sustainable Materials transcribed

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Here’s what industry experts have to say about sustainability in the automotive sector

Learn what they have to say about government policies, the role of OEMs, scrappage facilities, and consumer outlook when sustainability comes into play.

The first panel at the conference revolved around a discussion on ‘The Role of Sustainable Materials in Environmental Conservation.’ Speakers on the panel were Mohammed Rahail Parvaiz, Head CoC (Material and Product Development), Varroc Engineering Pivate Limited; Sanjay Khare, Vice President, Safety & Sustainability Strategy, Koda Auto Volkswagen India Private Limited; Amol Gaikwad, Head Supplier Quality & Supply Chain, Tata Motors Commercial Vehicles, and Jaiprakash Ramani, Chief Marketing Officer, Automotive BU, Supreme Group. The panel was moderated by Divakar Gokhale, Head of Mobility, Indian Sub-continent, Covestro India.

The discussion commenced with Gokhale directing a question to the representatives from original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), Amol Gaikwad and Sanjay Khare. He inquired about the key government policies in place for the automotive industry that would drive the adoption of sustainable materials.

Khare stated that his discussions with Niti Ayog regarding the circular economy in the automotive sector have given him the impression that the government has a clear objective. The goal is to establish specific percentages for recycled and virgin materials. The automotive industry underwent a significant transformation from BS4 to BS6, requiring substantial investments and rapid process changes. These advancements have swiftly taken place in India as the government is ambitiously striving to grow the economy from 3.5 billion dollars to 7 trillion dollars in 7-8 years.

He highlighted that manufacturing contributes over 15 per cent to the existing 3.5 trillion-dollar economy, with a substantial portion coming from the automotive industry, amounting to nearly 550 billion dollars. With the aim of making manufacturing 25 per cent of the 7 trillion-dollar economy, the automotive industry’s value would surpass 1750 billion dollars, reflecting a 3.5-fold growth in the next 5–6 years. This growth mindset guides the government’s actions, prompting officials like Piyush Goyal to organise numerous conclaves.

According to him, exportation is expected to play a crucial role in this economic expansion. The shift from rural to urban areas will be evident, with a strong reliance on the manufacturing and logistics sectors. Skoda-Volkswagen currently exports about 35–40 per cent of its production to economies below the equator, including Mexico. Plans are underway to expand exports to Vietnam and various African regions.

If there is continued extraction without restraint, we risk depleting these resources, leaving us with very little. Therefore, the concept of a circular economy revolves around achieving economic development without compromising finite resources. The goal is to create a self-sustaining system without the need for continuous extraction. 

However, there’s positive news. In addition to regulatory measures and government initiatives, significant technological developments are underway. Khare mentioned that just last week Skoda Volkswagen’s Material and Finish department organised an event showcasing their efforts. They are working on mono materials—those without multi-layered plastics and designed for clear recyclability. Their focus includes haptics and AI-based simplified designs to ensure that all parts are recyclable. Moreover, both Skoda and Volkswagen have committed to using 100 per cent recycled PET for automotive seats in Europe. Audi has pioneered the use of bio-based materials and life-cycle adjustments, leading to a 5–6 percent improvement in fuel efficiency. Luxury brands like Lamborghini and Porsche have extensively used composites for lightweighting purposes.

In summary, there are three key areas driving the entire initiative. According to him, the  first entails sustainability, encompassing requirements for lightweighting, fuel efficiency, and recyclability. The second area involves regulations, while the third centres on bottom-up initiatives—what actions innovators and responsible citizens can take.

Gaikwad emphasised that the government has adopted an assertive approach towards the rapid development observed in the automotive sector. He pointed to the forthcoming AIS 129 guidelines, which will require a specified percentage of sustainability and recyclability at the vehicle level. While this practice is already common in developed countries, it is yet to be implemented in India. Further, Regulatory factors play a significant role in shaping the decisions of OEMs, influencing choices related to raw materials, technology, product design, and sourcing strategies. OEMs are not only expected to comply with regulations but also to ensure that the technology is prepared well in advance of these regulatory changes.

Secondly, the government has expanded the producer’s responsibility, meaning that both users and producers are obligated to manage the entire life cycle of specific aggregates. It’s not just about producing assets; they must also be appropriately tagged, traced, and tracked until disposal. Currently, this requirement applies to a limited set of aggregates, like batteries and plastic packaging. However, as the scope broadens to include ferrous and non-ferrous materials and other components, the responsibility of the ecosystem will increase. Whether it’s on the demand or supply side, the entire ecosystem will bear a greater responsibility.

Divakar then directed the discussion towards Parvaiz and Ramani, initiating a conversation about their activities in this domain.

Parvaiz articulated that Varroc has a well-defined strategy focused on the sustainability and reusability of plastics. He highlighted the projection that 60 per cent of emissions by 2040 will stem from materials alone, prompting the initiation of two ongoing projects. In one project, a biomaterial derived from coffee shells has been incorporated into polypropylene (PP) to replace the Ford housing, and it is currently in production. Additionally, this year, Varroc is set to launch another project that involves using natural fibre as a substitute for talc.

This provides a significant benefit of a 20 per cent reduction in weight, and it was discovered that the processing temperature of this material is over 40 per cent lower than that of conventional materials. This covers both energy consumption and CO2 emissions.

There are two approaches to sustainability, particularly in terms of materials, that he shared, the first involves introducing biomaterials, which is a straightforward method. The second entails using recycled content and avoiding single-use materials. He urged that the responsibility for sustainability is not solely that of tier 1; it requires collaboration from raw material suppliers, tier 1 suppliers, and OEMs.

Speaking about Supreme Group, Ramani shared that they not only serve the automotive sector as a component supplier, but they are also backward integrated. Supreme handles their own materials, even going as far as processing their own fibres.

They implemented a four-pronged strategy, which they refer to as ‘better by design, better by materials, better by performance, and better by end of life.’ To elaborate, their designs aim to embody a zero-waste mentality. 

Advancing with better materials involves the use of renewed and repurposed materials. Additionally, when discussing improvements in the end-of-life phase, he pointed out that they are looking at their peers and have initiated the development of an ecosystem to reintegrate products into a domain where materials can be extracted for reuse.

The conversation then shifted to how individuals in the Tier 1 sector operate in this field and whether they always wait for an OEM directive before taking action.

Ramani responded stating that as tier-one suppliers, they naturally view OEMs as significant influencers, often adopting a “big brother” approach and expecting them to take the lead. Nevertheless, he acknowledged that in sustainability initiatives, there is always a need to strike a delicate balance between environmental considerations, economic factors, and social responsibility. Achieving this balance proves to be a challenging task for tier-one suppliers.

However, he did mention that they do try to share their insights from a product perspective during discussions, and there is a mutual interest in exploring potential implementations. It is a two-way communication.

Amol further explained that each OEM has its own technology roadmap, extending beyond short-term plans. The key challenge is to collaboratively identify opportunities to integrate solutions from tier one, tier two, and tier three suppliers. While OEMs may not readily share this information, presenting innovative products and demonstrating their alignment with the OEM’s goals can open doors for collaboration.

Speaking on behalf of Varroc, Parvaiz stated that the company is consistently on the lookout for opportunities. They actively seek areas where they can introduce changes. The process involves continuous effort, including prototyping, and approaching OEMs with proposals for material changes that can offer benefits.

The process begins with input from established raw material suppliers, followed by collaboration with compounders who work based on the company’s requirements. The challenge then becomes adapting the design from conventional materials to the new material, conducting validation and testing, and presenting the final product to OEMs, ensuring it meets their specifications. While there may be challenges in obtaining precise requirements initially, once there is clarity and focus, the company is able to learn and develop formulations according to current needs.

He also called out for collective action, stating that it’s not about setting individual targets; it’s a collective objective for everyone.

Gokhale then sparked a conversation on the vehicle scrappage policy, to which Amol replied that Tata Motors has already opened two scrappage facilities, one in the north and one in the south or eastern zone, and there are many more scrappage facilities that can be expected from the company as it aims to build a pan-India presence. Further, these scrap centres will process commercial vehicles of all brands, and this is how we are supporting a circular economy.

While concluding, Divakar posed a critical question to the panellists and raised a response about whether consumers are aware of the use of sustainable materials in vehicles, and while purchasing a car, they started asking about whether it contains any sustainable materials.

Only when the thought process moves beyond the mileage that a vehicle provides, or as Sanjay quoted. “kitna deti hai,” will people be able to think about this.

He optimistically envisioned that the Gen Z coming forth will be more conscious about these topics.

Gaikwad articulated that for consumer awareness to spread, the market is not mature enough. Though India is seeing considerable growth when it comes to the volumes of passenger and commercial vehicles, with respect to the average price point, the country is not quite on par with developed nations.

Parvaiz added that, in his view, the primary focus should be on advertising. He used Ford as an example and pointed out that consumer awareness about sustainability will occur through effective advertising. Once the word is spread, considering the changing purchasing power of consumers, people will start discussing and inquiring about the sustainable contents of their vehicles. With the evolution of electric vehicles, there is significant potential, particularly in replacing internal components like cockpits or luggage with sustainable materials. Consequently, OEMs will eventually be able to promote cars with, for instance, 20 or 30 percent recycled materials, bringing about a positive change.

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