Babrala, northern exposure

Northern India is rural and remote and a significant portion of the population is engaged in agriculture. This is the heartland of the Tata Chemicals Farm Essentials business.

At Babrala, Uttar Pradesh, is India's most energy-efficient urea plant. Its efficiency puts it in the top 10 per cent globally. Commissioned on a green-field site in 1994, it is the centre piece of the group's crop nutrition business. Assuming a favourable, imminently expected, decision from the government on allocation of new gas supplies, it will be the site of a second urea plant within the next three years. Capacity will more than double.

Babrala township is home to some 400-plus employees and their families. It's set in a beautifully landscaped, tree-lined 1,400-acre campus, complete with a lake and sports ground.

There are two plants. One produces ammonia, primarily from domestically produced natural gas but also using some imported LNG. Ammonia is an intermediary feedstock used in the second plant to produce urea. Around 2,000 tonnes of ammonia are produced and reacted with COeach day to make 3,500 tonnes of urea. At the heart of the operation, visible from across the township, is a 108-metre prilling tower. In the tower, at a height of around 80 metres, is a bucket through which urea melt is sprayed. The diameter of holes and speed of rotation of this bucket determine the size of the prills produced, as the urea falls and solidifies as it cools.

Consistent product size is one way in which Tata Chemicals urea, marketed under the 25-year-old Paras brand, differentiates itself from its competitors. And, product differentiation is vital in a regulated market where there is little or no scope for premium pricing.

For the management at Babrala, headed by the genial O P Tripathi, site head and VP, manufacturing, capacity utilisation, product quality and energy efficiency are constantly front of mind. At Babrala, these are key measures of manufacturing excellence. Input costs, primarily the cost of natural gas, and the price at which urea is sold, is regulated so the profitability of the plant is dictated by its ability to make maximum capacity utilisation with minimum specific use of energy.

A number of factors contribute to this world-class energy consumption. Some such as a second ammonia converter were built into the original plant design. "Someone had to dare to try. There are lots of things which were completely new when this plant was commissioned," says Tripathi who joined 20 years ago, since its inception. Being power-intensive rather than steam-intensive, again built into the original design, is another benefit. The real key is keeping operating parameters at optimum level within minimum variations. "Our focus is on managing the asset and maximising production by running as close to design specifications while retaining safety as our main priority. Six Sigma benchmarking and capturing innovative ideas are all part of that ongoing process. These tools have been part of our modus operandi since 2003–04," he says.

Day-to-day plant running is the responsibility of G K Rao, assistant vice president, Operations. "There are other plants which use the same process and technology, but the Tata Chemicals plant is the most energy efficient and a role model for operational excellence in the country. We have set ourselves tough targets."

"We monitor parameters very closely and keep the plant running at optimum levels. By running at high productivity levels, we're able to spread the fixed energy costs across a big volume and in doing so keep specific energy consumption low. We're currently operating at around 5.2mkcal/tonne. To achieve that our operators have to be well trained," he says.

Monitoring those parameters is done from the spotless central control room, the high-tech 'window' through which three shifts of operators monitor the plants 24/7. Training happens in an adjacent control simulator.

The facility is now 17 years old and some equipment is less efficient than it was. A 30-day shut down in March and  Rs200 crore (US$40 million) investment in new machinery, as well as cleaning existing equipment, is the biggest investment since the urea plant was debottlenecked and extended in 2008.

A further investment, close to Rs558 crore (US$1 billion), is planned with the building of a second urea plant with a daily capacity of 3,850 tonnes.

All the required land is already owned by Tata Chemicals. With all site infrastructure already in place, there are significant economies of scale to be achieved. Once gas allocations are cleared, it should take around 28–30 months to complete the second plant.

Responsible for delivering the new plant, 'Babrala2', will be the head of Operations, S Bhasker Kumar. He explains that blueprints are in place and most of the basic engineering is completed. "The message we're getting from the government is that they're committed to building urea capacity across India, so we're optimistic that the allotment will come. Given the scale of the investments we can't proceed until we have that confirmation."

The new plant is designed to have a specific energy consumption of around 4.7mkcal/tonne. Bhasker, a former plant head at Haldia, has recently returned from a project in Nigeria. He is optimistic about Babrala's future and about the benefits that come from now being part of an international business. "Having the ability to share ideas and best practice with colleagues in other geographies is of huge benefit to the group. Mobility of employees is key to the sharing of knowledge and our journey to manufacturing excellence," he adds.

The ability to get the most from the existing asset and look to future growth is in large part due to the "unique and highly collaborative work culture at Babrala," says Tripathi. "For administrative purposes we have 18 departments. For the purposes of the plant we are one team," he says.

That view is shared by HR head Captain Santosh, former army officer and sports fanatic. The workforce at Babrala, with an average age of 36, is significantly younger than the average across Tata Chemicals. He describes Babrala as a "place of dreams", but acknowledges that because of its remoteness it's not always an attractive place for young people.

"Young people want facilities and intellectual and cultural stimulation. We work hard to develop team spirit. There's a great sense of camaraderie. Cross-functional teams are an important way of achieving that. That also allows us to share knowledge and make sure that the insights of our older colleagues – who've been here since the plants' commissioning – are shared with younger generations. We also make sure that our young colleagues are given challenging jobs, which stretch them. We hope those challenges make up to some degree for the fact that we live in a remote location," he says.

Customised fertilisers improving yields
Crop yields in India are generally lower than most developed countries, though they vary significantly among regions. Increasing economic yield of crops through balanced fertilisation is key to both improving farmers' income and sustaining soil health.

Tata Chemicals' strategy has been to transform itself from a 'fertiliser seller' to a 'complete crop nutrition solution provider'. Customised fertiliser is a step in that direction.

The Centre for Agri-solutions and Technology (CAT) at Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh, founded in 2006, is home to four scientists, a small support team, a state-of-the-art plant nutrition lab and crop specialists executing multi-location field experiments. The scientists have used GIS technology to map soil nutrient supplying power. This unique database has been used to develop a range of possible compositions of customised fertilisers.

Principal scientist, Dr. Naveen Kalra explains, "We conducted more than 500 multi-locational trials in 30 districts of Western Uttar Pradesh to develop specific customised grades. Once we had those grades approved by the government, our colleagues at Babrala began commercial production. Sold as Tata Paras Farmoola, these products are blended to provide a balanced mixture of both macro- and micro-nutrients. Farmers using them are improving yields of potato, sugarcane, rice and wheat in the range of 10–30 per cent".

Development of customised foliar nutrition products for perennial crops like tea and apple, and other commercial crops like cotton, vegetables and sugarcane will begin later this year. Products will be in the market in around two to three years' time.

Such products, both for soil and foliar application, offer long-term potential according to senior scientist Dr. Subhendu Bhadraray. He says, "The government's focus in the future will be to improve yields in the eastern part of our country. At this stage we've probably seen around 5 per cent of the full potential of customised fertilisers. The future opportunities and benefits are huge."