Steelbird Hi-tech India showcases its helmet manufacturing technologies
Over many decades, road safety has remained a huge concern in India, as the country continues to top the charts globally for road accident-related deaths. Two-wheelers account for one-third of the 1.5 lakh registered deaths in the country each year, while it is estimated that every hour, four two-wheeler users, who die in a road accident, do not wear a helmet. Auto Tech Review recently visited Steelbird Hi-tech India Limited’s Baddi facility in Himachal Pradesh to have a deeper understanding of how the company is bracing up to offer innovative products focussed on delivering enhanced safety for two-wheeler riders.
Steelbird Hi-tech currently rolls out an average range of over 80 helmet models and 800 variants that comply with IS: 4151 mandates listed under the Bureau of Indian Standards. According to the mandates, the helmets should be capable of accelerating at 300 G (G-force) and not exceed 1.2 kg in weight along with impact absorption standards for increased safety.
ALL FOR HEAD SAFETY
At Steelbird, the helmet shell is developed using Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) sourced in granules. Taking natural ABS as the base, the colour pigments are used to develop coloured shells as per customer requirements. In the first stage of the shell development process, the ABS raw material is fed into mounted hopper dryers using vacuum loaders. The ABS material is pre-heated and pre-dried at 85-90 °C to remove any possibility of moisture playing its part in shell development, which could lead to its breakage as well as avoid surface appearance problems across the shell.
The material is subsequently passed through a barrel that is set at a temperature range of 170-240 °C to melt the hard granules. The melted raw material is subsequently injected into dyes with high pressure of up to 140 bars and each of the injection moulded shell then undergoes cooling operations. The two-stage water cooling process with two different temperature range has been designed to reduce the overall cycle time as well as enhance the productivity of the shell, while ensuring the product is more robust. A new shell is rolled out in a complete cycle time of 72 second (s) with every machine having an hourly production capacity of 50 pieces. The extra material associated with the newly-developed shell is then chopped off and sent to the grinding section for reuse in painted helmets. To manufacture child parts, Steelbird is also leveraging multi-plastics such as POM (polyoxine methylene), high density polyethylene (HDP) and low density polyethylene (LDP), polyvinyl chloride (PVC).
Steelbird also rolls out fibre-based helmets that are completely handmade. In a dye, the resin coating is first of all applied across the inner surface, followed by fibre sheets that are spread across the mould. After another coat of resin, a sheet of matt fibre is evenly spread across the inner surface and subsequently followed by a repeat of the first step again, after which the helmet is left for air drying for an hour. The dye is then opened to get a fibre-based shell for a handmade helmet.
Before a new shell performs the actual paint job, the shells are subjected to grinding with sandpapers to make the surface smoother and ready for accepting a coat of paint. An ABS-based shell is subjected to a paint process of 13 s, which is undertaken manually as well as through robots. The company has also installed water curtains to absorb the excess paint spent during paint job operations, which is also treated for managing other jobs in the facility. The shells are subsequently routed towards ovens operating at 50-60 °C for up to 50 min for the dry paint to settle down faster, rather than in air temperature.
The fibre-based shells are also forwarded to the paint job process, where water sanding is conducted to develop the base for helmets. The shell then undergoes primer-based putty inside as well as outside the shell, and the stage two of the water sanding process to make the shell ready for the paint job process. The painted shell is then subjected to 150 °C for three hours and then channelised towards the final assembly.
A helmet visor is a critical component for clear on-road visibility and may get scratches during day-to-day use, leading to visibility hindrance, especially during night travel. Thus, Steelbird is focussing on developing scratch-resistant visors for helmets, using polycarbonate for lightweight and robust operations. Sourcing polycarbonate from its trusted sources, the raw material is pre-heated at 120 °C for three hours and then channelised through a temperature range of 280- 330 °C. The melted polycarbonate is subsequently injected into the moulds based on the Steelbird’s models with a cycle time of 25 s/piece and a capacity of over 10,000 pieces per day. The moulded polycarbonate visors are then sent for further processing, where it is deployed with anti-scratch coatings.
The visors are subjected to a three-stage process that includes water-based cleaning and ultrasonic cleansing for dust-free visor production. Spread across four minutes of cycle time, the process also includes drying and dip-coating of visors with specialised chemicals to make the visor scratch resistant. And to ensure clear visibility of the visor, the company refrains from reusing the raw material that may be wasted during the visor development process. The visor dipped in coatings is forwarded to ovens operational at 130 °C for 120 min so that the coating settles down on visors.
On a random basis, the visors are subjected to a metal wool rub test in every shift to check the possibility of any scratch on newly-coated visors. Steelbird also uses masterbatch polycarobonates to develop coloured visors and also manufactures photochromatic visors depending on model production and demand. Metallised coatings are also developed based on evaporation of metals at high temperatures to roll out different types of visors like rainbow, mercury, gold, blue-coloured models, among others.
At Steelbird, the helmet interior is divided into three parts – head cover, cheeks cover and chin cover – to manage the overall safety of the head. The cuffia (the part that covers the thermocol inside the helmet shell) that manages the head safety gets a laminated foam and is also covered with lycra or rexine for comfort and easy removability for cleaning purposes. All the raw material for child parts such as cuffia, cheek pads and chin straps & buckles are outsourced, but stitched in-house across the company’s 10 assembly lines as per the different model requirements.
During assembly operations that are spread across 10 lines, every shell, whether fibre or ABS-based, is installed with chin straps and chin cover for enhanced safety. This is followed by cuffia and thermocol installation on the top in the inner surface and subsequently installed with the visor in the next stage to avoid any damage before sending it for pre-delivery inspection (PDI).
The new test norms now include the front impact test under varied conditions, temperature and humidity alongside the impact absorption test with additional impact points. Additionally, the new tests will stimulate the abrasion of the helmet during an accident and the effectiveness of the retention system. Another test for the retention system’s quick release mechanism has been added under the new guidelines, with an additional micro-slip test and abrasion test for the chin strap. While complying with the stringent safety norms, Steelbird Hi-tech engineers also test helmets for acceleration of up to 400 G along with four hours each for high and low temperature variation testing, ultra-violet (UV) chamber test, salt spray test as well as water dip test to maintain product robustness.
ANTICIPATING A BRIGHT FUTURE
Unfortunately, implementation of the latest BIS regulations across India has twice witnessed three-month extensions, with the first deadline for implementation being in January 2019. As of date, out of a total 219 helmet manufacturers, only five percent helmet manufacturers have actually rolled out genuine ISI-compliant products, claimed the company. With the new Motor Vehicle Act now implemented pan-India, Steelbird believes the total demand for ISI helmets in India will reach 100 mn units annually once the law enforcement is completely in place.
Steelbird has a combined manufacturing capacity of 22,000 helmets a day in its three state-of-the-art plants at Baddi. Additionally, the company has bought 15,600 sq m of land adjacent to its existing plants for expanding operations. Anticipating a heavy demand based on regulatory mandates, the company has earmarked an investment of Rs 150 cr in doubling its production capacity to 44,000 helmets a day.
TEXT: Anirudh Raheja
PHOTO: Bharat Bhushan Upadhyay