Even the most reliable bikes in the world can let you down if a critical component gives away, the tires which touch the road !

Kumar Sankaran, our next pathbreaker, Tire Researcher at TVS EuroGrip, develops new rubber compounds with desired properties for the tire industry.

Kumar talks to  Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal about getting the right opportunity at the right time after his BSc (Physics), to pursue a BTech in Rubber Technology and PhD (Rubber Technology) from IIT Kharagpur.

For students, sometimes it pays to be patient and a little carefree because you never know what the future has in store for you! 

Kumar, tell us about your initial years?

I was born in Madurai and grew up in a small, naturally abundant village called Ambasamudram where I did my schooling from LKG to 12th in the same school. I loved playing cricket a lot, be it street cricket, exam pad cricket, or cricket in the playground. I also love to play football. These activities increased my interest in physics. School days were memorable and golden to me as I was cheerfully irresponsible.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I did my BSc in Physics from St.Joseph’s college, Tiruchirapalli and B.Tech in Rubber and Plastics technology at Madras Institute of Technology, Chennai and I am extremely proud and privileged to follow the academic footprints of Dr.Abdul Kalam who was an alumnus of both institutions. I did my PhD in Rubber Technology from IIT Kharagpur.

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and fascinating career?

I love nature. Physics is very close to nature. Hence I chose physics for my under graduation.

Rubber ball always inspired me while playing cricket, the same way the physics of air filled tires or colorful football/basketball bladders always made me inquisitive. Having graduated with a physics background, it gave me the right platform to choose rubber technology as my career.

I never thought of anything about my future goals during my school days, neither was i ambitious. I didn’t score enough to crack engineering entrance but never regretted it. My parents gave me full freedom to choose my career as they had limited knowledge on career trends. Based on my aunt’s suggestion (whose son was doing Bsc in physics from St.Joseph’s college) I happily decided to pursue BSc in Physics from the same St.Joseph’s college, Tiruchirapalli. The best part was, I knew that i would be getting all the notes and books from my cousin, which made the process easy. In fact, it worked. I scored record 100% and 99% in mathematics in my first semester internal and external respectively and overall 2nd rank in BSc.  I was able to score consistently in my entire BSc, thanks to my cousin who offered a helping hand. He was my second guide. I had an opportunity to explore quantum mechanics which was my favorite subject as well as modern physics. The physics lab was one of its kind, with instruments ranging from spectrometers to oscillators. Even the lab fan had only two long wings which was pretty amazing to watch.

While I was in my final year, through my seniors including my cousin, I came to know of a possibility to do a B.Tech in Rubber and plastics technology at MIT (Madras Institute of Technology), Chennai through lateral entry. Being already fascinated with the physics of rubbers, I thought it would be a good idea to integrate my interest in rubbers with my physics background and hence I decided to pursue B.Tech in Rubber and plastics technology at Madras Institute of Technology, Chennai through lateral entry. I cleared the exams (got few sample question papers from seniors for study reference) .

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

I was fortunate to start my career in core engineering after BTech. My first job was in auto ancillaries (Premier seals, Pune) where I learnt rubber technology from industrial view point. It helped me understand the basics and demands of the industry from the perspective of rubber technologists. Being a fresher, it gave me an opportunity and freedom to comprehensively learn.  Here i was involved in development of rubber compounds for all kinds of rubber components like rubber mounts, rubber couplings, gaskets, quarter glass for car windows, oil seals etc..

Next I had a short stint in a Korean auto ancillary (PHI, Chennai) where I learnt aspects of vendor development and people management though it was out of my core area. Nevertheless, it gave me add-on skills apart from my technical knowledge. I always gained respect from colleagues as I was the only proper rubber technologist available. This job gave me the freedom to take key decisions regarding approving and developing local vendors for metals and casting parts needed for rubber to metal bonding components. 

My dream, or the dream for any Rubber Technologist is always to join the R&D of a tire company. It happened when i got a break in TVS Eurogrip, Madurai. I began my career with TVS as Junior Manager in the compounding team in R&D.

Rubber compound development requires unique technical skills and experience on non linear visco-elastic properties of the polymer unlike hookean behavior of metals. It requires a trade-off between viscous and elastic properties of the elastomeric compounds for desired properties. The selection of materials is key. My entry into TVS Eurogrip as compound designer helped me gain practical experience on designing compounds, selecting the right chemical ingredients and optimizing the mix.

It was overwhelming when I was offered a direct PhD position from IIT Kharagpur. I had no second thoughts in resigning my job for a refurbished career growth.

There was a scheme for a direct PhD in Rubber Technology (which is available only at IIT Kharagpur) after B.Tech for professionals with a good academic record (I was gold medalist in B.Tech) and R&D experience. The program is SRIC (Sponsored Research & Industrial Consultancy) project. As Nehru said, knowledge is a drop in the ocean, my passion for rubber, along with my R&D experience in tires inspired me to know more about this unique field in rubber technology. I also felt that it was worth holding a PhD degree in a field that one is passionate about. Moreover, a doctoral degree in a very narrow field always offers a great career advantage. I cleared all the check boxes in terms of eligibility criteria as well as the entrance exam and a face to face interview. My PhD was a fully sponsored project funded by CEAT tyres. My experience in the tire industry also helped me clear the personal interview which also had a CEAT representative in the selection panel.

My PhD topic was on application of nanomaterials for tire applications, which is very much related to my work experience and it will provide a platform to explore materials science. I was exposed to nanotechnology during my entire PhD tenure, trying out nano-fillers ranging from nanoclays to graphenes for various tire applications. We have successfully developed a nano filled tire material with superior performance and filed a patent on the same.

How did you get your first break?

As explained before, getting in to TVS R&D was my first break.

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

Some of the challenges i would say i faced were decision making. Though we used to discuss with others as a team, decisions must be yours and never to regret your own decision.

Where do you work now? 

Presently, I am heading new compound development team in TVS Eurogrip in Madurai. A compound is a mixture of chemical ingredients including rubbers and fillers to get the desired properties for an application in the tire industry. Being a PhD, I employ various tools and techniques for compound design, test simulation, compound characterization and data analysis. I also explore advanced functional materials and nano-fillers and their application on tire materials and performances. It also gives me an opportunity to collaborate with academic institutions, professors and materials experts for scientific research and enables me to publish research journals, file patents and take part in international conferences. The PhD experience gives me direct opportunities to meet the above expectations.

Technically my work is related to mostly physics. It includes some bits of chemistry, polymers and chemicals. However, the test simulations, characterization of compounds and tires adopted is much inclined towards physics. Tire, its mechanics and dynamics is physics.

I am thankful to TVS Eurogrip for rehiring me after my PhD tenure, which involved a scientific facelift in high performance compound development, and giving me greater responsibility in heading a team, which I consider as a challenge and an opportunity. I had no hesitation to rejoin from where I left. It gives me a personal satisfaction of not forgetting the roots from where I came.

The current job gives me a platform to establish myself in all dimension. It demands scientific research, data analysis, technical knowledge, team management, project management, administrative and communication skills. Best thing is I have freedom to cater to all the required demands.

How does your work benefit the society? 

Safety, quality, compliance, value for the product and eco-friendliness is what I look in to for in any compound design. 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

Being a doctorate in Rubber Technology, scientific research and collaborative projects always fascinate me. I have developed a light weight tire using Nano-fillers which got filed as patent. I have also filed six patents on compound design for tires. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

As Einstein quoted: for all the knowledge, money, power, social status he gained, only peacefulness makes him happier eventually. Education is only a tool. Learn yourself for a peaceful and happy life.

Future Plans?

To set up rubber research lab.