Packaging is everything, literally ! Whether it is liquid, dry & fatty food, RTE, FMCG, tobacco or other consumables; packaging for convenience, health and environmental friendliness has gained prominence. The focus is not only on commercially viable, functional and environmentally sustainable packaging but also on consumer perception through vibrant shelf appeal of printed packed products.

Abhijit Bhattacharya, our next pathbreaker, works as Senior Paper Packaging Specialist at the Institute of Packaging Sciences in Lausanne, Switzerland, with a focus on delivering recyclable food packaging solutions that can be scaled globally, while being commercially viable for replacing existing plastic-based packaging. 

Abhijit talks to  Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about taking up Printing Engineering by accident, being drawn to Packaging Sciences, doing an MBA and realizing that the real impact is through Research and New Product Development of innovative packaging applications.

For students, there are so many under-represented streams in engineering that need creative minds. Take the leadership role and set an example for others to follow and pursue unconventional streams !

Abhijit, tell us about your background?

I grew up in a small town Bhilai, Chattisgarh, India. My father Mr. Parimalendu Bhattacharya worked as an engineer with Indian Railways and my mother Mrs. ILA Bhattacharya was a teacher in a private school. 

I was good at studies in my school and my extra-curricular activities included participating in elocutions and anchoring stage shows, which allowed me to hone my oratory and language skills. 

Thanks to the inspiration that I garnered from my father, peers and all the success stories of people around us, I aspired to become an engineer and prepared myself accordingly.

After finishing off with my schooling in Bhilai, I secured an admission to Jadavpur University, Faculty of Engineering and Technology, Kolkata in the Printing Engineering stream. My choice of engineering discipline was just a matter of seat availability against the rank I scored in engineering entrance examination and I had no preconceived notion about any specific engineering stream. 

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I studied Bachelor of Printing Engineering from Jadavpur University. Amongst the plethora of engineering subjects within my stream I started developing a penchant for packaging science. I eventually made proactive and sincere efforts to undertake several industrial internship trainings during my engineering course to accelerate my learning in the domain of packaging science and technology. I gained deep insights into the applicability of theoretical knowledge in real world industrial scenarios, through cross-learning between my academic course and industrial internship programs. 

During my college days, beyond studies, I was also quite actively involved in events such as tech fairs, alumni meets, industry-academia networking, job placement initiatives, cultural fests and so on. All these invaluable experiences shaped my outlook. 

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

Thanks to the priceless learning experiences garnered through my proactive participation in industrial internship programs and industry-academia networking, I earned my first job at SICPA (now Siegwerk) – a Swiss Multinational Ink Manufacturing company. 

I must admit that I did not have much of a choice, as back then there weren’t many job opportunities available within specialized engineering domains such as mine. 

Fresh from college, I started getting absorbed into my first job at SICPA as a business development executive. Nevertheless, my father always kept on reminding me the value of higher education. A couple of years into my job, I enrolled for an executive MBA program at ICFAI, Hyderabad while continuing to work at SICPA. This choice was made just following the prevailing trends of career progression in India: Engineering followed by an MBA and so on. Though I did complete the MBA course and was also doing well in my job at SICPA, I felt like missing out on something. I was not enjoying the business development domain enough.

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.

The watershed moment in my career happened when I switched job from SICPA to ITC Limited, Paperboards and Specialty Papers Division (PSPD). The ITC job was posted in a newspaper and though the stated requirements were not a perfect match for my profile, I applied for it with a firm belief that given an opportunity I will be able to quickly learn and deliver on the job. It was this belief that made be crack the interviews at ITC. I got the role.

It was a major shift in my career as I transitioned from business development of inks to product development of paper and paperboards for packaging application. In a way, it was almost starting afresh after putting in 3 years in a totally different domain and notably after adding an MBA to my qualification. Yet I consider that it was worth changing tracks rather than not being able to enjoy the work. 

After starting off at ITC, I found myself passionately involved in developing paper and paperboards for packaging applications. I was also fortunate to get an outstanding exposure to hone my scientific skills in the domain of paper-based packaging applications on a global landscape. 

The dawn of 21st century witnessed a surge in consumerism in India which led to lifestyle transformations and trends such as convenience, health and environment friendliness gained prominence. With young generation quickly embracing new trends such as shopping in supermarkets, consuming ready-to-eat packaged food and doing e-commerce, the demand for packaged products increased exponentially. Paper and paperboards became the material of choice for various packaging applications because it strikes the right balance between functional, commercial and environmental performance. ITC being the largest producer of paperboards in India led this transformational journey by closely working with brand owners, retailers, converters and packaging manufactures to craft success stories involving paper-based packaging solutions in the market place.

I got the opportunity to lead the concept to market journey of paper and paperboards for a wide range of packaging applications such as liquid packaging, dry & fatty food packaging, FMCG, tobacco, consumer durables to name a few. My role involved formulating paper structure, running the risk analysis, food safety analysis, raw material selection and formulating the manufacturing strategy for translating the QFD (Quality Function Deployment) Kano customer learnings into standard process protocols and product specifications.

At ITC I met Mr. Akhilesh Sinha who was then the General Manager at ITC and my mentor. He helped me discover my true potential and most importantly my true calling – my purpose – translating scientific ideas into successful products. 

While at the same time I would also like to acknowledge the support from Mr. Sanjay Singh the CEO of ITC, PSPD (Paperboards and Specialty Papers Division) who facilitated my professional and academic progression in parallel tracks. 

With the funding and support from ITC I was able to complete my PhD in Paper Engineering from Jadavpur University. This was possible because my PhD research topic was in great alignment with my job role at ITC besides also fulfilling my purpose. This time around I was lucky to have my lovely wife, Papiya, my loving little daughter, Debotri, my parents and my PhD supervisors Dr. Swati Bandhyopadhyay & Dr. Phil Green who supported me in every possible way throughout my PhD journey. My wife, in particular, had to go through a lot of sacrifices to make me what I am today.

I embarked on my PhD research journey to find a solution to the real-world industrial challenge of developing reliable predictive tools for upscaling the development life cycle of paperboards. It was possible for me to enrich and deploy my learnings from my PhD research into real world paper production scenario since I was concurrently working at ITC while pursing my PhD research. 

My PhD topic was “Characterizing Surface and Optical Properties of Paper for Modelling Color Reproduction”. The objective of my PhD research was to model the contribution of the paper surface towards halftone print attributes which holds the key to achieving vibrant shelf appeal of printed packed products on the shelf. To accomplish this goal, new predictive models were developed for accurately predicting the halftone print performance of coated paper and paperboards without requiring actual printing on the paper surface. The predictive models enabled cutting down the cycle time for developing new paper and paperboard grades for various printed packaging applications by facilitating real time assessment in a live paper manufacturing process without having to waits for weeks or sometimes months for getting the feedback on print performance of the paper and paperboards. 

The next momentous period in my professional progression happened when I moved on from ITC to DIAGEO. Though I was initially not very sure whether to step outside my comfort zone within ITC where by this time I spent more than 10 years and my credentials were well established, I decided to move on, thanks to the motivation and the visibility of the bigger picture provided by Mr. Ansuman Majumdar, Head of packaging innovation at DIAGEO India. The role at Diageo was quite entrepreneurial in nature and I went on to create another success story by bringing alive a world-class Packaging Technology Centre housing more than 50 pieces of state-of-the-art equipment and a team with amazing scientific acumen. When I reflect, I would say this was indeed the right career move at that point of time because the learning curve was exponential, and the role was way more enterprising than all my previous experiences.

Finally, I landed in my current job at Nestlé Research in Switzerland as a Senior Paper Packaging Specialist. I came across the job posting for my current role over LinkedIn and applied for it, considering that this opportunity would enable me to make a far bigger contribution to my field in a truly global environment. Eventually I got the job and I am now getting the opportunity to unleash my years of experience, knowledge, skills and professional network for a much bigger global cause of shaping a waste-free society, by replacing plastics with fiber based sustainable packaging solutions.

I would like to thank Gerhard Niederreiter, Head of Nestlé Institute of Packaging Sciences and Lise Zeboudj, Department Manager, Fiber-based & Biodegradable Packaging Materials for providing me with the right platform to succeed in my current role. 

How did you get your first break?

It was during one of my industrial internship programs in my final year of engineering course when I had a chance meeting with Mr. Kundu who was then the regional marketing manager at SICPA (now Siegwerk) – a Swiss multinational ink company. Subsequently I contacted Mr.Kundu to establish a collaboration between my college and SICPA for working on technical projects of mutual interest.

This engagement gained me an interview opportunity at SICPA who were running a recruitment drive for final-year engineering students. It was the first job interview of my life and I was naturally quite nervous. As the interview progressed, I became more comfortable – especially when I started talking about the projects that I undertook during my industrial internship program and then about my extra-curricular activities such as establishing industry-academia collaborations, participation in tech fairs, college fests and so on. Finally, I got that job and took off in my professional journey, which has been enjoyable and fulfilling so far. 

What were the challenges in your career? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: 

Industry-Academia Networking

Lack of strong interlinkages between universities and industry in India has been one of the key challenges. Consequently, the industrial relevance of the skill set acquired by students through academic courses, especially in applied engineering streams such as Printing Engineering is not very encouraging. Poor networking also results in obsolescence of the course content being disseminated. For example, my Printing Engineering course was heavily focused around print media applications which have been witnessing a steady downfall over the past decade.

I took baby steps to establish industry-academia connections by networking with Alumni and organizing alumni meets regularly during my college days. Conversations with my college seniors made me realize that the applicability of theoretical knowledge in real life can best be addressed through industrial visits. I started visiting various industrial entities on my own which enabled me to gain an understanding of the real-world problems to take back to the college and discover solutions for. These initiatives not only unlocked the potential for establishing various industrial collaborations for our college but were also quite rewarding in terms of my professional progression.

Challenge 2: 

Finding my Purpose

It is quite common to get driven by the wave and prevailing trends. In doing so, often do we fail to find and connect with a purpose that inspires and propels us. Consequently, our career progression starts getting controlled by external factors and therefore may not bring fulfilment or job satisfaction. 

I must admit that in the initial days of my career I did get carried away by conventions and went with the wind, which eventually did not yield job satisfaction. It took a bit of introspection and courage to shift tracks and find and connect to my purpose. This not only brought job satisfaction, but enabled me to shape my academic and career progression concurrently.

Challenge 3: 

Stepping outside my comfort zone

As we grow along, we hone certain skills and develop competencies in doing things requiring those skills. When we fail to expand our skill set, we tend to confine ourselves within our comfort zone and remain content with known challenges. This paves the way to complacency which is one of the hindrances to augmenting our learning curve.

I got quite comfortable in one of my job stints as I worked there for more than a decade and slowly without even realizing it my learning curve almost stagnated and hence, I started experiencing a lack of growth. Whenever new opportunities came my way, I was unsure simply because I was shying away from stepping out of my comfort zone and taking up new challenges. Eventually, when I showed the courage and ventured outside of my comfort zone, I did actualize an exponential surge in my learning curve and faster career progression. This helped me to get to where I am today.

Tell us, where do you work now? 

I am currently working at Nestlé in the Institute of Packaging Sciences in Lausanne, Switzerland, as a Senior Paper Packaging Specialist. The institute is the first Packaging R&D institute of its kind in the food industry worldwide. Nestlé’s vision is a world in which none of our packaging ends up in landfill or as litter. To realize this vision Nestlé created the Institute of Packaging Sciences to pioneer research in several areas such as refillable or reusable packaging, simplified packaging materials, recycled packaging materials, high-performance barrier papers as well as bio-based, compostable and biodegradable materials. The institute is also working in close collaboration with globally leading academic institutions and industrial partners to create a pipeline of high performance, environmentally friendly packaging solutions.

What problems do you solve?

I am responsible for delivering recyclable fiber-based food packaging solutions that can be scalable globally, while being commercially viable for replacing existing plastic-based packaging. 

What skills are needed for your job? How did you acquire the skills?

My job requires the ability to translate deep scientific understanding of paper-based materials into successful commercially viable food packaging solutions. My experience, educational background, networking and above all a positive outlook enables me to live up to my current job responsibilities.

What’s a typical day like?

My typical day job involves leading the scientific content development for internal and external projects, scouting and assessing state-of-the-art technologies in the field of fiber-based packaging materials and developing external collaborations with key scientific and industrial partners. 

What is it you love about this job? 

What I love in my current job is indeed its strong connection with my purpose of leveraging scientific ideas and concepts for developing successful products in the marketplace. Beyond this, the key driver for me is the opportunity to interact and network with people from all over the world, thanks to the truly global work environment at Nestlé Institute of Packaging Sciences.   

How does your work benefit society? 

Plastic waste is one of the biggest sustainability issues the world is facing today. Replacing plastics with sustainable packaging solutions will enable us to mitigate the environmental challenges arising from plastic waste disposal and hence facilitate the creation of a waste-free society.  

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

I established a research collaboration between ITC and RISE, Sweden which is one of the world’s leading research institutes in the domain of paper technology. I strategized and led this research consortium to find industrially scalable and commercially viable solutions for highly demanding scientific challenges concerning the high-speed application of paperboards to tobacco packaging involving first-of-their-kind profiled edge geometries on pack. 

The solution unlocked significant business opportunities for the organization, and the product is still regarded as a global benchmark today.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

A solid education background is undeniably one of the bedrocks for a successful career. Yet it’s more important to stay hungry and continuously augment your learning curve to help shape your career progression. Finally, networking and interaction with people provides food for thought and unlocks new possibilities.

Future Plans?

To progress in my career by contributing to the creation of sustainable packaging solutions – to eventually shape a waste-free society and make a difference to the world by boosting the bio-economy.