Sectors such as Aerospace, Automotives and Renewable Energy require high performance materials that are strong, lightweight, corrosion-resistant, and dimensionally stable. Engineered Textiles cater to such challenges by providing an alternate material solution for such applications.  

Ashok Rajpurohit, our next pathbreaker, Composite Materials Scientist at GE Renewable Energy, develops composite materials and high performance fibers used in manufacturing of wind blades that rotate on a wind tower to capture wind.

Ashok talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about initially studying textiles made from synthetic or man-made fibers, and securing Europe’s (and the world’s) most prestigious “Marie Sklodowska Curie” funding for his industry focused PhD on Hybrid Composites to address real world problems.

For students, a career is not a straight line that you can easily plan. You need to take life as it comes – one step at a time, because there might be twists and turns that take you on a path that you never contemplated or planned for !

Ashok, tell us about your background?

I was born in Barmer, the western part of the Indian subcontinent, the “Thar Desert” in Rajasthan. My father was in the business of manufacturing and trading of textiles, specifically, suiting’s, shirting’s and dhotis in Ichalkaranji, Maharashtra. It is the town that produces everything we refer to as textiles or technical textiles: from sewing threads, the clothes we wear, to the textiles that go in a car and those that go to war. Owing to its textile business, the town is also called as the Manchester City of Maharashtra, and here is where I grew up ! 

I like travelling to new places and meeting people. Learning about different cultures energizes me. I have travelled to about 15 countries, lived in 5. Varanasi, London, Melbourne, Stuttgart and Jerusalem are my favorites. I enjoy sports, I love cricket, while badminton, swimming and running refreshes me. In my spare time, I enjoy meeting friends, listening to shayaris, solving Sudoku and Rubik’s cube. I am a passionate fan and follower of folk music by Manganiyars and Langas. I also listen to classics from Bollywood and abroad. I am an active participant in Seva Bharati’s volunteering causes in natural calamity relief camps and blood donation camps

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I did my BTech in Manmade Textile Technology, MTech in Textile Engineering (IIT Delhi) and PhD in Material Sciences & Engineering from PSL Research University.

Growing here amidst the sound of looms and the blooming textile trade, it was very natural for me to pursue a career in what I liked and what I grew up with, Textiles! Thanks to the city’s business culture, it also was home to a prestigious engineering college, DKTE Society’s Textile & Engineering Institute (now an autonomous institute), which already had made a mark in the textile education world. I did my engineering with a focus on Man-Made Textile Technology. I topped my branch for 4 straight years! 

One additional thing I liked about my alma mater was its strong connect with industries. I did a few internships in the spinning (Alok Industries, Silvassa) and weaving departments (Vinayak Textiles, Ichalkaranji) where I studied processes in yarn manufacturing and weaving for garment manufacturing. As a part of internship I also did a training on latest shuttle-less weaving machines at ITEMA in Coimbatore. 

After I stepped into the world of textiles, I got to know that textiles is not just about clothes, but a material which finds applications in medical, defense, construction, automotive, marine and even aerospace domains. 

As I learned, I developed interest in this material and ventured deep into this fascinating field, leading me to pursue post-graduation. I scored an AIR of 17 in GATE 2010 and secured admission with MHRD, Govt of India Scholarship at IIT Delhi, the only IIT offering post-graduation in this area. Just after 1st year, I secured another prestigious German Government Scholarship (DAAD) to write my master’s thesis at Germany’s University of Stuttgart. I spent the second year of my masters at IIT in Germany learning composites and of course, the German language. 

My masters thesis was part of an industrial project exploring effects of Internal Mold Release (IMR) agent on the mechanical performance of carbon and glass fibre based high performance composites. The thesis provided an answer on the question: IMR is an essential ingredient for processing/fabrication of composites with certain technologies, but to what level it affects the mechanical performance of these composites?

Later I continued my career in Germany for about 5 years in research in the area of fiber reinforced composites, specifically for automotive applications. I was part of a multidisciplinary team consisting of experts from materials, mechanical, chemical and automotive engineering. One thing led to another, I secured Europe’s (and worlds) most prestigious “Marie Sklodowska Curie” funding for my PhD research.

I worked at a French company, CHOMARAT, while being affiliated to PSL Research University in Paris, France and defended my PhD work in the area of Material Sciences and Engineering in May 2020.

To cut a long story short, over the years I studied textiles, specifically textiles made from synthetic or man-made fibers. Later I focused on Fiber Reinforced Composites, a class of multidisciplinary materials involving, fiber, textiles, polymers and mechanics. My initial focus after post-graduation was on Carbon Composites for Automotives. Later on, I worked on composite materials containing carbon, glass, aramid and other high performance fibers for diverse applications ranging from wind energy, marine, sports to leisure applications.

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

I relate to dynamic influences throughout my career. The place where I grew up had a major initial influence on what I did in my career. I met people on my way, read about some, met some others and that shaped what I did next. Prof. Kulkarni from DKTE, Prof. Behera from IIT Delhi and Prof. Henning from KIT/Fraunhofer ICT were kind enough not only to teach me but mentor me. My 2 year learning stint at IIT Delhi during masters which included about 1 year stay in Germany had a major influence on me. I think the key event or a turning point professionally for me was my first job here in Germany. I focused on networking, attended conferences and exhibitions. This is where I met Dr. Raman Chaudhari and this is where I received an invite for an interview for a position at Fraunhofer ICT in Karlsruhe, Germany. 

I developed more interest in research and I now wanted to do a PhD, this urge and interest brought me to France. 

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 have contemplated options, planned scenarios, and thought about short term and long term goals, but honestly, I have always taken life as it comes – one step at a time. You might already have that impression of my career path above. When I first came to Germany for my Masters thesis, the one thing I planned was my return home. During my 8+ years of stay in the EU, the jobs that I took, the projects I worked on and the conferences and exhibitions I attended, were all having a subtle objective of how my experiences could help me when I am back home. And now I am back home.  

I also received the following Scholarships/Fellowships to enhance my studies in my field:

  • Institute level scholarship (50% refund of yearly fees) and university scholarship for all 4 years of engineering for standing 1st in the Textile branch. 
  • MHRD, Govt of India, assistantship after GATE for pursuing Masters at IIT Delhi. 
  • German Government Scholarship (DAAD) for doing Masters thesis in Germany through IIT Master Sandwich Program.  
  • Finally, Marie Sklodowska Curie scholarship for early stage research / PhD in Europe. 

Fiber Composites is a dynamic field. Composites, as a material, have several applications in the industry. The masters thesis work that I was involved in was focused on understanding the mechanics and mechanical performance of internal mould release agents on epoxy and vinyl ester composites for aerospace applications. Later my work at Germany’s Fraunhofer ICT was mostly on automotive applications of composite materials in high performance and high volume applications. My work involved project acquisition, research and management of projects specific to product and process development. I directly worked with European and Asian automotive OEM’s, Tier1’s and material developers. During my stint in Germany the work that most liked was project acquisition, I was able to acquire industry projects worth more than 500k euros and collaborate on many others. These industry projects included those on material development (with Aditya Birla, BASF, Jute industries), processing of composites (Krauss Maffei , Dieffenbacher) and application development and process optimization for Automotive OEM’s and Tier1’s (BMW, Mecedes Benz, Nissan, Faurecia, etc.)  I successfully collaborated and secured German / EU funded projects, joint India-Germany sponsored projects worth more than 1.5 million euros that include, CoE Indien, Jute Bio-Comp, JTI CleanSky, KITE hyLITE among others. 

When it came for a PhD project and my full time job at Chomarat in France, I worked for about 3 years on reinforcement development and optimization for composite applications in automotive, sports and leisure. I was also fortunate to spend time and collaborate as a visiting researcher at the Aerospace Department of Imperial College London, UK and Materials Department of KU Leuven, Belgium during my PhD work.

My PhD work was on Hybrid Composites and In case you are wondering what real world problem statement I had?, let me explain it in these two examples. 1) Skies used for racing are made from carbon composites – light weight, stiff (good for speed). The extreme stiffness also makes it not an ideal choice for pleasure skiing. Higher cost makes it unaffordable for masses. 2) Composites for wind energy use mostly glass, cost is a major factor for it. But glass adds an excess weight to the wind blade, limits the length of blade that can be produced for similar weight. Carbon as a replacement for glass makes the blade product non-competitive.

My thesis caters to such problems by providing an alternate material solution for these and other such applications.  

How did you get your first break?

The first break I got was purely based on the networking activities I was involved in. I visited fairs and exhibitions, met people, made connections. The first full time job that I landed-in in Germany was during one such networking and research exhibition event named “Composites Europe” in Karlsruhe, Germany. Also networking on LinkedIn deserves partial credit to my return to India and starting working with GE Renewable Energy in Bengaluru, India. 

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

When you ask about challenges, there are two things which come to my mind and I want the young researcher / engineer to take them head-on. The first one is a new area of work and the other one is foreign work culture and foreign language. 

When I started in Germany, I would call textiles my expertise; but the job I took at Fraunhofer ICT was focused specifically on composites which forms a part of the mechanical/chemical domain. By trade, I was the only textile engineer among 500 other engineers. So, do not hesitate to learn new stuff. After all, early career is all about learning and up-skilling.

Both in Germany and France, I worked with colleagues who spoke English with business proficiency, but at the shop floor, the technicians struggled with English. You have a job to do, a target to achieve and have to collaborate and get work done. Be open, flexible and willing to learn the work culture. Walk an extra mile to learn the language, regardless of the fact that this is your short term plan to stay in Germany or France. This learning will stay with you forever! 

Remember, “When in Rome do as Romans do” and do not forget that “Rome was not built in a day!”. 

Where do you work now? Tell us what you do

Currently I work with GE Renewable Energy business’s – LM Wind Power Blades Ltd.  in Bengaluru, India. We build blades that are put on a tower where they rotate for about 25 years, generating clean energy for industries and people. We capture wind!

I work in the future product and technology development area of wind blades manufacturing and research. I use my expertise in textile processing, composite processing, project management and soft and technical communications skills at work to achieve mine, my team’s and the company’s goals. 

I refer to textile material as a fibre or fibrous assembly made using process such as spinning, weaving, knitting and other similar consolidation processes. In wind blades, textiles (embedded in a suitable resin) are majorly the structural elements. For example, spar caps, the major load carrying element of the wind blade has fibers oriented along the length of the blade while the rest of the blade shell requires fibers in two directions, say +/- 45 orientation. Textile engineering plays a role in enabling right orientation of the fibers and delivering a semi-finished intermediate product for blade manufacturing. Engineered textiles enables them to be used as a flow media, enabling resin to flow through length and breadth of the blade. Similarly, textile material such as peel ply (polyester peel fabric)  do not form the part of blade but act as an indirect consumable that ensures easier fabrication of composite blades. So role of textile engineering here is vital.

I like free flowing discussions among colleagues, where everyone learns. Project management is one among the many things I like at my job.  

How does your work benefit society?

As I said, we capture wind, we create clean energy from a renewable resource i.e. wind. Hence we contribute to a sustainable world and we make sure that the world is a better place for our future generations. 

I think the last point among the above inspires me to go to work each day. 

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

I conceptualized and acquired an Indo-German project from the EU’s Bio-economy International Funding program . The project “Jute Bio-Comp” focused on development of Jute fibre based composites. The concept was to develop and optimize reinforcements coming from India (btw, India is largest producer of Jute and the government often provides subsidies to jute cultivators) and develop composite applications based on European technologies RTM and SMC. Though with limited success, we demonstrated Jute can be an alternative reinforcement for high volume applications of natural fibre in automotive and construction industries. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Be flexible, always be ready to learn, take lead and take control of your life! Also plan long-term goals, but keep focus on excelling and achieving smaller milestones on the way. 

Future Plans?

Be a leader – A leader that knows the way, shows the way and goes the way! Go back to farming sometime… but let us call it as a wishful thinking for now.