It is surprising as to how the chemistry of polymer materials is impacting our daily lives, from the smallest applications at home, to cutting edge technologies in space shuttles !

Hema Kumar, our next pathbreaker, Material Development Engineer at Mann+Hummel, supports material selection and testing of rubbers and plastics parts that are assembled in the filtration system that purify and remove harmful substances in air, water, automotives and other industries.

Hema talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about taking up a career in Rubber and Plastic technology due to the wide scope of applicability in sustainable materials, 3D printing, nano materials and other solutions that meet the demands of the industry. 

For students, try to align your interests and skills with the future in order to meet the emerging requirements of the industry and the society !

Hema, can you tell us about your background?

Though I was born in Bangalore, most of my education was in a rural town called Pallipattu 45 kms away from Tirupati. My father was working in a private security agency and my mom was a homemaker. Both my parents were struggling to give education to their 3 kids (including 2 siblings) amidst a society where people don’t believe that education could be a good source of income. Most of my mom’s gold jewellery was sold for my school education to make me study in a decent English medium school. 

Incidents that had a great impact in my life were my school days where I was part of all the sports, extracurricular, elocution and other events. This has really improved my thinking ability, interpersonal skills, crisis management and most importantly inevitable confidence in myself.

What did you do for graduation?

I did my graduation in Rubber and Plastics Technology (RPT) at Madras Institute of Technology (MIT), part of Anna University campus, one of the finest colleges in the state. Whoever I meet on my business visits, asks me for the reason for choosing such a unique course.

Interestingly, I never knew about MIT or the RPT until I met a person on the train, unfortunately I don’t even remember his name. He had completed a diploma in plastics molding technology from CIPET and was working in a plastic company. He was the one who asked me to choose a course in Plastics. Later, when I applied for B.Tech, I did some research and chose RPT since it had wider scope of opportunities.

As a rural student, entering into one of the finest institutes in Chennai, it was really challenging for me to understand the classes, not to mention the inferiority complex which was dragging me back. But, as time passed and I took up core subjects, professors with Industrial experience changed the way I looked at a subject by learning in a practical way. I went for industrial training in 5 companies manufacturing different products such as rubbers, plastics, tyres, composites and brakes. Industrial training has immensely helped me in seeing and understanding the practical applications of what was taught in the classroom. It’s essential for every student to see the practical application of what they learn in theory classes. 

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

I had a lot of influencers/mentors in the course of time. I am mentioning them in a chronological order. As I said earlier, the first influencer was a co-passenger who travelled with me by train. Out of concern & empathy, he kindled my interest in the career. My second influencer was my college friend Vivek, who was with me during the industrial training, asking or discussing unique questions which I had never thought of. My third influencer was my first boss, Dr.Muthukumar from Rane Brake Lining Ltd, who was a great motivator and gave me a free hand in taking initiatives on research topics. 

My 4th Influencer was Dr.Rajan, one of the renowned experts in phenolic resins in India. While working in Kanoria Chemicals and Industries Ltd, I learned how to present myself to customers and how to make data driven decisions. Last but not least, my mom is my fifth influencer who was a fighter in life and always questioned me to think and move on to the next level of my life. 

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 did my industrial training in JK Tyres, Brakes India Pvt Ltd, Arun Plasto Moulders, Devi Polymers and Butterfly Appliances.

In the B.Tech curriculum in RPT, we undergo theory and practical classes on Rubber materials, Rubber Compounding, Rubber Processing, Tyre Technology, Composite Materials, Plastics Materials,Plastics Compounding, Plastics Processing, Mould Design and development and other relevant topics.

At JK Tyres, a leading tyre manufacturer, I was able to see rubber compounding, rubber processing like mixing, extrusion, calendaring, tire building and the curing process. At Brakes India, Manufacturer of brake system for automotive vehicles, I was able to see the manufacturing of brake hoses which involves a special process like knitting / braiding of hoses and injection moulding of diaphragm. At Arun Plasto Moulders, a manufacturer of plastics moulding components, I learned injection moulding (table mate, covers and caps of fairness cream or talc) and thermoforming of plastics in detail. At Devi polymers, a manufacturer of polyester based composites for water tank applications, I observed the moulding of polyester based sheets / Dough Moulding Compound (SMC/DMC) which gave me an exposure to composite processing. At Butterfly Appliances, a manufacturer of home appliances, I learned the compounding of plastics, troubleshooting of injection moulding process and usage of regrind plastics (granular or palletized form of recycled plastic resin). 

All the exposure I had from the industrial training helped me in clearing the campus interview and I joined the Rane Brake Lining R&D-Formulation development team. Here, I was part of the team that developed formulations for automotive brake linings or pads. I got exposed to various ranges of materials from polymers, organic and inorganic fibers, silicates and metals. On testing and characterisation, I have learned DSC, TGA, XRF, FTIR, FFT analyser and brake testing. 

The important requirements for any brake lining or pad is a good friction performance with longer life and lesser noise. So, we develop the formulation based on the vehicle requirements like Gross vehicle Weight(GVW), speed, torque, stopping distance and other functional requirements. Brake development is a tedious process where all the vehicle conditions are simulated in inertia dynamometers and the performance are evaluated against the requirement. 

On my next assignment, I was with Apollo tyres Ltd in the New product industrialisation team for passengers car tyres, mainly focusing on tyre curing and testing where I was exposed to tyre development and testing process.

Tyre curing is a complicated process, where approximately 20 rubber compounds are involved and all of them should be co-cured at same time. As a product industrialization engineer, based on rheo curves, blow and thermocouple study and tyre cross section analysis, cycle times for tyre curing will be fixed followed by adhesion test, rolling resistance, endurance and other testing. 

Next, I was with Kanoria Chemicals and Industries. Apart from my technical role in developing phenolic resins for applications like refractory, foundry, friction and abrasives, I directly interacted with customers for developing new products which gave me a broader perspective on how the industry and business runs. It’s always important to know our contribution towards the business growth of the company in order to focus our efforts on such activities to make a difference in whatever way we can.

My current assignment is with Mann and Hummel Filters Pvt Ltd, where I support the development of Rubber and Plastics parts for filtration systems. 

How did you get your first break?

My first break was with my first job, where I had to face a real industrial challenge and find a solution to it. One such activity was trying to utilize the Finite Element Analysis (FEA) tool to solve material problems. I would say that this work has made me think different and gave me confidence to break the barrier and start performing. 

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Everyday is a challenge for me and more interestingly, the process of facing it and addressing it is a good learning process. 

The first challenge I had faced was the inferiority complex when I entered my college in MIT from a rural background as one of the first engineers in the family. Practically, breaking the inferiority complex is very challenging since it involves dealing with both our inner self and the people surrounding us. The most important thing that helped me was meeting and interacting with friends or mentors who had similar experience who could personally guide me and encourage me on a day to day basis.

Second challenge I had was dealing with different people and getting things done. In a practical sense, there were people at higher and lower positions  than me in the hierarchy. One thing that struck me when I was dealing with people was the quote, “Anyone can find dirt in someone, Be the one that finds the gold” . So, when I started looking for good things in people, deep in them, rather than dirt on the surface, my perspective changed.

Third challenge I had and I still have is meeting the timelines. I think I have had this issue since my school days. Now, after learning to plan using google calendar, having a to do list and placing reminders has really helped to improve on it. Added to that, keeping the end goal in mind and breaking the activities into milestones to execute things one by one is also helping me to meet the timelines. 

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

Currently, I work for a company called Mann and Hummel filters Pvt Ltd, where our vision is to “separate the useful from the harmful”. We are finding solutions to purify and remove the harmful substances in air, water, automotive and other industries. 

I support material selection and testing of rubbers and plastics parts that are assembled in the filtration system. The day would be involved in giving suggestions on materials to design engineers, testing of materials, solving customer complaints and taking up cost reduction projects..

What are the skills required for this role? How did you acquire them?

I) Understanding the chemistry of polymers and their properties. 

II) Hands on experience on testing of Rubbers and Plastics.

III) Knowledge on basic statistical tools to make data based decisions. 

IV) Basic knowledge on interpreting 2D drawing or 3D models. 

My love for materials is never ending. I myself am surprised as to how the chemistry of polymer materials is impacting our daily lives since the last few decades, from the tooth brush we use in the morning to the rocket or space shuttles where polymers play a vital role. 

How does your work benefit society? 

As I answered in my earlier question, for the future generations, having clean air and water is an important requirement. Providing this is a big challenge because of various factors like air pollution, water pollution, poor industrial waste management etc. We provide solutions to separate the useful from the harmful and I am really proud of being part of it. 

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

In one of my industrial experiences, there was a long overdue customer complaint related to one particular application which was business critical. I had an opportunity to solve the problem with the team using DOE (Design of Experiments), for which I got two appreciations, one from our CEO, and a jury award while presenting this in the eastern Region CII competition. This is a memorable experience for me. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

ASK is the only advice I have to the students and the future leaders

A -Attitude of giving your best in whatever you are involved in. 

S- Skill development is important and more precisely, developing new skills in order to meet the emerging requirements of the society. 

K- Knowledge – gaining knowledge, especially in multidisciplinary aspects of whatever you do. 

Future Plans?

My future plans are to explore and gain more experience in the area of materials like sustainable materials, 3D printing, nano materials and then start a tech startup to provide solutions to industries and train the student community to meet the demands of the industry.