In his quest to plunge into the world of ecologically safe products, Mr. Preetham, an ex-employee at HCL, thinks out of the box, to design a machine that generates plates when you feed it with leaves.
Excerpts from a recent conversation:
Basically I am a mechanical engineer from Bangalore Institute of Technology. I completed my graduation in 2007, after which I worked at HCL for around 9-10 years in the mechanical design field. After that, I decided that I need to do something on my own and hence, started this firm. My father used to make machines that created thermocol patterns. That background also helped in my current venture.
As an employee at HCL, I had the had the good fortune of travelling and working at different parts of the world. I have worked in the US for 1.5 yrs., at the Netherlands for almost 3.5 years and also at Singapore for a couple of months.
During these visits I realized that people around the world are focused on ecologically favorable products. People today are sensing the ill effects of plastics and moving away from it. I realized the huge demand for a product that can replace plastic – the world needs an ecological product.
I also realized that there is a huge demand for plates – at parties, restaurants, even in the workplaces. Of course, there are other products but it isn’t a saturated market yet. So, with that in mind, I zeroed in on building a machine that can generate plates out of areca leaves. It can also make paper plates.
Starting my business
This came into action a few months back, but my R&D has been going on from the last 1.5 years.
I kept observing different kinds of machines. Being a mechanical engineer myself, I created my own design. I took my friend’s help to get the hydraulic design done and my brother-in-law, who runs a panel board factory, helped me with the electrical design part. Combining all this I came up with this machine.
Approaching machine operators and getting the manufacturing done etc. was a lot thanks to my father’s knowledge of the industry. He trained me on how to talk to people and how to get things done.
When it comes to the nitty-gritty of the machine, it was a lot of relearning that I did. I had to go back to my old books and sweat it out.
The overall design – the look and feel, ergonomics etc. was achieved owing to my experience. I did all kind of brainstorming with my brothers before I arrived at a design.
When I started making this machine I aimed at designing a higher productivity machine. So, I went ahead and created an automatic machine. During my research phase, I noticed that in other machines when you press the leaves for processing, you will have to keep in mind that this leaf is pressed and be vigilant about when to press an ‘up’ button so that the pressed leaf is released.
The simple innovation I made in my machine is using a timer. The timer is timed for different leaf sizes. The person behind the machine can carry on work at different stations, without being bothered about the time when different buttons need to be pressed. So, a lot of effort is minimized and production is increased.
Also, to optimize the efforts of the workers, I place the machines with ergonomics in mind. For example, if we have 6 stations; I have split it into two sets and placed them at an angular platform, angled at 90 degrees. This way the walking distance between stations will be less – lesser than if all stations were to be kept in one straight row. I have made sure that all the operating buttons are easily accessible without much stress for the human hand. This decreases fatigue. I have simplified it so that women can easily do it without too much of pressure. Another feature which I have included is an emergency stop button. This, as the name states, is for an emergency. When pressed, the machine stops immediately.
These are a few things I have incorporated to decrease fatigue and increase production.
Farmers and commercial dealers. If a farmer owns a 5-acre land, for example and you have a 5X9 plantation, you get approximately 550 leaves per acre because each tree sheds around 5-6 leaves per year. Let’s say this farmer gets 13750 leaves from this 5 acres; selling each leaf for Rs 1 also fetches him/her 13k-15k. Instead of that if he has a two-station machine, he can get these leaves processed into plates and make an additional increased income than from selling these leaves.
According to my research and analysis, you get 2 – 2.5 plates per leaf. I mean from 4 leaves you can get around 10 plates.
The income you make depends on the marketing you do and the market you identify to sell your plates. If you sell them directly to the retailers, the prices are different as compared to selling to wholesalers. A farmer owning 5 acres of land, on an average, can make around 25,000 plates per year – that is close to 2,000 plates per month. In this case, it is best that he goes directly to a retailer because 2000 plates to a wholesaler will hardly fetch you anything. With a retailer, he can make approximately Rs. 2 per plate. That is an extra of approximately Rs 50000 per month.
The machine costs between 1.45L – 4.25L. It depends on the number of stations and if you decide to go for an automatic machine or a semi-automatic machine.
The plate comes out of the machine. It takes around 50 to 60 seconds to process a plate. You cannot process two stations at the same time.
If you are aware of the hydraulic process, if both stations get pressed downwards at the same time, the pressure gets distributed between both stations. That would mean less pressure. That wouldn’t be sufficient to process a plate.
I wouldn’t recommend one station because the cost is 1.45L for two stations. If it is one station, the hydraulic power cost is the same for both, the cost will almost be the same for one of two stations. It might be a meagre difference of about Rs 20,000 – not worth avoiding a second station. With two stations, he can start processing two plates simultaneously.
The machine is designed for low maintenance and easy serviceability. Once we install the machine, we explain the machine in and out to the purchaser. If there is something simple that needs to be corrected, they can even do it by themselves.
Farmer can directly operate the machine; there is no need to hire labor. In fact, we train them upon installation. The training takes less than one day. And once he begins using it, he will definitely pick it up.
Response so far?
The response has been good so far. The people who have got my quotations are awaiting their loans to be sanctioned. I am also in touch with people who are considering taking these machines on a commercial basis.
I provide support for all places where there are areca plantations esp. from districts of Shimoga, Tumkur, Mangalore and Kunigal district and few from Mandya districts like Channapatna etc.
I want to focus on manufacturing areca leaf plates for the next one year. Then, I want to help my customers market their product. I plan on creating a brand image. Once that is more stable, I plan to design more machines for a variety of ecological safe products.
Competition from China
I am not worried about competition from China. That depends on what kind of manufacturing one is looking at. We have to give thought on various design aspects. If we manufacture the same machines as China, they beat you with the prices. We can’t compete with their prices. But if you think out of the box, you can sustain the manufacturing market.
The reason why I opted to target at areca leaves is because you don’t find areca plantations everywhere in the world. It is majorly in South India and 47% of areca plantations come from India and in that, Karnataka is the major producer followed by Kerala, Tamil Nadu and then a few in the North East regions of Assam etc. That gives us an edge.
Considering this fact, China is also not a major competitor. If China makes it, it will be for the whole world. They wouldn’t want to make such a niche product.
Likewise, it requires lot of planning and thought before plunging into any line of business. You have to come up with something unique.
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