Mr. Akash Vineet, Mr. Akash Jayakumar and Mr. Abhihas Balaji, students of the Department of Aerospace Engineering, School of Engineering, Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, Coimbatore, guided by Dr. Shantanu Bhowmik (Professor, Department of Aerospace Engineering, School of Engineering, Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham), developed a technology to convert single-use plastics into products like floor tiles, roof tiles, etc.

Their final year project was supposed to have been on composites for space satellites. Akash Jayakumar recounts his conversation with Professor Shantanu Bhowmik when he walked into the latter’s cabin to discuss the project. “Let’s clean Earth first, then go to outer space,” was the response. The topic they chose instead was plastic waste management. 

Dr. Bhowmik’s response was coming from personal experience. The Head of Research and Projects, and Professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering at Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, Coimbatore, had just made a trip to the temple town of Rameswaram. What he saw affected him deeply: the plastic waste strewn all over, including the trains en route. When he came back, he saw the volume of plastic waste generated on campus. The enormity of the problem stayed with him and the issue found resonance with his students, who commenced the project in July 2018. Another student on the project, Akash Vineet, recalls the mantra from the professor that gave them direction: ‘Passion, Dedication, Innovation’. He also gave them the recycling solution to start with.

In eight months, the trio that included Abhihas Balaji, had seen good results. But they still had some way to go. Says Jayakumar, “We knew how to recycle, but not what to do with the recycled material.” 

After becoming part of Amrita TBI (Technology Business Incubator), the team got a grant of Rs 10 lakh in February. In March 2019, before they graduated, they incorporated the company. 

Their company, R Cube Plastics, will make pavement and roof tiles from recycled plastic, and start production in February 2020. Jayakumar is CEO and MD, Vineet is COO and Director, and Balaji is VP - Production. Dr. Bhowmik proudly plays the role of scientific advisor, for free. 

The trio under Dr Bhowmik has been engaged since March 2019 in testing, certification and expanding research and development. Admittedly, while it was a student project, it was a ‘student like project’. There is the recognition that research is a never-ending process. 

By June, the team was testing the compression with a block from the raw material. That’s when the idea struck: why not make it a tile? 

“We wanted it to feel like a prototype, so we used waterjet cutting to give it the shape of a tile,” explains Jayakumar. So what took the team so long to start production? 

“We didn’t enter the market then, because we wanted our product to be the best in the market. The product’s life cycle has to be long — these tiles will last 50 to 60 years,” he adds. The entrepreneurs have applied for relevant patents for processing methodology. 

There were multiple challenges. In the category, the product had to also be aesthetically appealing to be accepted. Production speed had to reach a certain level, and the ability to cater to larger volumes was also kept in mind.

“When we needed to make good looking tiles in high volume, with high productivity, we needed high-end machinery. College equipment would not be enough. We started outsourcing. We tested it for load. Gave it to a mould designer. By September 2019, we had a minimum viable product from the trial mould,” explains the CEO.

The next phase involved testing the market. The team went to four trade exhibitions, across Coimbatore, Chennai and Mumbai, where they could showcase the products to real estate players and architects, among others. People could walk on the tiles to demonstrate their strength. A lot of feedback from the potential customers was logged in, across factors like design and load.

At Plastivision, R-Cube was one of 10 start-up companies from India chosen to showcase their goods, all expenses paid. At another Mumbai exhibition, R-Cube was one of just three recognized among 150 from India, say the proud founders albeit with utmost humility.

In the long term, R-Cube will aim to create a circular economy, end-to-end. This means creating an ecosystem to source the plastic to be recycled. There is a dire need for this, realize the young entrepreneurs, after studying the market and meeting stakeholders. They have initiated talks with NGOs who have been working in the space of waste segregation for years now. While some of those NGOs do not know what to do with the segregated waste, R-Cube presents a solution. For the collection of the plastic, the start-up realizes the need to engage with the corporation, municipalities and panchayats. If they can be segregated at source, and sourced therefrom, a lot of steps would be eliminated. 

The current capacity with R-Cube is to process 10 tonnes of plastic a month, if one considers a 10-hour work day. From NGOs and other sources, R-Cube estimates sourcing about 1 ton a month. The rest will have to come from the waste economy manifest as kabadiwallahs. Jayakumar says initiatives like a ‘plastic drive’ to build awareness and create sourcing channels might help.

The sourcing challenge is important in more ways than one. While a roof tile from R-Cube would cost the same as a cement tile at Rs.60 per square feet, it could come cheaper if the raw material cost comes down.

A clay tile would cost anywhere between Rs. 30 to Rs.120, but the R-Cube tile has other inherent advantages, points out Dr. Bhowmik. With thermal conductivity lower than clay or asbestos tiles, it can provide better insulation to the home. 

Using NABL accredited labs’ certification, the makers contend that the product doesn’t chip off or crack, will not have colour fading, is algae resistant, is easy to clean and maintain and low weight. A tile would weigh 500 grams, as against a clay tile’s 1.5 kilos. While clay and cement tiles have no value at the time of replacement, R-Cube’s offers market rate of the plastic.

The team at R-Cube is not just thinking science and process but also application. Where could the plastic lumber that R-Cube is set to make be used? The answer propped up this January and they had a conversation with a boat manufacturer in Belur, Kerala. Where currently a small fisherman’s boat would cost around Rs 5 lakh and have a shelf life of 5 to 7 years, Jayakumar claims that using R-Cube lumber, this can be made in Rs.2 lakh and that the shelf life would be more than 10 years. Equally critically, the dependence on wood would be eliminated, leading to reduced deforestation — while recycling plastic.

For its tiles, the team has also had conversations with the Coimbatore Corporation, besides Navy and Army officials. The floor tile has been tested under the weight of a car and bus. The first pilot post R-Cube’s production beginning  February will also be on the Amrita campus. Using R-Cube’s roof tiles, a trial house is set to be built.

This will then be replicated across one village, and subsequently, across 101 Amrita Self Reliant Villages (SeRVe). R-Cube’s innovation will be doing good in more ways than one.

Cross-posted from Stimulus Unplugged magazine

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