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Lessons from Setting up a Plasma Technology Diffusion Centre


FCIPT in Gandhinagar in 1997



I always had an entrepreneurial streak: finding technical and knowledge resources to solve problems. I have accepted challenges and risks as part of professional life. While working at the Institute for Plasma Research (IPR) in Gandhinagar, I decided to start a programme to develop and market industrial applications based on plasma physics in a commercially viable manner. This activity was laden with many risks.

Background

It was the first time in India that a basic research institute ventured into a commercial application development programme. So, there were no precedents or practices I could take guidance from. No pre-existing models of similar activity were available in basic research organizations in India. So, the business plan had to be developed ab-initio, hoping that it would evolve and mature along with our learning curve.

The programme had to be industry-driven to make it agile and responsive to rapid changes. It focused on a few thrust areas where immediate impact would be possible. Financial self-reliance was a goal from the beginning.

The Plasma Processing Programme had some unique features not encountered in basic research. For it to be relevant to industry, the acceptance criteria applied to the products ready for marketing were stringent and the market was always brutal in making sure that the criteria were amply met. That it can make or lose money in its commercial exploitation and the contractor-client relationship with industries etc. are examples of the uniqueness of this type of activity.

The Capital

The capital for this activity was the rich experimental knowledge base created over two decades of producing and manipulating plasmas to support research at the Physical Research Laboratory and the Institute for Plasma Research. The lack of critical laboratory parts required to pursue these experiments because of import restrictions in the 1970s made us improvise and invent out-of-the-box solutions. For example, we devised vacuum RF couplers with Amphenol connectors embedded in an epoxy cast. High voltage feedthroughs were made using outsized O-rings to make electrically floating vacuum flanges. Sinusoidal voltage bias on a Langmuir probe ramped it to create current-voltage characteristics. We learned to trigger vacuum spark gaps with Bostick plasma guns from two wires embedded in a plastic stub. We learned that a piece of paper with pencil scratches would act as a surface discharge source to trigger a coaxial plasma gun. Finally, we even learned to create high voltage pulse trains with nanosecond rise-time by using a double-Blumlein pulse-forming a line with discarded Coaxial cables and rotating spark gaps.

Plasma Processing

Plasma assisted manufacturing exploits plasma as an industrial tool. Plasma can respond to external electromagnetic energy fields and transport energy. The fluid properties are enhanced by the particles setting up internal self-consistent electric and magnetic fields, resulting in collective effects like flows, waves, instabilities, and self-organization. Each specie may have independent energy distribution, not necessarily in equilibrium with other species. The internal energy is composed of thermal, electric, magnetic and radiation fields, whose relative magnitudes allow the plasma state to exist in an extended, multi-dimensional parameter space. The non-equilibrium state drives thermodynamically unfavoured chemical reactions.

Plasma processing was surging internationally with the realization that the fourth state of matter offers unique opportunities for material processing. Properties like high chemical reactivity, microscopic electric fields, sheaths, radiation, and particle flux mediate plasma processing. The technology adds value to conventional materials and makes new types of materials and processing techniques possible. The characteristics of both the equilibrium and non-equilibrium plasmas can be exploited for commercial uses. Comparable stature of international and indigenous capability in this field was a rare opportunity for leadership in an emerging field.

The Lessons Learned

The first lesson that I learned was the importance of scale and identity. We had started the activities at IPR, which is an autonomous institute under the Department of Atomic Energy. It is a very affluent institute in a set-up which had great grandeur. The focus of the Institute was thermonuclear fusion research with the Tokamak Aditya. Seen against that, our activity was perceived by the visitors from industry as nothing more than a pastime to release the stress created by the actual work, which was fusion. I realized our activities had to be seen by the industry in a more authentic, industry-like set up. We moved into a spacious and modern building vacated by a manufacturer of videotapes in the Gandhinagar Industrial Estate. We named the centre Facilitation Centre for Industrial Plasma Technologies (FCIPT).

A second lesson was that in developing technologies ab initio, it was necessary to go through the complete learning cycle. However, to have a product in a reasonable time, we had to speed up the learning process by compressing the development phases. For example, in developing a state-of-the-art Plasma Nitriding Facility, we started with conventional DC glow discharges stabilized with external ballast resistors. Later, we incorporated pulsed DC. The first prototype was a cold wall furnace with only plasma heating. Heat shields were added to minimize heat loss. By allowing a thermally insulated liner to reach elevated temperatures, we increased thermal efficiency and temperature uniformity. By actively heating the vacuum vessel or the liner with a heating element, we obtain the auxiliary heated hot wall reactor. Heating of the workpiece is obtained by the combination of plasma heating and radiation and convection heating by the wall. During this time, we also added automation and computer control to build state-of-the-art systems.

A third lesson learnt was that in process technologies it was essential to build up an extended database on the application process for different materials. The nitriding process cycle for all varieties of alloy steels had to be prepared through a very tedious learning programme.

We also learned that the technology lies in the unglamorous details. I had prepared a long list of questions for which we needed credible answers before we could claim mastery over nitriding technology. How do we distribute the workpieces so that the temperature is uniform or how we can control the microstructure are two of many such questions. To go through this learning process without spending a lot of our money, we offered the nitriding technology on a job-shop basis to manufacturers of plastic dies and automobile products. This was the first revenue stream.

An entrepreneur is also a clever manager of both human and financial resources. I learnt that developing advanced technologies has more to do with men and society than with machines. Organizing men and systems and solving interface problems is the key to any high technology development programme.

The most important resource is people, and I learnt how to deal with them and build up cohesive work teams. The greatest motivator is success. For people to remain motivated, they must achieve success in what they are doing. For this, all barriers in their path must be removed. The barriers are usually administrative: constraining rules, lack of facilities, lack of human resources, workplace politics, delay in decision-making, etc.

Grand successes are great, but they take time, and people are impatient. Hence, it is essential to set modest success targets, realizable in a few months. A skilled manager must learn how to break down the large tasks into achievable baby steps.

I learned that progress must be advertised, and information disseminated widely. I have used email, websites, and newsletters for this. People like to be informed about what is happening. Another motivator is fame. If a person does something well, make sure that he gets the ownership and that others know about this. Finally, the greatest de-motivator is credit due to a person being denied to him. Equivalent to this is denial or delay of formal recognition through promotion, etc.

I learned that trust and transparency in engagement with the people working with you are essential. If they think you have a personal agenda different from the common good, trust gets broken, and performance suffers.

Another important lesson learned was that innovative people are not satisfied with what is assigned to them formally. They want to dabble in many things over and above what you give to them. This must be encouraged, subject to making them realize that the fulfilment of primary responsibilities has priority. A person constrained in a limited sphere is likely to become frustrated or become an uninspired automaton. I also learned not to expect people to come and report their progress. A practice I followed involved a daily tour of the work centres and holding informal discussions on how the person is coping with the work.

Conclusions

FCIPT has the unique distinction of being a path breaker in India in converting physics-based research into commercially and socially valuable devices and processes. The Centre bridging the Institute with the industry has developed and spun off many technologies. The Department of Atomic Energy, our administrative department, sees some of these as societally relevant technologies of considerable developmental value. While India emerges as a knowledge economy, for FCIPT to realize its full potential, it is being converted into a knowledge-based company. This transition will be timely and rewarding in the context of Indian economy pursuing the “Made in India” and “Atmanirbhar India” programmes in manufacturing and strategic spheres.

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