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Powders, powders everywhere

Nishil Malde describes how the ubiquity of powders in industrial processes led him from academic research to an international role at a firm that undertakes powder testing

Nishil Malde and colleagues work to get a better understanding of powders.

Cement. Cosmetic blusher. Flu remedies. Drinking chocolate. If you asked most people what these things have in common, you would probably get blank stares but the answer is surprisingly simple: they are all powders. In fact, powders are found in a whole range of household products and they are also critical components in numerous industrial manufacturing processes, from powder coatings for refrigerators and cars to pharmaceutical blends for tablets and inhalers.

The ubiquity of powders means that companies in many industries routinely handle them. However, doing so successfully is not easy. Powders are a mixture of three components: particles; a typically unknown and often uncontrolled quantity of gas (usually air); and often some moisture, too. Changes in any of these components can affect the powder's behaviour. This makes understanding and controlling powder performance a real challenge, whether you are trying to ensure that your tablet blend remains homogeneous, prevent flour from caking or fill a die with metal powder. Powders flowing freely through a plant can easily lose air, which makes them behave more like a solid – and blockages are the bane of many powder processors? lives. Look carefully around the sides of a powder hopper and you'll often see signs of abuse where an operator has applied a swift, sharp rap with a spanner to get things moving!

I work for Freeman Technology, a company based in Gloucestershire, UK, that helps researchers, product and process developers, engineers and operational staff to understand powders better. We produce an instrument called the FT4 Powder Rheometer that enables users to measure as many as 25 different powder parameters, covering dynamic, shear and bulk properties. Our customers use this information to verify the quality of incoming ingredients, improve process design and operation, troubleshoot persistent problems and perform quality-control checks on their final products, among other applications.

My role within Freeman Technology is to head activities within the Asia-Pacific region where, like many companies, we see considerable growth potential. We work with a number of partner companies to distribute our instruments in the region and I provide support for these partners, as well as for a growing number of customers throughout Asia. Working as general manager for a whole continent is challenging to say the least, but it means that I wake up in the morning knowing each day is going to be different. For me, it is a role that offers the perfect balance of commercial cut and thrust while at the same time requiring a deep technical understanding of materials-testing strategies and applications.

Starting out
Like most budding scientists, my passion for science and engineering began at an early age when I would dismantle things around the house to see how they worked. My parents weren't overly thrilled because taking things apart is easy – it is putting them back together that is the tricky part!

On leaving school I began a combined undergraduate degree in physics, engineering and computing at Kingston University in London. As graduation approached, I was torn between continuing in academic research and starting a career in industry. I chose to do a Master's degree in solid-state physics at Imperial College, also in London, thinking that it would keep my options open and give me a year to decide what I really wanted to do. But I found the subject of semiconductors fascinating, so I chose to continue my research with a PhD.

Sometime before the end of my doctorate I began to look for jobs and, like many physics graduates, was tempted by a career in finance. However, the thought of no longer applying the scientific knowledge that I had gained during my degrees was a real negative, so I decided to do postdoctoral research on magnetic, dielectric and superconducting materials and their application in the communications industry. Eventually the lure of more fixed employment became irresistible and I started looking for a permanent job in industry.

My first post-academic job was as a service engineer with a scientific instrumentation company called Surface Measurement Systems. This role involved a lot of travel: the company has an extensive client network spread across Europe and when someone experienced a problem with their equipment I would often need to go there to help them fix it. Some might argue that academic life is poor preparation for this type of role but my experience suggests the exact opposite. Often, when you're doing research in a university environment, you either learn to fix a problem yourself or you live with it. Six years of servicing my own equipment and identifying problems made me a successful – and empathetic – service engineer.

Seeing so many of the company's instruments in the field helped me develop a commercial understanding of international markets to complement my technical abilities. I soon advanced from servicing equipment to product specialization and management, which involves overseeing all issues connected with a specific instrument, including sales, marketing and public relations as well as developing new functions (the complete instrument life-cycle). After 10 years I became international channel manager, a role that gave me overall responsibility for the business in a number of overseas locations.

Asian adventure
In 2012 I felt that it was time to seek a new challenge. What drew me to Freeman Technology – and what I love about working with this company – is the passion and responsibility felt by every employee. We're a growing international company with about 20 staff and everyone's role is both important and demanding. This can be incredibly challenging – even stressful at times – but it is also what makes the job so rewarding.

Today I spend around 50% of my time travelling within the Asia-Pacific area visiting customers, presenting at workshops and training sessions and liaising with our distribution partners, all of which remains a high point of the job. There's no doubt that travel on this scale can disrupt the work–life balance, but it works for me thanks to my supportive family and flexible employer.

India, China and Japan are prime markets for us but I cover all of the countries in the region, including Australia and New Zealand. Domestic and international operations and supporting infrastructure vary greatly from country to country, so it is important to recognize the subtle and significant differences between cultures that shape the business environment. For example, I speak Gujarati and get by in Hindi but the typically open and relatively informal discussions that characterize business life in India are invariably conducted in English. Japan, by contrast, is a country with far more formality and I am usually communicating there through our local distribution partner – although I always try to pick up some basic phrases of the language wherever I am.

Because I meet people every day who are new to our technology, education is a big part of my role. I give talks and seminars about our product range all across Asia and occasionally closer to home. Sometimes there is a balance here because as a scientist I appreciate the finer points of the FT4's design but most of our users are simply interested in what the instrument can do for them. I have to keep focused on the fact that, for them, it is all about the application of the instrument and how they can use the information that it provides to solve tough industrial challenges.

Learning lessons
I am part of an alumni-mentoring network with my old university, Imperial College, and often receive calls (usually around exam time!) from concerned physics students worried about their futures. Having been in their position once, I can sympathize. I usually advise them to persevere, get the best results that they can and not to worry too much about whether to start their career within research or industry. The transition from academia to industry can be surprisingly straightforward whenever you choose to make it.

I believe that there are great prospects out there for anyone with a good science or engineering background because the analytical yet practical nature of the degree makes for an excellent set of core skills. Once you get out into industry and bolt on some commercial expertise you can make yourself a really valuable commodity. The opportunities that I have accessed throughout my career are unlikely to have come about without an extensive academic background – but they have drawn heavily on my commercial acumen, too. While my current role might not be a stereotypical physics graduate's career, I'm stretching myself, using all of my capabilities and enjoying the journey. What could be better?

Nishil Malde is general manager for Asia-Pacific at Freeman Technologies, e-mail

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