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Summer 2014 Blog - Aakash Agarwal

Aakash Agarwal is spending the summer at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur

August 15, 2014

Greetings from New Delhi and Happy Independence Day! I left Ahmedabad this morning and am spending a few days in the city before returning to America. Because my time at Re-Materials has ended, at least officially, and this is my last blog post, I thought I would devote this piece to summing what I took away from this summer.

I decided to come to Ahmedabad because I wanted to better learn what part of engineering is a good fit for me and decide if I myself am a good fit for engineering and because I wanted to create a positive difference in the world and let it drive me to become stronger. And, I can proudly say that I achieved all of these things.

It’s very nice to say I am an engineering student – the usual reactions are “you’re going to have no problem finding a job after graduation”, “so can you, like, build Iron Man”, “will you marry me?”. The problem with these reactions is that they are based in assumption of a future success; I had no idea how I would fare in the engineering world and wanted to find out. And I did. I created plans for expanded production, conducted strength tests on the roofs’ possible support structures, revamped the company website, designed furniture made from the roofing and, during the last week, modeling and testing a dryer that will be custom-manufactured in the coming months. And during my last talk with Re-Materials’ head, I was told that I did solid work and future employees, whom my work would affect, were impressed. So how would I fare in the engineering world? In this sector of it, at least, quite well! Also, I better learned what parts of this world interest me. For example, I really don’t like making business models. I can look at excel for 15 minutes before getting bored. But, I found I can CAD for hours and still leave refreshed. It is great to want to make a positive difference, but there are more ways than one to do this and it is vital to know which suits me best.

While figuring out how and if I would fit into the engineering world, I found some of the different personalities I would encounter in it and that functioning in the engineering world means requires adapting to each of them. Even with the company, despite sharing a similar passion for creating innovative solutions to some of the developing world’s biggest problems, styles and approaches to this goal varied. This was not always easy to deal with, but I did not come here for an easy time – I came to learn. And what I learned was that there are parts of my work style that are great and parts that are not. For example, giving my work my best effort – great, not learning about parts of the company not directly related to my work – not. Learning this was invaluable because I want to work on a team in the future; while I want others’ styles to agree with mine, I want to make sure mine can agree with others.

Probably my biggest takeaway from this summer, however, was becoming stronger, physically, mentally and emotionally. Physically came because, well, there wasn’t much else to do in Ahmedabad. But mental and emotional strength came because of the situation I found myself in. I was living alone, away from loved ones, on the other side of the world. On top of that, I was given work that would have a large and real impact on many people though most of the work I had done prior was to make the grade. “Intimidating” is an understatement for my situation – it was downright terrifying. I didn’t realize that I was getting myself to the other side of the world and a chance to leave my mark on it when I was applying for Cal Energy Corps. However, I knew that what I want would not come easily and that if I wanted to learn, improve, and make the most of the opportunity given here, I had to adapt. And I did. I embraced the fact that I wouldn’t be here if I weren’t able to be, that this solitude is a perfect time to explore, and that the responsibilities given to me are means of demonstrating my talents. And slowly, but surely, I became stronger.

Thirteen weeks after leaving Cal, I write this post knowing things will be different when I come back. But, after my experience here, I am more excited than ever to return and see what I’m capable of now.

Logo on Panel Sample

Logo on Panel Sample

Laser Engraving on Panel Sample

Laser Engraving on Panel Sample


July 24th, 2014

Hello again! We installed the first roof of the summer during these past two weeks, so I will discuss how things went with that. It’s a fact of life that the practical hardly works out like the theoretical predicts or plans for. But it isn’t necessarily a bad thing because some of the best breakthroughs are made while trying to explain something not accounted or even understood. The installation was not easy for us, but the lessons we learned and the practices we validated or dismissed were invaluable. Here are a few.

Before the installation began, we had trouble finding enough panels that were in spec. When the panels would come out of the dryer, they would usually have the dimensions we want – we manufacture them slightly larger than we need so, when they don’t have the right dimensions, they’re easy to correct during the machining process. But, when they’re being stored, they tend to warp, some to the point that they’re unfixable and a great loss of time and resources. We handled this problem in two ways:

  1. We questioned how uniformly the panels were being dried, as differences in water content could lead to warping. Seeing our current dryer does not conduct heat equally through its volume, we have been experimenting with different dryer designs and modeling the air flow within each to find a proper replacement.
  2. We reconsidered our desired dimensions and tolerances, as panels that were made planar again through machining were consistently thinner than manufactured. By realizing these thinner panels still had the strength we wanted, we were able to safely allow many more panels than before to be used on the roof.

A couple days after the installation, we ended up taking the roof down. The residents tried replacing a satellite dish and, while bolting it to the roof, damaging some of the panels and leaving them exposed to the coming monsoon. It was disappointing, as a successful installation is very symbolic for the company, but we benefitted from the situation in the following ways.

  1. We better understood what would be asked of the panels and took steps to fix them accordingly. The residents did not do anything strange when installing the satellite dish and odds are that other customers will do similarly. To make our panels more resistant to damage, we made waterproofing the panels from the inside out an even bigger goal for us and began looking into less vulnerable means of securing the panels to the support structure.
  2. We thought about what assumptions our current design allowed residents to make about ModRoof. For example, its being flat makes it look like a floor, and what does one do with a floor – walk on it and put large, static loads on it without worry. Plus, because it is flat, the panels do not disperse force well enough and tend to concentrate it in the center. So, one way to discourage heavy loads while making the panels more able to handle them is to change their shape. We will soon begin doing FEA tests on possible shapes and, if we find some that are good enough, make panels according to them.

The biggest takeaway of all this was proof that a flexible mind is more powerful than a rigid. When they were questioned, we found that many of the procedures and constraints we once considered sound were actually in need of major improvement and, by questioning them, we allowed little to be considered given and, thus, a wide range of answers.

Engineering is all about turning theory into practice, but when so much theory is discovered because of things observed first in practice, it’s impractical to think theory can fully prepare one for practice. And, as we observed, having a flexible mind allows one to question everything and assume nothing, recall seemingly irrelevant ideas, link together unassociated theories, and believe enough in such things as undiscovered knowledge and untried solutions to be confident in trying something new.

And, as I’ve discovered here, that’s what makes engineering fun.

Before the Roof

 Before the roof

First Panel Installed

First panel installed

Full Roof

Full Roof


July 13th, 2014

Hello again! I am officially halfway through my time here so it seems like a pretty good time to recap my progress thus far.

Since coming to Ahmedabad, I have focused primarily on ensuring Re-Materials’s smooth transition from startup to large-scale company. For example, the cost of producing panels has been largely overlooked because most of them have been devoted to research purposes. But, when we’re producing a roof a day in the near future, prices and inputs decide whether the company thrives or fails. My coworkers had been long working on perfecting the panels, so during the first couple of weeks, I decided to focus on this aspect of the business.

Preparing Tiles_0

Preparing tiles

Having done much research on our process and isolated major areas for improvement, I decided last week to move on to a different aspect of the roof hardly focused on before – the structure itself. Naturally, a structure has to be in place to hold up the panels. But also, many families use roofs for storage and even sleeping on, requiring the structure to be very strong. So what’s strong enough? Like most things in research, the initial question is incredibly vague. Over the past week, I have read through structural codes to determine mandated minimum criteria, determined worst-case possible loads on the roof, considered possible shapes and configurations of the roof, and run several hundred FEA (finite element analysis) tests on these possibilities to see which pass and which don’t. And I’m not even halfway done. This task is interesting and so time consuming because both over-engineering and under-engineering have consequences. The latter’s are obvious, but during the previous weeks, I noticed that structure costs took up a significant portion of the roof’s cost. As most people know, higher cost means lower demand. Through my work, which will likely continue into next week, I will hopefully find a happy middle where both safety and cost are well addressed. Also, over the next week, we will be installing and monitoring a new roof, so I am excited to see how things go with that.

FEA

 FEA

Anyway, it’s time to go. Stay tuned for details on the roof install!


June 29th, 2014

Hello again! As you can see, I survived another two weeks in the heat and am going strong. The past two weeks have been very busy so I should take a moment and say what’s been going on. A lot. I will elaborate.

When employed by a company, it’s often to work for a superior. The superior will give you a task and deadline, you will complete the task, and then, if you have time left over, you will spend time online looking like you’re still working. At least this is what many of friends interning and working elsewhere have told me. When I first came to Re-Materials, I expected to be working in a similar setting. But over the past few weeks, I realized that a start-up has no room for such a setting – the only way to succeed is if all hands are on deck. There is no time for others to think of orders to give me; I have to see where work can be done and do it. I was told to think like this if I ever got stuck: “if this is was your company, what would you do?”

That’s all very nice, Aakash, but what exactly have you been doing here? Shaping the company’s next steps. The most immediate goals are to install several roofs, each being a better iteration of the one before so that by the last – though hopefully before – we will have found a winning process that can be used in all future roofs. But how exactly will we be able to create and deliver future roofs?

In the previous post, I talked about how I was brainstorming processes that could help us reach the one roof a day goal. During these past two weeks, I have taken that a step further. For example, I have been compiling costs of production and different means of transportation to see what are the most economic and feasible options. Wanting to sell one roof a day is great, but few will buy it if it costs too much or cannot be transported to them. I also began modeling a new factory on Solidworks, as the current will not be able to house our desired production. By identifying constraints and having an ideal configuration in mind, we should be able to quickly reach our one roof a day goal with few to no problems. I have also become involved in a new line of products: furniture. Many of Re-Materials’ contacts have expressed interest in turning the panels into tables, desks and such so I have designed several models. We will build some soon and I’m excited to see them come to life.

Sample Furniture

 Sample furniture

On a personal note, I would like to discuss the people I met in villages and slums we visited these past two weeks. We went to a few, talking to residents and seeing where we could possibly install ModRoofs. In the communities, I saw people of all ages, newborn children to aging grandparents, and, strangely, they usually said the same things: “There’s not much to do here, and it’s hot we can’t stand it”, “Can you help us out?”.

Village We Visited

Village we visited

I spent my whole life with uninhibited access to resources, to mobility when I wanted to go somewhere and to a safe house when I wanted shelter from the outside. It just felt natural – I never had to think about it much. I was told not to take things for granted because nothing is guaranteed, but it usually seems like such a distant possibility that its true consequences were unimaginable. But there I was, seeing whole communities of people that devoted most of their daily lives to securing what I paid little attention to. And the consequences for them are that they can pay little attention to anything else and are stuck in poverty. After all, education, development, and other things often recommended for escaping poverty are secondary to daily survival and, before you can save for tomorrow, you need to have something today. My time with the residents showed me that my work this summer might take one less burden off their residents’ shoulders, so that they can focus and invest more in their futures. Who knows what kind of wonders they might do without that worry?

Anyway, it’s time for me to get back to work. Talk to you soon!


June 15th, 2014

Hello! I’m writing to you from Ahmedabad, India, where I have been living and working as part of the Cal Energy Corps for the past two weeks. This summer, I am interning for Re-Materials, a company started right here in Ahmedabad. Recipient of Berkeley’s-own Big Ideas Grant last year, the company is focused on developing safe and affordable roofing for residents of slums, rural areas, and other poverty-ridden communities.

Till now, there hasn’t been a tangible solution to such housing. Roofing that was cheap was easily damaged, exposing residents to the elements and wildlife, and roofing that was durable was quite costly and trapped hot air, making homes more like ovens. Coming to a city teeming with people and animals during the hottest month of the year, I immediately realized the necessity for Re-Materials roofing, or as it is called, ModRoof. ModRoof is cheap and its materials are sustainable, as it is made of recycled cardboard and widely available natural products. ModRoof is very resistant to damage, as it is specifically designed to withstand large loads. Should damage ever occur, ModRoof is easily fixable, as it is designed as a system of panels and only the panels damaged need be replaced. Furthermore, ModRoof is long lasting, as a special coating allows the tiles to be waterproof, mold-proof and fungi- proof.

Finished Panels

Finished panels

So where do I fit into all this? Re-Materials has an excellent solution that can be implemented around the world. I am suggesting how. By analyzing past and present practices and experiences, I can brainstorm various possibilities for how to ramp up panel production while keeping panel cost affordable. This is different from the engineering I’m used to because in that, the biggest question is how to create the product. In this, we already know how to, but we want to know, logically, what is the best way to. I have considered countless things, such as power requirements, costs and benefits of automation, optimal ratio of materials, even strategic placement of machinery. From all this, I have made several plans for how Re-Materials can reach its current goal: producing a roof a day. Soon, we will be discussing the feasibility of the plans and which to go with. I have greatly enjoyed my work becomes it allows me to use what I’ve learned in a very productive manner. Too many times during my education, I have wondered, “What is the point of this?” Now I know, now I see it in action.

Panels being Pressed

Panels being pressed

I should take a moment to discuss my adjustment to Ahmedabad, as I have come from, quite literally, the other side of the world. It hasn’t been easy. As I mentioned, I came during the hottest month of the year and, as a New Jersey native, cold is more my forte. Within an hour of arriving in India, I understood the power of water and air-conditioning. Furthermore, navigation can be quite difficult, as the city is crowded and roads are identified mainly in respect to landmarks, not by street names. I have come back to my apartment after an hour of searching, sweating profusely, too many times. But, that’s the beauty of being in a new place – it challenges you. Since arriving two weeks ago, I have set up my room to become a place of relaxation, become friends with my colleagues and my apartment’s caretaker, adapted to the heat and call 100°F normal, followed a steady sleeping, eating, working, exercising and socializing schedule (something I could barely do even at Cal), and explored the city and found several cool places to explore and hang out at. I’m excited for what is to come – in terms of work and life but specifically the monsoon – and I will keep you posted!

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