By P. Venugopal
From a Production Foremen with Mysore Rubbers Pvt Ltd (M M Foam) in the early seventies, G Narayana Pillai has gone a long way to become a much-sought-after global Consultant on latex products such as gloves, condoms, balloons and catheters. His long and varied experience with a number of latex foam products manufacturing companies have stood him in good stead to help many companies set up latex manufacturing facilities in India and abroad. Of late, G N Pillai has forayed into cultivation of rubber in Mexico, which is emerging as a new destination for rubber growers and rubber products manufacturers.
In an interview to Rubber Asia, Pillai looks back at his tryst with the latex industry and shares his views on wide-ranging issues relating to latex products manufacturing, opportunities for rubber cultivation in new regions, latex vs nitrile gloves, protein allergy etc. He feels that Indian glove manufacturers need to invest substantially in augmenting production capacity as India doesn’t have the volume, especially in examination gloves, to compete with countries like Malaysia. Excerpts from the interview:
Please explain how you strayed into the latex products manufacturing industry
In 1988, the outbreak of AIDS led to huge demand for medical gloves in the United States. The demand-supply gap was so huge that it cost up to $140 for 1,000 gloves. I saw a great business opportunity therein. With the expertise earned while working with a number of latex foam products manufacturing firms such as Mysore Rubbers Pvt Ltd, Ruby-Marrat, Enfield India ancillary unit etc I decided to specialise in glove manufacturing.
Enrolling myself as a Primary Member of Plastics and Rubber Institute, India Chapter, I did a course in Rubber Technology and appeared for the Licentiate (LPRI) examination. In 1988, I joined Polymer Consultancy Services, Chennai, as a Junior Consultant, a position which gave me the opportunity to assist many latex products manufacturing facilities in India and abroad. This period was the start of the examination gloves manufacturing boom due to the AIDS scare.
In 1989, I moved to Malaysia and joined Mechmar, one of the leading manufacturers of automated medical glove machines. My job at Mechmar was to help in commissioning latex glove factories in many countries and to educate upcoming entrepreneurs about the art of glove making. During this period, I also had a stint with Guthrie-Laprex Latex Products SDN BHD, an associate company of Guthrie, a well-established rubber plantation group and rubber research organisation. In 1993, I returned to India to work for the largest Indian latex glove company, Mega Meditex Ltd.
I was closely associated with the establishment of Rubek Balloon Factory, India’s first automated balloon plant in Rubber Park, Airapuram, Ernakulam district, under the aegis of Kerala State Cooperative Rubber Marketing Federation (RubberMark).
When did you start your consultancy firm, Visakh Latex Consultants, and how does it perform now?
In 1996, I started my own consultancy company, Visakh Latex Consultants, which now offers technical assistance to a number of units in India and abroad manufacturing latex examination, surgical, post mortem and household gloves as well as latex foam, Foley balloon catheters and condoms. Visakh is engaged mostly in technical solutions, setting up of latex factories, selection of machineries, trouble shooting and rectifications. It is also associated with a few chemical manufacturing companies for developing new chemicals for latex industries and machinery manufacturers for machinery updating works.
The companies that Visakh work for include MRK Healthcare, Njavallil Latex and Rub Air Balloons in India, Corporativo DL in Mexico, Kendek Industries and Vincare Associates in Malaysia etc.
When did you start your business association with Mexico?
In 1998, I went to Mexico as part of consultancy work and helped DENTILAB Sa de CV, an associate company of Corporativo DL, an international medical technology firm engaged in the development, manufacturing and commercialization of medical devices and hygienic products, to start up a glove manufacturing unit. I am still associated with Corporativo DL as its Technical Advisor for a wide range of its products including latex examination gloves, surgical gloves, Foley balloon catheters, latex male and female condoms, latex medical tubing etc.
I also provide consultancy services for many latex gloves units in India, Egypt, Colombia, Malaysia, Indonesia, USA, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Mexico, Brazil and Guatemala on toy balloons, latex condoms, Foley catheters, latex tubing, latex centrifuging, latex foam, latex plantation etc.
How did you foray into rubber plantation?
In Mexico, import of natural rubber is very costly. If it is imported from Asian regions it takes almost 45 days to reach the factory. The freight charges are as high as almost $ 200 per tonne. Corporativo DL in Mexico, which which I am associated, used to consume over 500 tonnes of latex per month. So to reduce the cost of production, the company decided to take up rubber cultivation in about 10,000 ha. of land in Mexico mainly to meet home consumption. The plantation is now into its third year of cultivation.
What are the special attractions for rubber growers in Mexico?
Compared to India, labour is cheap. There is huge availability of virgin land suitable for rubber cultivation. The productivity is also very high, between 1,500 kg and 1,800 kg per hectare. Mexican laws are liberal with regard to investment by foreigners in the rubber sector.
Do you have plans to take up rubber cultivation in any other country?
I have a plan to venture into rubber cultivation in Peru. South American countries such as Peru, Brazil, Venezuela etc. offer good scope for rubber cultivation outside the traditional rubber growing belts. The climate is very conducive. Guatemala, Ecuador, Belize etc too offer good scope for rubber. The rubber yield in Guatemala is found to be as high as 2,000 kg per hectare.
Brazil offers five acres of land free of cost for rubber cultivation subject to the condition that rubber would be supplied only to Government agencies.
How do you look at the NR plantation scenario in India?
Rubber cultivation area in India is shirking. shortage of trained tappers and farming expenses are increasing which are forcing many smallholders to drift away from rubber cultivation. However, I look at it only as a passing phenomenon, NR requirement is substantial for the Indian rubber industry and hence the future prospects are very good. I think the rubber price in India too will bounce back as demand peaks.
What do you think of the prospects of glove industry in India?
In view of the availability of manpower, India has good scope for developing surgical glove manufacturing which is labour-intensive. As for examination gloves, India doesn’t have the volume to compete with countries like Malaysia. Glove units in India have limited production lines whose output can satisfy only a fraction of the internal demand. Indian glove manufacturers need to invest substantially in augmenting production capacity.
What do you think of the future of latex gloves in the face of invasion of nitrile gloves?
Demand for nitrile gloves is very much increasing for disposable examination purpose due to no protein content. In the case of surgical gloves nitrile latex will not give the comfort and performance of latex gloves. Polyisoprene is very much expensive and will not be a threat to latex gloves for the time being.
Is protein allergy in latex gloves still a major issue?
Many glove companies have turned to production of powder-free gloves which are free from protein allergy. Polymer coated gloves also take care of the allergy problem.
The US FDA has banned import of powdered gloves into the country effective from January 19, 2017. This will give further impetus to production of powder-free gloves.
Please explain your contributions to industry related bodies
As a Consultant, I am actively involved in the US Food and Drug Administration(FDA) 510 K submissions and preparation of quality manuals.
As a Technical Member of ASTM D11 Group for rubber products, I am involved in framing standards for latex and dry rubber products, which are well accepted as universal standards. Many countries have either adopted these standards or developed own standards in parallel with ASTM.
As a Project Consultant, I assisted the Rubber Skill Development Council (RSDC) to develop the draft report for Skill Gap Analyses (SGA) and the draft National Occupation Standards (NOS) for respective Qualification Pack (QP)/job roles for latex products.
As an Associate Member of Indian Rubber Institute (IRI), I have contributed to the growth of rubber industry by providing technicians and solutions to many manufacturers and entrepreneurs and helping many students to become good technicians. I am also involved in doing project feasibility analysis and case studies for many industries.