Innovation Spotlight: Kumar’s Quest for Generative Collaborations, Big Ideas, and Positive Impact

At the heart of our innovative spirit is the ability to look at a problem and discover a creative solution. These solutions to everyday challenges require a holistic approach, incorporating everything from development to sales and marketing considerations. But there is no mistaking the important role that research and development—R&D—play in powering our ability to find, or create, these solutions. 

Milliken’s R&D department, spanning our four divisions with a corporate presence, follows a long tradition of emphasizing the practice area. Ever since Milliken established its first research team comprising six associates in 1945, Milliken’s Community of Innovators has come to be a primary vehicle in developing and advancing our work as material science experts—and in propelling the positive impact we have on the world around us.

Padmakumar Puthillath—Kumar, as he is known to his teammates—is part of the legacy of Milliken’s Community of Innovators and is leading the way in its bright future. We had a chance to speak to Kumar about his time with Milliken, his passion for R&D, and why the field is more relevant than ever.

Tell us about your career path—were you always interested in research and development, or did you find your way to that emphasis? Do you focus your time on specific areas, like wellness impacts, or businesses? 

I am always interested in finding solutions to problems that are meaningful, unique, and impactful, and the research field provides a pathway to that. I joined Milliken’s Corporate Research in 2010 after completing my Ph.D. from Penn State in Engineering Mechanics. Since then, I have had an amazing journey with Milliken working in several R&D projects with the different businesses.

In mid-2017, I joined the Floor Covering division, which has allowed me to play an integral part in the development of the D2 Protective Flooring and leading research in the area of acoustics and ergonomics of flooring. Besides product-oriented research, I play additional roles in managing projects, working with the manufacturing teams in the scale-up of products, with customers and our sales team in addressing product queries, and with the marketing team to convert research data into marketing information.

What are your passions? Do you see those passions play a role in your position at Milliken?
I am passionate about making a positive impact in all the areas that I get involved in. At Milliken, we play in many different markets, and I consider them as unique opportunities where we can provide solutions that create a positive impact in the world.

Why is research a critical component in developing new Milliken innovations?
Milliken is primarily a materials and solutions company, and research here involves creatively using materials to design products that push the material performance boundaries and bring unique benefits to the customers. This helps differentiate us from the competition, and it is critical to our success in the market.

Do you see a benefit in a cross-functional approach to product development?
Nothing really gets anywhere with a single person’s effort. We involve a team right from the beginning—seeing a project through from basic R&D to market launch. A cross-functional team helps bring in unique perspectives, broader knowledge, and experience that always assists in understanding problems. Having inputs from the larger research community, sales and marketing teams, and people knowledgeable in the area of work only enriches the product.

How has R&D evolved over the course of your career?
I have been in the R&D area for more than 15 years—from basic research in the area of material performance at a university to applied new product-oriented work at Milliken. At Milliken, I got to learn from the highly experienced team of researchers and specialists. This has helped me tremendously in refining my approach to solving a problem, and in taking a prototype created in the lab all the way to realizing a product. I have also started to appreciate, through my interactions with the sales and marketing team and with the customers, what it takes to make market inroads with a new product.

What Milliken project or innovation are you most proud to have been a part of?
With Milliken, I have been involved in several interesting R&D projects. The one that I am most proud of is the D2 product we launched last year for two big reasons. Firstly, with D2, we created a new product category in a near commodity business; and secondly, the pivotal role I got to play in product development and the rich experience it gave me.

D2 is a floor stable, serviceable, lighter-weight entrance flooring that has become a game changer in the market and has resulted in us rebranding that business segment as the Protective Flooring business. I had an active role right from D2’s early concept stages, voice of customer gathering, prototyping, manufacturing scale-up, sales—playing roles as a researcher developing new materials and design of the product, then as project leader and further on in coordinating with the sales and product development teams in the UK and in the US, and interacting with our key customers addressing their questions and concerns. The breadth of experience gained and the chance to interact with people from different backgrounds and specialties has helped my own personal growth while contributing business growth.

What is one piece of advice you have for a new scientist or engineer?
To a new scientist and engineer I would say that do not stop learning; keep your mind open to new ideas and collaborate with others to solve problems in a smart and timely manner.