Local inventor with a business brain

Technology has affected humans in many ways. It’s the advancement of technology that paves the way for the development and survival of a nation.

The best examples of countries which have made use of technology for their development are the United States of America, Russia and China.

Similarly, Sri Lanka too for decades has been struggling to encourage inventors to come up with new inventions which would help the country.

But how many have been successful in overcoming the structural obstacles of our island nation?

We would not be amiss if we called ‘our leader of the story’, a ‘Colombian’ who found himself to be a man of the soil in the Vanni.

The village soil, villagers, paddy fields and the environment have become part of his life. He is curious about everything he comes across and would always wonder why certain things happened in a particular way.

From his childhood, he had shown interest in studying Science and tried to explain things using technology. As he grew up, this curiosity guided him to be the owner of the Ceylon Key Man Pvt Ltd. Here, is the story of Vajira Keerthi Bandara and his invention.

“I could not complete my A/Ls and enter university. Therefore, I completed the ESOFT external degree at the University of Colombo. As a child, I was very much interested in studying technology. So, once I completed my degree, I applied for two jobs in the technical field. I was selected as a technical officer at the Uswatte Confectionery Works.

To be honest, I gained more hands-on experience with many new things at Uswatte than what I learnt at the University. During my stay at Uswatte, I learnt about many different high-quality machines. I left the company after working there for seven years. But I am still grateful to the company for the exposure and knowledge it gave me to create who I am today,” Bandara said, beginning his story.

A new beginning

He left Uswatte in the year 2009 to start his own company, the Ceylon Key Man. In addition to his educational background, his experience at Uswatte motivated him to go back to the Colombo University to follow an external degree in Business Management this time. That is how he prepared himself to start his own business.

“When I was working at Uswatte, there was a time when we had to face a great many difficulties.

Once we faced a problem; the air trapped inside the Uswatte tipitip packets would not stay in, it would just collapse.

I had to go to China to find a solution to this problem. During my visit, I was able to attend a technological exhibition in Shanshui. What happens often is that the Chinese go to European countries, study their technology, come back with vast knowledge and build their own machinery in China. And it is then that I thought, why cannot we do the same here? Why cannot we use the technology to make our own machinery?,” explained Bandara.

What he saw in China sparked his imagination and inspired him to branch out and start his own company. He left Uswatte and went back to China to study more about machinery. There he met a friend who assisted him in his journey. The friend provided him with one-month’s training in manufacturing machinery. Thereafter, he returned home and once again left to India between 2010 and 2011 to study mechatronics engineering.

“Most of the time, India imported machinery from China. So during that time, my friend and I together started a business of importing machinery to be sold in the country. I was however not too keen on that business. And as we were doing that, I met a friend called Lasantha Niroshana on the internet. He was working abroad at that time. As we exchanged ideas on technology, we often talked about building our own inventions. As a result of those discussions, we were able to make a machine for the first time in history which makes murukku, that was in late 2016.”

Future of food processing

The murukku machine that they invented was slowly improved upon and that was a great hit in the marketplace. That set the tone for their future business.

For innovations to be successful, not only knowledge in technology is needed but they also need to have a consumer demand. Fortunately, Bandara and his business partner had both knowledge and business skills. As the popularity for the murukku machine grew, they had to find ways to deliver their product to all corners of the island.

“We used the CNC technology to produce our first machine. It was through this technology that we were able to ensure uniformity in all our products.

This also has the ability to connect the machine to a computer system so that it could be computerised. It was a very advanced piece of technology and can be used to control the machine very easily. We manufactured many murukku machines for customers around the country after its proven success.”

Murukku making machines were often imported from India before their invention of the murukku machine. But as those imported machines lasted only for a short period of time due to various failures in the products, the customer soon had to replace it.

“As we could overcome both these issues, people started to buy our machines,” he added.

Further, the machine did not need any after-sales servicing. “But I did not want my company to just continue the production of only one kind of machine. Because Sri Lanka has a very limited market, we cannot make the same machine over and over again to sell within the country. There are only a few customers that we could sell these machines to.”

This idea had motivated him to keep looking for new innovations. Businessmen who can look for new opportunities and foresee business trends can stay ahead of the competition and this is what Bandara has focused on.

He soon was able to invent a machine that makes stringhoppers.

“I made this new machine under three categories. It is categorised according to the number of stringhoppers which it can make at once; such as four, nine and 12 at a time. According to each machine’s capacity, within an hour, it can make 2,000, 3,000 or 5,500 stringhoppers respectively. At the same time, the machine is extremely energy efficient, so you don’t need to worry about the electricity usage when operating it. More importantly, all our machines have the approval of the Health Inspector and are made according to SLS standards. All machinery parts which come into contact with food, are made with SS 304 food grade iron. So there will be no harm to the food produced using these machines.”The company is now thinking of moving into heavy machinery with the introduction of a machine to cut iron called the ‘Plasma Cutter’. You can insert an 8ft x4 ft sheet of iron into it and cut it into any shape that you wish. The machine can also handle sheets up to 25mm in thickness with no issue.

“These are all made using the CNC technology. With the Plasma Cutter, we are able to cut iron sheets very quickly which saves a lot of time. Further, with the machine doing the cutting, the amount of wastage is also greatly reduced,” he said.

Niroshan and Bandara together pay attention to every little detail of the machines they design and manufacture.

They stressed that they only use the best electrical circuits and products when making their machines.

“As the company started to slowly grow, I was able to hire four people to work with me. They help us a great deal. Once the design is created, it is our staff who put it together. Also once the machine is sold, we do our best to provide a greater customer service experience to them. Because we sell these products to the people who can trust us, it is only when they are satisfied that we can keep growing as a company.

We also have a 24-hour hotline to help anyone who needs us, and we will travel to any part of the country to fix any of our machines that have broken down,” said Bandara proudly.

As Bandara builds his company, however, his vision is to move beyond business as usual to look towards how our country can one day produce its own machinery.

“Today we import almost all the machinery we need in this country. We spend a lot of money in doing so, especially on taxes. And this was what motivated me to build high-quality and long-lasting machines. But even as we struggle to grow and generate jobs for people, inventors like us receive very little assistance from the government. Like the government sector, the private sector also does a great deal for the country’s economy, but there should be a programme to help companies like ours. I only ask that the government look at our sector, and grant us any support they can, allowing us to do better for this country.”

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