Nick Fetty: So why don’t you start off by telling me a bit about your background: Where you were born? What was your academic background? And how did you came to discover mechanical engineering?
Srikanth Padmanabhan: I grew up in India. In the southern part of India in a place called Chennai which used to be called Madras. As I was growing up I was the sixth of seven kids and the biggest influence on my life in terms of school and work and other ways was my immediate elder brother. There were so many of us, all my parents probably had time for was just to put food on the table, so most of my learning came from my immediate brother and my friends. So my brother was going to become an engineer and he said ‘Srikanth, I think this would be good for you. You’re good at math and you’re good in science, you should be thinking about it.’ Right around that same time I also got admitted to medical school so I was at the same university as my brother who was two years ahead of me. He and I talked about one day, after getting admitted to the engineering college, and said that if we both got admitted to these two medical schools, I would quit engineering and go to medical school, but I don’t get admitted to either of those schools I’d stick with engineering. Low and behold two weeks later we got the results of the medical school examinations and I got admitted to the third school but not the first or second so I decided I’ll stick with engineering and that’s what I did.
Fetty: What was some of your work history and education background prior to your current position with Cummins?
Padmanabhan: For most of my life, I’ve worked at Cummins. Right after I finished my undergraduate I worked as a manufacturing engineering for about a year for a company that made brakes for commercial vehicles. Then I realized that all of my friends were going abroad to study so I decided I would do that as well, instead of just working on the shop floor doing manufacturing engineering in India. So I came over to the United States to do my graduate work and I did my graduate work at Iowa State University. After grad school I was applying for different jobs and I received a couple of offers. One was from a company in Detroit and the other was Cummins. The Detroit company told me that I need to get a green card before I could be hired as a permanent employee otherwise I would just be a contractor. Cummins, on the other hand, at that time in the middle 1980s said they would sponsor people for their work visa and green card so we could work lawfully. That was very far ahead for them at that time for an industrial company to do. Many of these companies in Silicon Valley and the northeast were doing that (but not so much in the rest belt). So I ended up at Cummins. For the last 25 years I have been with Cummins in a variety of roles. They were going to build a factory of the future and I was going to be in their advanced manufacturing area working on different things. So I ended up being for a few years before going into operations and from operations I became a plant manager moving from Indiana to Tennessee. From there I moved to Mexico to be the country manager of Mexico for Cummins. From there I ran a division within the power generation business unit for us in England and was in that position for four years. Then in 2008 I came back to the U.S. to run a division for about six years and now I run this division which is the largest division of the company, called the engine business. Last year we made about 1.1 million diesel engines that are sold around the world, made about 8 billion dollars in revenue, and have about 20,000 employees.
Fetty: What are some of your most memorable moments from your time at Iowa State and what do you miss about Iowa State University and the state of Iowa?
Padmanabhan: I didn’t know anything at all about the United States and here I am coming to a place where in August it’s cold, let alone how cold it was in the winter. In some ways I still shudder to think I actually came to Iowa from a place where in the winter it was 85 degrees and in the summer it was 115 degrees. And here I am coming over to the complete opposite. With that said, this place was just about studying, just about basic Midwestern values if you will, that’s what I remember most about how people were and what they were doing. There were a lot of people that were just plains hand-on and were good at what they did. Little memories for me, there were lots of little things. I remember the library. I remember where I lived. At that time there was graduate student housing which used to be called Pammel Court. I don’t know if it’s still there or not. These were the old barracks from the military it felt like. We used to hang out together with the graduate students that were there. University Village used to be another place along with Schilletter Village. Those are the places where I lived and we used to commute to campus from there. In the summer it was easy to walk. It felt like you’d walk forever but in the winter you would take the bus. But then Iowa in general, the thing I remember even today is that it felt like life was at a standstill in some ways. When you go around the world to places like Beijing, Mumbai, and places like that but then you look at Iowa or some of the farms back in Indiana, it feels like you go back to a time where life is just simple and that’s the memory I carry, just simple living which is about food, folks, and fun.
Fetty: Were there any ISU faculty members that were especially influential on you during your time here and have you been able to keep up with them or perhaps other colleagues from graduate school?
Padamanabhan: There were some staff at that time I remember like it was yesterday. We used to hang out and go out after finishing our lab work. Professors. If fact, I asked today if Dr. Alex Henkin is still around and they said that he’s a professor emeritus with nuclear engineering. He one of the professors, out of all the professors I had, that I’d say he had the most influence on me because of the fact he would always push you to the end in terms of did you think about this or think about that? How are you thinking creatively about solving problems? He’s one I remember. Then there were a lot of manufacturing professors, particularly Dr. Shyam Bahadur, Dr. Charles Mischke, and Dr. James Bernard. I touch base with Dr. Bernard every once and a while.
Fetty: Do you keep up with the football or basketball much?
Padamanabhan: Basketball I did for a while because at the time I was here [Jeff] Grayer was on the team and he went on to play for the Milwaukee Bucks (in the National Basketball Association.) [Fred] Hoiberg, The Mayor, also played for Iowa State and went on to the Indiana Pacers. Then Hoiberg came back (as a coach) and the team was pretty good so when they’re doing well I seem to follow up but if it’s not then I don’t follow as much.
Fetty: Hoiberg is doing pretty well with the Bulls now. What have been some of the biggest changes in the field of mechanical engineering that you’ve observed beginning when you were in the school up until now?
Padamanabhan: When I started my undergraduate in mechanical engineering it was the beginning of the 1980s. Until that time everything was still mechanical it but it was around the 1980s that computers started coming in. In fact, my undergraduate senior design project was to use computers or the C-80 microprocessor for controlling the engine speed and load for a single-speed, single-cylinder engine. That was in 1984, 1985. Then you fast-forward 30 years now, the amount of code that we have for driving a diesel engine or a NASCAR engine is longer than what you would have for an F-16 aircraft. The intersection of computing, electronics, and controls has been a huge factor from the days of mechanical engines. When I was working even in the field systems division, there was a division which would make mechanical field pumps and today that’s almost gone, most of them are electronically controlled. The advent of computing has made a huge difference whether it’s computer-aided design, computer-aided manufacturing, controls, or other mechanisms by which we control mechanical devices has become, I would not have imagined in the early 1980s that this is how it would become.
Fetty: What advice would you have for a young person who is considering pursuing a career or a degree in mechanical engineering?
Padamanabhan: Mechanical engineering is wide, it depends what you choose to do whether it’s design, manufacturing, combustion engineering, thermal sciences, fluids mechanics. The first thing I would ask is where is your interest and what do you really enjoy doing and what are you good at. This combination of what you love and what you’re good at and that you could actually practice that and someone would pay you insane amounts of money to do it, then that’s what you want to do. It takes practice. None of these come easy so the amount of time you get to spend in a profession deep enough. People talk about this 10,000 hours of work you want to do whether it’s seven to ten years of real solid work that you do in a particular discipline before you branch out would be useful because at least then you get some domain expertise in a particular area which you can then translate to other places. For example, for me I would say operations and manufacturing is my domain expertise and I spent the first twelve to thirteen years of my career doing just that work. Overtime you get good at it some when you decide to move into general management or decide to stay in your own engineering profession you’re considered an expert in that area.
Fetty: What advice might you give to a student who is considering attending Iowa State University to earn their mechanical engineering degree?
Padamanabhan: First thing is interest. Do you really have interest? Nowadays universities have the opportunity within the first year or so to try out things you may have interest in. Particularly as they take tough courses and other things, I think a lot of people give up on engineering because of the initial tough courses in math or chemistry or physics. Just hang in there. Work with the people. Work with the professors. Work with other students that can help you to get through it because once you get through the first two years, it’s actually fun because that’s when the real stuff happens. Many people give up, it feels like, as opposed to working a little bit harder and trying things you don’t know by asking others and seeking help. Anymore I think things have become for collaborative. As a matter of fact, this morning I was telling the chair of the mechanical engineering department that engineering is a social experience as much as it is just the technical aspects of stuff. How well you get along with other people. How do you do teamwork together. And how do you collaborate effectively in terms of articulating the concerns you have as well as where do you get the most enjoyment. If your teammates know these things you can work together and do some really good stuff. It’s becoming more and more collaborative as opposed to just you by yourself sitting in a corner and doing stuff. I think those days are long gone.
Fetty: Is there anything else that you would like to add?
Padmanabhan: I’m enormously grateful for the opportunity and I was telling someone today that here’s this kid from India, that’s from a large family, six out of seven kids, that came to do his PhD at Iowa State, and is doing what he is today. In a million years I would not have been able to predict this. For that and more I’m ever so grateful not only for this university but also for this country. The opportunity I have gotten is just incredible and the people that provided that opportunity – the teachers, the faculty, and the staff – and now the mechanical engineering department here is one of the largest in the country and one of the top universities in terms of the mechanical engineering degree. I didn’t know any of this when I came here and now it feels rewarding and I’m enormously grateful for all of those people who helped me all these years.