Hi-Tech industries have always been associated with Environmental Pollution, Wastage and Cumbersome Manufacturing Practices. But thats all about to change.

With Businesses looking to minimize time to market, policymakers gunning for sustainability and the competition driving costs lower, the manufacturing industry is on the cusp of radical change and Aerospace is embracing this change in a big way.

Priyanka Nadig, our next pathbreaker, an Additive Materials Engineer, works with designers and consultants from the Aerospace industry (and other industries) helping them with design and development of Strong/Lightweight materials using Additive Manufacturing techniques and processes.

Priyanka talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about how her interest in core engineering and materials led her to 3D Printing, a radically new approach to manufacturing.

Priyanka, your background?

I was born in Dharwad, Karnataka and grew up in Bangalore. My father is a faculty at Indian institute of Science and my mother is a doctor and faculty at Vydehi medical college. Belonging to a family of academicians, taking up science as my profession came without any second thoughts.  I was certain that theoretical science was not for me and hence I was clear to take up engineering as my career path. 

Apart from science and technology, I am trained in Hindustani Classical vocal music and exposed to other genre as well, my favorite being soft rock.  

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation? 

I graduated in 2010 with bachelors in Mechanical Engineering from MVIT, Bangalore and in 2013 with masters in Materials Science and Engineering from the University Of Sheffield, UK.  I have always been very passionate about my subjects and was very clear of not switching my career path to IT although during that time, computer science was selling like a hot cake. I have always wondered, if all the engineers wanted to program, what will they actually program without any systems / engines in place!   I have never regretted my decision to become a “Mechie”, although it meant having no girl gang.

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?

The key influencing factor to choose this career was no matter how fast the technology is growing, we cannot grow without fundamental subjects like mechanical, civil, electrical and electronics engineering. Although this might sound cliché, any technological growth revolves around these streams. 

For example, Tesla recently launched its first driverless car. Experts from various domains worked on this wonderful project. However, the crux of the automation remains within core engineering such as mechanical and electrical engineering. 

My mother has been my biggest mentor. Being a highly successful medical professional herself, she never influenced me or my brother to take up her career path or any career that seemed very lucrative during those times. In fact the best advice she gave us was, no matter what career path we choose, we have to follow it with utmost commitment, passion and never offer anything less than the best. These lines ring in my ears every time I take up a new task or a new project and these are the only words that keep me going.  

During my undergrad, there was a great push for research from management. Hence i got associated with one of my professors who led the R&D and with his help, I went on to present a paper at on “Nanomaterials and its influence in Space Applications” at Nanotech Europe 2009, Berlin, Germany. I was one of the few undergrads from India who got this opportunity and this project evoked my interest in taking up mechanical and materials engineering as my career. 

The real turning point in my career came when I started working for an Additive manufacturing or 3D Printing company. This opportunity gave me a big career break, to be a part of one of the fastest growing technologies where I have exhaustively leveraged my skills in mechanical and materials engineering. 

I have been in this industry since the last 5 years and there is no looking back. Aerospace industry is one of the earliest adopters of AM (Additive Manufacturing) technology, which  offers opportunities to reduce weight, number of parts, enhance efficiency and improve performance and enable faster delivery times.  

As a materials engineer for AM, I have been involved in projects for aerospace, health care and general engineering. Developing a metal powder, planning the process parameters and evaluating the strength of the components has never been this exciting. I have given various talks at different platforms, national and international, been one of the panelists for a CII Industry 4.0 event and published research papers in popular journals. 

Tell us about your career path.

As an undergrad, I don’t recall spending my semester breaks at home or travelling. I took the break as an opportunity and started exploring ways to engage myself. My friends and I formed a small group and with a help of an internal guide, wrote to faculties at IISc. We landed mini projects in Materials Engineering. These projects helped me significantly in my on campus interviews as I had something more to offer to the employer other than marks alone. 

Although I was one of the chosen few to get placed in a core mechanical company, SABMiller a Beer Manufacturing company, I was the only woman on the shop floor and my role essentially involved maintenance of valves for refrigeration and boilers. If someone had seen me during those days, they would have seen me with a boiler’s suit, heavy safety shoes, safety googles and a huge mask! It was certainly exciting to disprove of what most men thought I couldn’t do. 

However, I was very keen to pursue my career in material science. Hence, I moved to IISc as a research assistant to understand the fundamentals of the subject and to contemplate whether my passion for this subject was justified as a career choice or if I had to switch to something else. Luckily, once I started working on various metals, observing their structure under a microscope, analyzing why parts fail etc., i started falling in love with the subject.  

During that time, I realized that a bachelor’s degree alone will not help me in the long run. Also, the curiosity to understand metals became so high that I wanted to learn more. Hence, I applied to The University of Sheffield, UK which is ranked within the top 100 universities according to the QS World University Rankings 2020.

I graduated in 2013 and came back to India to join Allied Metallurgical Products Pvt. Ltd as a R&D lead, where I developed several dry lubricants used in continuous casting of steel. The job was very exciting as my team and I were involved in end to end product development, from formulations, to testing, production and trials at various steel plants. 

By 2013-2014, additive manufacturing was becoming very popular in India and it was one of the most sought after technologies in Aerospace. It was the best time to join a 3D Printing company or start a business of your own. However, I chose to join a company, Intech Additive Solutions as a materials engineer, with a primary focus on analysing the strength of various parts, manufactured with different materials. I got a golden opportunity to apply all the concepts I studied as a student. 

Currently as a Senior Technical Lead at Cyient Ltd., I provide solutions from a metallurgical point of view for design and process engineers. I have also co-organized various trainings to empower engineers to upgrade their skills in AM (Additive Manufacturing). This role is very challenging but exciting as this requires me to interact with various engineers in AM coming from different domains and backgrounds.  

How did you get your first break?

Since 3D Printing was the new buzz word in 2013-2014, I started googling various AM companies in India.  As a matter of fact, I wrote to almost all the AM companies asking for an opportunity. It was a coincidence that one of the leading companies in AM responded and it was in my neighbourhood !  I requested for an interview and in a few weeks, received my appointment letter. 

What were the challenges? How did u address them?

Challenge 1: Being the only woman and a young engineer on the shop floor, it was very strange for many men in the office to see a lady walk with a wrench and heavy safety shoes. As a matter of fact, people doubted if I would be able to survive the harsh noise and flooring. Also I used to be constantly challenged for proposing a technical solution and often snubbed. 

I took a decision to dive into the ocean, and swimming was my only choice. The only way I thought i could bridge the gap was to approach my colleagues for mentorship. With this I got closer to everyone in no time and had their back. In a matter of six months I was put on developmental projects with the best of engineers and won their confidence. 

Challenge 2: Finding a suitable job in UK after my masters. 

When I graduated in 2013 from UK, the Visa situation was not very conducive for immigrants. Although my profile was very impressive for most of the recruiters, my visa status was holding them back from recruiting, returning back to India was my only choice. 

Fortunately, the job market in India for my domain was relatively better and hence, I started contacting recruiters before I submitted my research work to the University.

I spent long hours in the lab and learnt every possible skill that could help me find a job. It was that phase in my life where my focus and hard work were at their peak. I did not want to ask my family for financial help for my education and hence, I had borrowed education loan from an Indian bank. With educational loan, I was in a do or die situation.  

I strengthened my LinkedIn profile, my resume and began shooting my application to every relevant company that I came across, with our without a job opening. It may sound very strange but I was shortlisted by at least three leading companies even before I landed; face to face interview was only a formality.  

Where do you work now? 

I work for Cyient Limited, a leading Indian MNC for Engineering Design and Manufacturing. As a senior technical lead, my role here is to provide material solutions to 3D Printing design and manufacturing engineers mostly for the aerospace industry.  

Challenges such as weight, too many parts, performance, efficiency and lead times are few challenges that are faced in any manufacturing domain. My team and i sit together, analyse parts in depth and address challenges using the 3D Printing/Additive Manufacturing technology that ultimately leads to a significant impact across various domains, aerospace being the most significant. 

To address challenges as a materials engineer in AM, understanding strength of materials and their application in industries, processing science and a bit of design skills will go a long way. 

Skills such as preparing standard samples for mechanical and metallurgical investigation, failure analysis, non-destructive testing etc. help us justify the relationship between the process and material properties. These skills help me investigate the reasons for component failure, and the kind of failure such as cracks, bends etc. Few skills were acquired while I was working as a research assistant at IISc., i also enhanced my skills while I was a student at the University of Sheffield. My roles in my work places have also helped me hone my skills. I look forward to acquiring more skills as well. 

On a typical day, design experts in the team consult me if we can opt for an alternate material that can reduce weight or maybe, enhance the performance. I investigate various options available and offer an alternate solution that works best for the design and application. 

Sometimes, when parts fail, my team and I investigate the reasons for failure and how to prevent such incidents in future. 

The best thing I love about this job is the fact that I get to interact with various domain experts in Additive Manufacturing. Also, I notice how each of us plays a significant role in making sure the part is printed without any hassle. It is impossible for a person to singlehandedly manufacture a part without any failures. Sometimes, the failures excite me since it leads to brainstorming on subjects at various levels and depths until we find the root cause. 

How does your work benefit the society? 

The biggest advantage that AM can offer to the society is reduced wastages in the form of scrap, 

AM design focuses on features such as reducing environmental effects of the resource, energy consumption and material usage. 

For example, if we have to manufacture an aero-bracket using the conventional subtractive manufacturing methods, a chunk of metal block is procured and the components are machined by removing the unwanted material using a tool in a CNC lathe machine.  During this process material losses in the form of scrap is huge and can add to the cost. In Additive Manufacturing, the material that is of functional use alone will be fabricated without the use of a tool, thus eliminating wastage in the form of scrap.  

However, to manufacture a successful part, herculean tasks are involved to ensure that the parts are assessed for metallurgical and mechanical strength complying to ASTM/ISO standards before the functional application. Although we now have great simulation and optimizing softwares that give us the indication of part performance, experimentation at coupon level cannot be eliminated.  

The parts are often redesigned using the principles of DfAM (Design for Additive Manufacturing) and made as light in weight as possible, without compromising on the strength and performance.  This re-designed light weight structure in an aircraft implies reduced weight of the engine, lower fuel consumption and hence less pollution. The designs can be saved in cloud and the parts can be manufactured as and when the requirement arises.

Also, since AM eliminates several stages in manufacturing the time to market is significantly reduced. Hence, also popular as rapid manufacturing.  

To summarize, Additive manufacturing allows us to smartly manufacture parts that were once thought very difficult or impossible. It has addressed challenges such as weight and performance in the aerospace industry and will continue to support in a bigger way in due course of time.

Many research papers show that AM has a great capability to address cost efficiency and design quality, while empowering sustainable product design. 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

While I was working as a utilities engineer at SABMiller, I was given the task to develop an effluent treatment plant.  The objective of this project was to reuse the water for domestic use within the beer plant. The project was extremely successful and made huge difference in saving thousand liters of water wastage. This project helped me gain confidence to execute project independently and also made a huge social impact.  

Your advice to students based on your experience?

The following are my advice for students: 

  1. While scores certainly play a major role in career, networking and being enterprising can help you reach your goals faster. 
  2. Participate in cultural and academic events at all levels. Winning is not important, but participating is. 
  3. Never hesitate to ask questions: Learning is a never ending process and the actual learning starts when we are on the job, without any reference books before us. 
  4. Keep a balance between your academic and social life. Both are equally important. 
  5. Always go prepared to a class: This helps in maintaining flow of thoughts. Even today, I make it a point to spend few minutes preparing for a meeting. 
  6. Mediate: Has proven records of improving focus and concentration. Helps in reducing anxiety due to exams, peer pressure, staying away from family.

Future Plans?

My future plan is to evolve as a materials engineer for additive manufacturing. The subject is so vast that every day is a new day and there is always something to learn. Going forward, I wish to lead projects that makes a significant improvement in the process and application.