The desire to address challenging technical problems can open up several opportunities, which could eventually lead to one of the best destinations for sustainable technology !

Amit Jha, our next pathbreaker, Electric Design Engineer, works on design and development of Electric Motors while keeping an eye on products for the next generation.

Amit talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal about working on the sustainable redesign of Electric Motors during his PhD that gave him a deeper understanding of motor design and associated industry challenges.

For students, sustainability trickles into every aspect of our lives, and as engineers, we have an obligation to address problems in creative ways that can unburden our planet !

Amit, tell us about your background?

I was born and brought up in a city called Bhilai Nagar in Chattisgarh. My father was working in the Bhilai Steel Plant and my mother is a homemaker. We lived in the steel plant township and studied in schools run by the steel plant. I was interested in maths and science from my early days and electrical engineering came very naturally to me as someway or other everyone in the family was associated with electrical engineering. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I appeared for AIEEE entrance exam and did my graduation in BTech (Electrical & Electronics) from BITS, MSc from KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden (Kungliga Yekniska Högskolan, Electrical Power Engineering), and PhD from Université Grenoble Alpes in Electrical Engineering Technologies.

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and interesting career?

Electrical components, like transformers, isolators, motors etc fascinated me since early days. Also, a lot of discussions about electrical engineering used to happen around me. So knowingly or unknowingly, my interest in electrical engineering grew. 

Once I came for MSc, I found that electrical motors are a very interesting aspect of engineering. To understand motors you need to have a good understanding of physics, and physics was always my favourite subject. Hence, my focus was more and more on designing electrical motors for different applications like, metros, cars, pumps etc.

I came from India with the goal of specializing in power electronics, as that was the buzz word in the electrical field. After taking a course in machine design in my second year i realized that a motor is very different from what I initially knew about it. The professor told us that a project had directly come from the industry and they are looking to design a new motor. It was always a huge motivation to me to solve a real problem. Since I did a decent job in the project, i got to do my master’s thesis in the same company where I learnt the skills required for research and development. I also understood how one should look at a problem. My supervisor used to tell me that though the objective of the project is to solve the problem, even if we didn’t get the desired results, that is also very important and that gave me the perspective that in research there are no bad results. All results are equally valuable. The reason i am saying this is, sometimes we are so focused on getting results that we miss the larger picture. Two things are very important in research in my opinion, 1. Patience and 2. Detachment.  

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Tell us about your career path

When I look back, I can say that my career was not planned in any way. It was more like I wanted to do it and I did it. Engineering was an easy choice and I wanted to have a career as an engineer and not a manager. That is the only thing I have resisted so far. After graduation, I worked in a company in India for a couple of years. But I was not getting enough technical problems or engineering tasks to solve and that is when I decided to do MSc. 

Through friends and family, I got the impression that the quality of MSc is much better outside India, but choosing Sweden was quite new then. Most students go to the USA or UK, but I came to know about Sweden from my brother and found that they are quite good in technology. 

Though there was no scholarship for KTH, the good part was the education was free for all students, even for non-EU though things have changed from 2011. 

After post-graduation, I worked in the Industry for a few years and then decided to go for a PhD. And the reason was to get more insight into the field I was already working on.

  1. I first worked in Xylem for a very short duration where the job was exciting. Xylem is a leading water technology company committed to “solving water” by creating innovative and smart technology solutions to meet the world’s water, wastewater and energy needs. I worked on testing, analysing results and looking for improvements. I worked on a product based on a new technology for water pumps, which would lead to a better performing motor. But for me it was more about learning the skills and techniques as a research engineer. 
  2. I worked next at Bombardier which is a much bigger company with a completely different application. Even though I was responsible for motor design in both the places , the design requirements were very different, which makes the whole design process very challenging. Without going into details of the work, I can say that the work done on design and development without compromising on quality at the same time was very demanding. Other than technique, i got a lot of exposure and opportunity to meet industry experts. 
  3. After that, I decided to do my PhD. My PhD project was aimed at a problem we might face in the future which is non-availability of magnets and hence, the need to redesign motors such that we shall be able to recycle every component that goes into the motor, without impacting the performance of the motor. 

PhD gave me a deeper understanding of motor design and other aspects associated with it. After PhD I came back to work in the Industry. PhD has given me a sense of satisfaction at both an intellectual and technical level and also the chance to apply what I have studied all along. 

My PhD was sponsored by Marie-Curie Foundation under European Commission. 

How did you get your first break?

I got my first job through campus selection. 

I got the opportunity of doing MSc Thesis in Xylem which in turn  helped me in getting the first job here in Sweden.  

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

The main challenge from time to time one faces is to take a decision and act on it. Everytime I decided to quit my job and jump into academia, it took a couple of months to finally do it. Also, in the beginning it feels like the decision might not be right as you come out of your comfort zone.

The second challenge for me was more on the personal level. As I live in Sweden and all my family is in India, it was emotionally tough sometimes. But then I need to reassure myself that it is for a purpose.

Where do you work now? Tell us about your work

I work as a design engineer. We need to work on development of the current product while looking into design of next generation products.

As an Electrical design engineer, I was part of both development projects and order projects. The order project is generally straight forward, but the reason we are involved is, in the trains industry (Bombardier), more often than not, the motor is designed specifically for the project and hence, we need to follow up till the end. Development projects are very challenging, as we are always solving complex issues. In such environments, all the skills one learns during MSc, PhD and industry come into play. From time to time, one needs to learn new skills from other fields, like programming, mechanical engineering etc. For example , we need to do lots of calculations and to make them fast and efficient, we need to do a lot of programming in VBA, Python, Matlab etc. depending what one is comfortable with. In designing motors, one needs knowledge of mechanical engineering, programming, manufacturing other than clear understanding of motors and skills in designing. 

There are different tools that help me to do the job and I learnt them during my MSc and afterwards. 

I generally try to keep the day 8 hr long. Some days are hectic when you have long meetings.  

The best part of the job is to work on real problems and solutions. Most of the tasks are new and challenging. One gets to understand the reasons why things are behaving the way they are.

How does your work benefit society? 

I always strive to build a product which is better than the last one in terms of efficiency, performance etc. This will help in saving energy and making the world more sustainable for the long term. 

My work on the rare earth magnet work is very critical for society not only from a technological and environmental point of view but also from a geo-political perspective. Around 80-90 % magnet production and supply is controlled by China, which creates a huge imbalance and dependence on one player for the material. Therefore, it is critical to look for recycling which will support the demand for these magnets in a very sustainable way. 

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

For me it was a very happy moment when i got to see the products that i had designed during MSc and PhD. It’s like you have created something that will be used by the world. 

It is hard to pick one, as I have not yet worked enough to see an idea becoming a product. But in many situations, I have raised concerns regarding certain issues in the product and helped solve it. Though i have no idea as to how much the company benefitted, it always feels good to foresee and fix problems in the design phase itself. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

I can only say that engineering is fun and very exciting. Don’t rush for quick results, few things take time to get to a proper conclusion. 

From time to time you should leave your comfort zone. It is the start of learning new things, to filter out real content from hype be it university selection or career selection.  

Future Plans?

My plan is to eventually come back to India and depending on the opportunity, i may join academia or industry. In any case, i will pass on the engineering learnings I am getting over here to the next generation.