Exploratory learning outside a school and college environment has a much bigger impact on future career choices, because what you experience in the real world gives you a sense of awe that you might never experience in a classroom !

Rahul Dhinakaran, our next pathbreaker, designs and builds unique food vending machines as Head of the Machine Design & Development at BigBasket.com.

Rahul talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his earliest learnings from his self-taught grandfather, his introduction to steam engines in railway workshops and exposure to core machining techniques and methods through steel vendors at an early age that channelised his desire for core mechanical engineering and design.

For students, do not shape your perceptions about engineering based on theoretical knowledge or your experience in a controlled lab environment. Visit core factories and workshops to witness the marvel that happens behind the scenes.

Check out Rahul’s Tinker Shop (https://kalkimdc.com/) for Rahul’s design based patented solutions to prevailing problems in society like manual scavenging, personal hygiene and women’s safety.

Rahul, tell us about your background?

I grew up, studied and started my professional life, all in Madurai, Tamilnadu, India. My passion for machines, automobiles, started at a very early age. My grandfather, who was also a keen self-taught engineer, used to take me to railway workshops in Madurai where steam engines were being worked on. My earliest learning of mechanisms came from those steam engines. I still automatically refer to a lot of those steam engine systems when designing machines even now. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

My schooling and engineering college life were all in Madurai. My actual learning of mechanical engineering came from the various vendors I had in Madurai. The core techniques and methods of engineering, I literally learnt on the job in the steel markets and fabrication vendors of Madurai. From the basic steel seller who taught me how flame cut steel behaves, to the traditional machinist who taught me the fits and tolerances in machines, they were my true teachers. Madurai, being a Tier-2 town, was and still remains a close knit community where teaching and helping a young guy was part of life. I have tried to imbibe these qualities when I’m dealing with my juniors now. 

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

My key influencers would always be my family. My greatest key influencer for choosing this field would be my paternal grandfather. It was because of him I could talk about steam engines, boilers, internal combustion engines at a very early age. Then my parents, my father is a textile consultant and my mother is a coordinator in a school. They helped me set up my first machine design workshop in Madurai and my wife, a Phd consultant and visiting professor, who doesn’t complain at all as I keep spending our money on prototypes and patents. 

My mentor would be the late Mr. Harshawardhan Gupta from Pune. He was and probably still is one of India’s greatest machine designers. He helped me polish whatever skills I had in design and made me relook my whole design philosophy.

The day I opened my own workshop in a small shed inside my Madurai home was the single biggest event in my life. The simple task of hanging spanners sizewise on a plywood board is something I truly enjoyed. The next event would be seeing something I designed come to life in that shed. My first project was to mount a diesel power generator onto a pallet truck. That project was amazing as I did all my designing, machining, metal casting, assembly and testing all in Madurai itself. 

Diesel Generator

For nearly 10 years I was into designing and building machines. Even though I had a lot of satisfaction it was tough to run this as a sustainable business as the payment cycles were too long. It was on the advice of Mr. Harshawardhan Gupta that I pivoted and converted this to a machine design consultancy. This was a turning point as now I could continue doing what I am passionate about and earn a livelihood.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

I started my own machine design and building company less than a year out of college assuming I had learnt almost everything about the vast field of mechanical engineering in those 5 years. The company was called Kalki Technologies. I started out by designing and building small mechanical or electro-mechanical prototypes for individuals who used to post their requirements online. I used to bid and take these projects. This phase of my life helped me conceptualize a design, make manufacturing drawings and then make a proper working prototype at very low costs. This was before the advent of 3d printing so prototypes still had to be built the traditional way. 

After a few years of bidding online projects I moved to larger machines for proper manufacturing industries in Madurai like TAFE, TVS, Fenner. I designed and built a number of machines like pick and place robotic systems, conveyors, presses, etc., all in Madurai for these companies. I was a proper custom machine designer and builder for nearly a decade in Madurai. This phase of my design life ensured I polished my mechanical design skills as the industry level experts in this field were validating my designs and machines. I still had to take the project from concept to a finished machine. Hence the challenge was multi-fold compared with my earlier phase.

My business model was unsustainable. Hence i converted my shop into a consultancy wherein my customers, including automation companies in Chennai, used my skills to either support their existing design team or create a new product line. This gave me a lot of exposure to the methods to keep my passion alive and at the same time, manage to make a living out of this. I had exposure to a larger variety of industries, international technologies and a wider variety of machines. The automation companies, like Base Automation, Chennai, provided me access to technologies like high end servo motors, PLCs from the catalog of Allen Bradley. This meant, I could design a level of functionality in my designs which I could only dream of earlier. I did this for nearly 5 to 6 years

Details of my designs, projects can be found on www.kalkimdc.com which is my website for the work I’ve done so far.

My first international exposure was in Muscat, Oman as Head of Mechanical Design for a startup, which was an important phase in my life, designwise. The product which needed to be built here was an automatic awning used for desert camping in SUVs. For nearly a decade and a half I was into making machines for the manufacturing industry, but here for the first time, I used the same skills to make consumer products. Even though this was a consumer product, at its core it had a lot of mechanical and electro-mechanical design to be done. The extension systems, support systems and the vehicle mounting systems were all hardcore mechanical systems. The CEO’s idea was to get the internals (mechanicals) designed and tested by me (because of my experience with machine design and machine building), then move to a product styling company who can design the outer shape to suit consumer needs. This opened my eyes to a whole new world, designing mechanisms for consumer products. A lot of unlearning and relearning had to be done mechanical design wise. It was a very cool product. These nearly 2 years were one of the most important years of my design life. Due to my expertise in taking a design from concept to manufacturing design to prototype, I could build this product almost single handedly in Muscat. This was till the end of 2017.

From end 2017 till now, I’ve been with companies who are into the business of vending machines like Bigbasket. I head their engineering teams for either building, designing unique food vending machines in China or trouble shooting existing machines when they are being manufactured in China. 

How did you get your first break? 

My first break or a major project would be the diesel generator project for a customer in the UK. Once I had built my prototype he wanted to manufacture this for consumers all around the world. This project, I got through bidding online. This customer had posted the requirement online and I made a bid for this project. This was in 2004. 

The requirement was to buy an existing, crude diesel generator available from Agra (I made a trip to Agra to buy the crudest, cheapest, noisiest, generator available) and integrate the engine and alternator using a casing in between them. The casing had to hold the load of the whole generator too. The next requirement was to throw away the horribly crude platform this generator was mounted in and mount it on something more consumer friendly. 

The above requirement was to help the consumers move the generator easily and ensure that the whole system looks much better and vibrates much lesser than its earlier avatar.

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: I had to shorten the overall length of a diesel generator by reducing the coupling size in the middle and including a cast iron casing. The casing would be a major challenge in this project as it involved casting i.e. making a wooden pattern and then making the part. I had to do this at a very small foundry in Madurai as larger companies or foundries who could do this casting couldn’t be cost effective thereby increasing my budget which my customer wouldn’t accept. I managed to find a small vendor, like me, who made this part so beautifully that the customer absolutely loved the look and feel of this part. 

Challenge 2: Next was taking this shortened generator and mounting it on a mobile platform. I had 2 choices, either design and make the whole platform on my own or buy an existing platform and convert it for this use. Considering the economics, I chose the latter. I bought a normal pallet truck, designed and made the necessary parts to hold this generator and got it mounted. Anti-vibration pads I used made sure the vibrations generated by the system did not reach the floor and shake the walls of my tiny shed. The whole operation took around 2 weeks. 

Challenge 3: Again this involved the casing, the customer wanted a hook on the casing to lift the whole 400kg generator on that hook. Designwise I could prove that the casing was strong enough for this purpose. But simulated testing on a computer and testing a prototype were two different things. Any air holes in the cast near the hook would bring the whole 400kg generator down with a crash and my reputation along with that. But, thanks to my wonderful vendor, this cast was devoid of any such deficiencies and came through the test successfully.

Challenge 4: The most difficult challenge was that I did not have the workshop space for such a big project. I did all this inside my tiny shed in Madurai and in the lawn of my house without any industrial flooring or any such machine building facilities. 

As I grew to build bigger machines with bigger companies, these are the experiences which help me take on the challenges which come daily with the job.

Where do you work now? 

For the past 3.5 years now I’ve been into designing, building, trouble shooting some truly unique food vending machines as Head of the design teams in India and China. The designing and building of these machines has been done in China while these machines are operational in India. It has been a truly unique opportunity to work with both countries on a daily basis and make the whole system work. My practical skills as a machine builder and my design skills honed over nearly 17 years has helped me and these vending machine manufacturers a lot when working with teams from various countries. As these vending machines are not industrial machines, my learnings of designing consumer products in Muscat has come in handy as well. 

A typical day would involve taking feedback from the field where customers are using these machines and suggesting improvements to the manufacturing team in China. This activity would involve design, prototype testing, improvements and implementing these changes in the manufacturing line. An important part of this job involves redesigning a lot of parts to reduce the overall cost of these machines.

Vending machines are fresh in India even though they’ve been in the world for nearly 40 years or more. The challenge is to make sure that the balance between costs and engineering is always there, any tipping to any side wouldn’t be good for business.

The skills I have acquired over all these years i.e. conceptual designing, quick prototyping and testing have been of great use to me during these new product development phases. I’m able to guide teams and these companies using these skills, draw on the mistakes I made and ensure these companies don’t commit the same, thereby saving a lot of money and time for them. A small item like a fastener can cause a severe headache if it has been wrongly designed and is available in a 1000 machines. Imagine the pain it takes to replace these. I ensure such mistakes are minimized to a certain extent.

My passion in life has and will always be machines and mechanical systems. As long as I can wake up everyday, design and build machines I’m fine with it.

How does your work benefit society? 

For sometime now I’ve felt I can solve at least some issues in the society we live in using whatever limited skills I have. As a hobby, I’ve started a setup called Rahul’s Tinker Shop. In this, I have designed 3 solutions to prevailing problems in society like manual scavenging, personal hygiene and women’s safety. I have designed and patented these solutions with the sole purpose of donating to organisations who can take these products in a non commercial manner to people who need them most. These systems have been designed using the same tools and approach which has helped me design and build all these years.

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

One of my best works would be the automatic awning Ive designed and built in Muscat. The inspiration for that was from the CEO of that company, but the challenges of working in a completely foreign land and designing for an ecosystem like the Arabian desert, when all I’ve seen was a Tier-2 Indian city all my life, was truly memorable.

It was my experience and methodical design process which helped me during this project. My first prototype in this project wasn’t my best as I was still stuck with my industrial machine design process. But prototype 2 was truly memorable. It met all the requirements put forth by the company and was heavily tested in that trying desert atmosphere. 

Everything in this project was a learning experience for life, including a completely new rope and pulley system, which, the way we used, was truly path breaking. It took a lot of effort to come out of my industrial machine design process and design this system. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Mechanical engineering is a practical field with theoretical support. Ensure you balance your theoretical practice with practical experience and vice-versa. Focus on learning your core skills than any tool like a CAD package. Core skills in mechanical engineering will always have value in the long term.

Future Plans? 

Continue whatever I’m doing now i.e. use my skills to solve issues in society. I have already 3 solutions for prevailing issues. I’m working on solutions which can provide low cost housing for disaster hit areas, emergency transportation systems for people living in slums in large cities, prosthetic limbs, etc.