Sky is no longer the limit, especially in the Aviation sector, which is driven by cutting edge technologies that are pushing the boundaries of futuristic travel.

Niharika Shrivastava, our next pathbreaker, Aerospace Engineer, works on structural analysis of materials used in Aircrafts and Helicopters, to ensure safer and stress tolerant structures.

Niharika talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about being beguiled by aircrafts and spacecrafts, one of the most sophisticated machines ever made and fulfilling her dream of being able to know the mechanics behind them and even more so to work on them. 

For students, with Aerospace entering the commercial sector in a big way through unmanned drones, supersonic aircrafts and commercial space travel, the challenges are enormous and so is the satisfaction of seeing the massive steel birds fly !

Niharika, tell us about your background?

I was born and brought up in Indore, Madhya Pradesh. My father was Assistant Superintendent of Police and mother a homemaker. I was just like any other early 90s kids. We have seen it all – we have seen playing in rain and playing with playstation; we have seen typewriters and computers..We have seen the evolution of technology.

I was an average student but I had a very curious mind. I just had to know the answer to whatever question popped in my mind or I couldn’t sleep. I still am so. It is often annoying to others. But a curious mind knows no limit. I had a special fascination towards machines, how they work, how they make our lives so easy. I remember when my parents used to take me to toy stores, I always used to buy a car or truck or a helicopter. But my parents were very disappointed because I would break them open within days. Sooner they realized that I was searching the answer to one question – How does it work?

My parents supported me and introduced me to computers with a warning, to not break it open. Little did I know, they will be my best friends for life. I still remember printing “My name is Niharika” with WordArt using my printer for the first time. The joy was incredible. I could make my computer do anything I wanted. The possibilities were just endless. 

After all, what is a bookshelf other than a treasure chest to a curious mind? I could access as many bookshelves I wanted using my dial-up internet. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I pursued Aerospace Engineering from University of Petroleum and Energy Studies in Dehradun (Uttarakhand). It was miles away from home for me but I knew I had to do it to have access to unlimited sources to quench my thirst for knowledge.

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

I was especially beguiled by aircrafts and spacecrafts, one of the most sophisticated machines humans ever made. It has been my dream to be able to know the mechanics behind them and even more so to work on them. 

One of the key influencing events was the disintegration of the Columbia Space Shuttle while reentering into Earth’s Atmosphere that took Kalpana Chawla’s life. She became my childhood hero. I wanted to contribute to the sciences.

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

During engineering, I travelled almost the entire India for various training programs, industrial events and internships. This gave me opportunities to meet many brilliant minds in my field. I have visited various DRDO labs, HALs, NAL, IITs and have attended lectures by many distinguished seniors in the Aerospace field.

One of my most memorable work was in ADRDE (DRDO, Agra) where I worked on “Flight Dynamics of Parachutes” and went ahead to write a technical paper under the guidance of DRDO scientists and my professors. My technical paper was selected in AIAA International Atmospheric Flight Dynamics Conference, Toronto, AIAA 21st Aerodynamic Decelerator Systems, Dublin and was awarded best paper at Tech Mahindra.

At the end of my engineering I got a placement offer from TE Connectivity in Bangalore. The work defined in the job profile was slightly different from what I had learned all those many years. I took it as an opportunity and challenge and went ahead based on my instincts. Little did I know I will be working on some of the most prestigious projects in a few months. 

In TE Connectivity, I was part of the product development team, responsible for designing electrical systems. It was my first job and gave me plenty of learning opportunities. Till today, I take personal pride in working at TE Connectivity because here, I was working for Indian defence on classified projects. I have worked side by side with some of India’s most brilliant minds including Dr. Tessi Thomas. I have seen first-hand the work of former president Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, an inspiration to billions. The projects were classified and unfortunately I am not at the liberty to discuss them but I have never been more proud of myself.

However, my interests were in the mechanical side of the Aerospace field which pulled me to AXICADES Engineering Technologies where I worked for Airbus. AXISCADES gave me opportunities to work at customer locations in Germany. This was an altogether different experience, cross-cultural, involving different technologies. I was working for A380, one of the most talked about aircrafts of that time and saw how aircrafts are manufactured. The A380 aircraft was so huge that its components could not fit in other transport aircrafts that Airbus had (Beluga). So the fuselage, wings and other components were transported by ships and boats via river Elbe to the Airbus facility to be assembled together. It was mind-blowing to see such huge shop-floors. I was responsible for assessing the manufacturing defects that occur on under-production aircrafts and I learned how a defect as small as a hairline crack can be catastrophic enough to bring an aircraft down.

Soon I switched to HCL Technologies where there was a requirement to work on the wings and engines. I was working for a customer (Collins Aerospace) that designs the components to hold engines on the aircrafts. It is one of the most important structures on the aircraft because no engine means no flight, right? The part that holds the engine to various different aircrafts had around 200 small and big components. All of them had to be designed and analysed. We had to prove to the authorities that the structure is safe, by doing various hand calculations and using software. Unless the authorities are convinced and the designs are approved, the structure cannot be manufactured.

After some time, I received a call from AXISCADES Engineering Technologies for handling a team for a new client. So, I joined. 

How did you get your first break?

I got my first break through college campus placements in TE Connectivity.

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

The major challenge I experienced was switching from one discipline of work to another. At first, I was a product engineer designing electrical systems. Then I switched to mechanical assessment of the manufacturing defects on aircraft components. After that I switched to the engine’s structures. Then in my current job, I had to work on many types of materials, various calculations & analyses (structural, thermal, thermos-structural, vibrational, fatigue, damage tolerance, etc.), I also learned coding on a few platforms. I developed management skills.

One of my mentors taught me a philosophy. The best way to reach the next level is by– Learning > Doing > Teaching. Unless you go through each step, you cannot jump to the next level. First you have to learn, then do what you learned and then teach to someone. After teaching, what you learned and did, you have to leave it. Then you have to learn from your seniors what they learned and did. And repeat!

This philosophy did help me turn any challenge into an opportunity.

Where do you work now? What do you do?

I am currently working at AXISCADES Engineering Technologies for Airbus Helicopters. My work is primarily related to aircraft doors, helicopter structures and various digital projects with a team of 9 engineers. I was deputed to the customer location in Germany and have recently come back to India. 

What problems do you solve?

Now I am the team leader and have handled various projects like development of new structures, providing design solutions to customers, development of entire systems (rigs), supporting airlines in MRO operations, development of smart solutions for factory shop-floors and many more. 

These projects involve various studies like vibration analysis, structural analysis (strength analysis), thermal analysis, thermo-structural analysis (strength analysis under temperature loading), fatigue (life of the component in cyclic loading), damage tolerance (remaining life of a component after it is damaged), and simulations (creating events like a helicopter crash using software and predicting the results). 

I technically guide my team and am also responsible for deliveries, quality, further project planning etc.

What skills are needed for your job? How did you acquire the skills?

When I look for team members, I personally pay more attention to their attitude. If you have a learning attitude, a curious mind, you can develop visualization skills and analytical skills by learning and practicing your school subjects well and that’s all you need in my opinion.

However, you can go ahead and learn new skills though. I recommend learning any CAD (Computer Aided Design) software like AutoCAD, SolidWorks, CATIA, PTC Creo and CAE (Computer Aided Engineering) software like Hypermesh, PATRAN. I had done the same while in engineering and it helped me down the career lane.

What is a typical day like?

My current role is mostly to guide my team. A typical day for my team involves like this:

Aerospace projects: Team members working on Aerospace projects generally have to keep track of any repair requests from airlines from across the globe and work on them. Airlines typically don’t give much time to solve the cases because the aircrafts cannot fly unless they hear from us regarding the case and every minute the aircraft is grounded is a loss of dollars for the airlines. Sometimes the timeline is as short as 30 minutes. They also check for manufacturing defects for under-production aircrafts from various factory locations around the world. These kinds of projects are daily work assignments. 

Mechanical projects: Team members working on these projects design the component/part using CAD software and perform calculations or analysis (using CAE software) to prove their concept. These analyses involve converting the component designed in CAD into very small elements and the software performs calculations for each element and then integrates to give the result. If under given pressure and temperature conditions, the component cannot sustain the anticipated loads though, we have to re-look the areas where we can improvise the strength. If the component can sustain anticipated loads, we still perform additional calculations to see if we can still improvise the structure or reduce weight? Can we save some material? Can we use alternative/cheaper material?

These kinds of projects run longer like months and sometimes years and require a lot of planning and constant tracking of the project activities.

Software projects: Team members in this team work to create software that automates certain processes in the factory shop-floor and engineering. For example: In the factory, a worker has drilled a hole of diameter 5.6mm instead of 4.8mm. For this small error, the entire structure cannot be scrapped. In the current process, the worker from the shop floor takes pictures of the defects, makes reports explaining what happened, sends the reports to engineering department where engineers (my Aerospace team members) check the defect and tell which new bolt to install and analyze if it is acceptable (strength calculations), get signatures from authorities, send the engineering judgement back to shop floor, where the worker repairs the defect as given and his supervisor (Quality department) checks it and confirms. This process is very long when you are receiving as much as 500 defects every day.

The software team works on key decisions, like which bolt to install ? Is it acceptable? They perform calculations or analyze using CAE software – all can be automated. For this the team interacts with many other teams in my company and with clients. They decompose the problem and build small pieces of software solving one small problem at a time and then integrate all together.

What is it you love about this job? 

I love the responsibility that comes being in this profession. We develop components which have very strict safety regulations mostly concerning human lives. Even a small incident at 40,000 ft altitude can be catastrophic and cannot be afforded. Apart from preventing failures, the aircrafts are designed to be fail safe. That means if a component fails, the system should still keep working. For example if one engine fails, the aircraft can actually fly on one engine alone. Another example is if an aircraft lands on water (called ditching), the aircraft should float for a certain amount of time (depending on its size) to allow passengers and crew to escape safely.

We have to take personal responsibility in our work because we or our loved ones might be travelling in the same aircraft we worked on.

Seeing the aircraft you worked on, flying is an altogether different feeling.

How does your work benefit society? 

Flying is the safest and fastest way to travel. Aircrafts have brought the world closer. Apart from travel, they have played very important roles in rescue operations, supporting military, surveillance and medical operations (air ambulances). 

However, the industry packs so much for the future like supersonic (faster than speed of sound) passenger aircrafts, blended body aircrafts, flapping wing technology, commercial space travel and what not! Sky is no more the limit.

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

One of the cases we received from an Airline in Greece was peculiar. An aircraft flew from a major city to a small island in the Mediterranean Sea. During the flight, the aircraft was hit by lightning strike. However, the small airport where it landed did not have many facilities in the hanger to perform any tests or repairs. 

By law the aircrafts are not allowed to fly if there is damage. The damage has to be checked against the manual and should be checked by the engineering department of the manufacturer. Only If the engineering department gives clearance, can the aircraft fly.

However, the airline crew could not perform any tests on the cracks generated by the lightning strike and needed permission just for 1 flight cycle (take off – cruise – landing) just so they can fly to a bigger airport to perform required tests like checking crack length and performing recommended repairs. It was a very important case because we didn’t know how many cracks were there due to the lightning strikes. There could be micro-cracks, which can be catastrophic mid-flight. 

We performed a lot of calculations, the whole team, even the customers got involved and we proved that it was safe to fly 1 flight cycle. The aircraft safely flew to the major airport where it received a detailed report of the damage and we approved the repairs.

This small yet peculiar case is memorable to me because it brought the entire team (us, customer’s engineering team, customer’s legal team, airline’s crew) together. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

My advice to students who are interested in the Aerospace industry is to practice your subjects well. Try to think about their physical significance in the real world. Keep a learning attitude and an open mind.

The Aerospace industry is vast with a lot to offer. You can be a part of the mechanical team (like me), electrical team (called avionics), flight dynamics team (like my technical paper), aerodynamics, manufacturing, material sciences, etc. Honestly, the options are limitless.

Future Plans?

I have developed various new interests while being in this field. I am fascinated by the millions of ways to create a winning team and hence a winning product. My future plans are to grow in the digital side of the Aerospace Industry, automated processes (robotics) and integration of manufacturing and engineering. At the same time, my future plans are to help young minds like yourself.