With growing complexity in customer demand and requirement for shorter product development lead times, the manufacturing industry is continuously looking for alternatives to address these challenges.

Vaishak Ramesh Sagar, our next pathbreaker, PhD Researcher at Chalmers University of Technology, researches Selective Laser Melting (SLM) process, a type of Metal Additive Manufacturing process that has garnered attention for its ability to produce near finished complex shaped products with precision.

Vaishak talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his quest to learn more about disruptive innovations in products and manufacturing technologies that drove him to pursue a Ph.D. in the area of advanced engineering.

For students, it is always good to gain industry experience before delving into research because our exposure to practical problems drive us to explore new concepts, methods, and tools in the world of Advanced Manufacturing !

Vaishak, tell us about your background?

My father worked as a finance manager in an infrastructure company while my mother was a homemaker. The nature of my father’s job was such that we had to move to a new city every 2-3 years. As a consequence, my early years were spent living in various parts of India which exposed me to a variety of cultures, languages, and education systems (state, CBSE, ICSE). Such exposures taught me to be adaptable and a quick learner, and have played a significant role in shaping me as an individual.

As a kid, I was always fascinated by heavy construction equipment around me. I would always be curious about how those machines were made and how they functioned. This inquisitive nature is what drew me towards Science and Engineering.

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I opted for Mechanical Engineering for my bachelor studies (B.E.) from Visvesvaraya Institute Of Technology and followed it up with a Master of Science (M.S.) in Production Engineering (specialization in manufacturing processes) from Chalmers University of Technology. I am currently pursuing my PhD in the area of “Selective Laser Melting in Metal Additive Manufacturing”  at Chalmers University of Technology.

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

I was influenced by the environment that I grew up in, with mostly machines around. Their presence ignited curiosity in me and made me choose this career. 

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

During my bachelor’s studies, I had very limited knowledge of the possible career choices available for a mechanical engineer. Gathering information about companies visiting the campus for interviews was a common approach to begin with. Another possibility to learn about career opportunities was to gain some hands on experience through internships. 

My first internship was at Bosch Limited, Bangalore, India during the 3rd year of my bachelor studies. I spent time in the production lines of starter motors and spark plugs to understand the basics of production engineering. This internship gave me glimpses into the world of manufacturing and production.

Soon after, it was time to work on my bachelor’s thesis. I was fortunate enough to perform my thesis at the Center for Product Design and Manufacturing (CPDM), Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, India. The objective of the thesis “Design and Development of Arecanut Dehusking Machine” was twofold: 1) to design a cost effective machine, 2) a machine that would not hamper the quality of the Arecanut during the dehusking process (Shell peeling). Working in a team of four, the first step was to identify the needs of the end-users (farmers) and translate those needs to technical requirements. The then existing machines and their mechanisms were studied and possible improvements were identified. After several iterations, a concept was finalized and modelled. The main takeaway from the thesis was how to approach and solve an engineering task at hand, right from planning various design concepts upto detailed design. 

The internship and bachelor thesis experience, coupled with my academic performance helped me bag a job at Volvo Group Truck Technology (GTT), Bangalore, India through campus placement. The first six months were spent learning about the various engineering aspects of trucks such as design, analysis, manufacturing, product development process etc. Soon after the training, I began working as a mechanical design engineer at Volvo truck’s cab body-in-white (BIW) department. 

As a design engineer, I was involved in regular consultation with manufacturing engineers and component suppliers to build physical prototypes of our designs. Such interactions made me realize the need to educate myself more on the manufacturing and production aspects of a product. I either had the option to learn through experiences from the job or opt for higher studies. I chose the latter and ended up taking Production Engineering master’s at Chalmers University of Technology, Gothenburg, Sweden. Having prior work experience helped in choosing courses that suited my interests well. In addition, I had the opportunity to carry out my master’s thesis at GKN Aerospace, Sweden on the topic of Quality Assurance. Quality Assurance, in simple terms, can be described as a way of preventing manufacturing defects to ensure the required quality. In my master’s thesis, the turbine structure of an aircraft engine was the product in focus and the weld quality was addressed as the key issue. Information was collected from various sources to better understand the product and manufacturing processes. It was then systematized in the form of a map to show the relation between influencing parameters and their relation to the weld quality. Various case studies of weld joints were conducted to validate the content of the map. Detailed analysis of production data was also carried out to further strengthen it.

Brimming with confidence after graduation, I was back to working as a consultant design engineer at the Volvo GTT headquarters in Gothenburg, Sweden. 

A year into this job, I started to plan my next career goal, which was to set foot into the area of advanced engineering. Advanced engineering, in the context of product development and manufacturing, is all about researching and developing new concepts, methods, and tools that enable innovation of products and manufacturing technologies. Hence, I began my quest towards pursuing a Ph.D, which I believed was necessary to train myself with the relevant skill sets needed to excel in the area of advanced engineering. I found a suitable Ph.D. research topic at Chalmers University of Technology and began my five year journey in November, 2015. 

Situations have been different but my approach of being open to explore, not being afraid to try, and meticulous planning has helped me come this far in my career. 

How did you get your first break?

I would consider my first job at Volvo GTT as the first big break. Thanks to my academic performance, internship, bachelor’s thesis and practical life experiences, I was selected for the graduate trainee programme at Volvo GTT, Bangalore, India through the campus recruitment process.

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

Sometimes, having requisite technical background may not be sufficient enough to get the break we want. It is equally important to present our abilities in the best possible manner. Acquiring presentation skills was a challenge. Practicing through mock interviews with the help of friends, learning from college seniors about their experiences helped me in preparing myself for the job interview.    

Where do you work now? Tell us about your research

I work as a Ph.D. candidate in the research group, Geometry Assurance and Robust Design, at Chalmers University of Technology, Gothenburg, Sweden. It is a five year study programme which consists of conducting research (60%), taking relevant courses that help with my research studies (20%), and teaching undergraduate students (20%). 

What problems do you solve?

With growing complexity in customer demands and requirement for shorter product development lead times, the manufacturing industry continuously looks for alternatives to address these challenges. Laser based manufacturing technologies have been among the popular alternatives for their precision focusing abilities. Specifically, Selective Laser Melting (SLM) process, a type of Metal Additive Manufacturing process has garnered attention for its ability to produce near finished complex shaped products. Great progress in research has been made in understanding SLM’s process capabilities but knowledge gaps remain in the area of achieving consistent manufacturing quality. Also, integrating them into the product development setup is necessary to enable accurate decision making. My research involves developing sufficient knowledge to address the above said gaps that will act as a guideline in the robust geometry design of SLM based metal AM products.

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

Relevant technical education, analysis and problem solving skills, interpersonal and leadership skills, project management, written and oral communication skills are some of the required skill sets for this job. I was able to acquire these skills through my previous job experiences as well as from the training offered at the university as part of the Ph.D. programme. 

What is a typical day like?

A typical day at work involves a mix of performing research work and teaching under-graduate students. I read scientific papers related to my field of research, identify research gaps, plan and conduct experiments, analyze the results, write publications and present the research results in conferences and other platforms. 

The job can be very demanding at times, but what I love the most about my job is the possibility to learn something new every day.

How does your work benefit society? 

My research work, and the results, in broader terms, will support sustainable development of new products or re-engineering of existing products. Sustainable development, in simple terms, can be defined as a development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

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

I would say that the entire Ph.D. journey is something I am very proud of. Every day has been memorable and a new learning experience.  

Your advice to students based on your experience?

1. Identify your strengths and weaknesses. It can be of great help in making decisions.

2. Do not be afraid to try. It is ok to fail. Focus on the process of any task you perform and not just on the end result. It is the experience that enriches you.

3. Do not be afraid to ask questions. There are no stupid questions. 

4. Planning is very important in any task you perform, no matter how small it is. A well thought plan makes the execution of the task easier. 

5. Try to visualize the task at hand and the end goal that you wish to achieve. It makes the process more enjoyable.

6. Reflect after the end of every task. It helps in self-development.

7. Favorable results may not be achievable in one attempt. Be persistent and don’t give up. 

8. Networking: Helps in getting exposed to new avenues that could open a world of opportunities to learn and grow.

9. Never compare yourself with anyone else, its the wrong direction to push your energies.

Future Plans?

1. Work in the area of Advanced Engineering and Technology Development

2. Participate in the area of teaching and education in some capacity