When a career is an extension of childhood interests, nothing changes except for the fact that you get paid to do something that excites you everyday !

Abhilash Savidhan, our next pathbreaker, Automotive and Clean Powertrain Professional, works for a major passenger car OEM, in the areas of Powertrain, Chassis and Fuel Systems as well as emerging technologies such as Battery operated Electric Vehicles.

Abhilash talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about pursuing Automobile Engineering, spurred on by his lifelong fascination for machines that move, as well as industry trends that focused on Clean Energy.

For students, find an area that excites you and look for problems to solve. Those problems become the opportunities that drive you to embark on a fulfilling career !

Abhilash, tell us about your background?

I did my primary schooling in West Siang, Arunachal Pradesh, where my father was posted. I spent those days flying kites, picnicking by rivers with friends, enjoying Popir dance and the Mopin festival. This is where I was introduced to the ‘automobile’. We kids used to make carts out of sticks and race down slopes. It even had foot operated ‘steering’ and ‘brake’!. And there were cycle-rim races! Just like any boy of the age, I loved any machine that moved! 

Later on, when we moved back to Kerala, our hometown, whenever my mother and I went shopping, I coaxed my mother into buying the Auto India magazine which I used to read cover to cover. It had this centerfold poster of cars like Ferrari and Lamborghini which I used to collect. 

I was drawn to the world of automobiles from a very early age, though, in those days I never thought I would end up in the auto industry.  

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

After I cleared the entrance test for engineering, it did not take me much time to decide what I wanted to study. And when I announced my decision, my parents were happy to support me. So instead of joining Mechanical Engineering in a college 3 km from our home, I joined B Tech in Automobile Engineering offered by University of Kerala 80 kms away from my home. Back in 1995, there were not many colleges in India offering a graduate course in Automobile Engineering. Moreover, getting books on automotive subjects used to be a challenge. The Internet was not very popular those days. British Council Library and Kerala University library were the places to get the latest happenings in the auto industry and these used to be the places where I used to spend my weekends. Those were the times when the ‘Electronifcation’ of the automobile had started in India with introduction of Electronic Engine Management System. Another area I was interested in was renewable energy. I along with a few of my friends decided to design and build a solar powered electric vehicle for our Final Year. The Agency for Non-conventional Energy and Rural Technology (ANERT), a Kerala State Agency helped us by providing solar panels, batteries and the motor. I also got an opportunity to do my industrial training at Kerala Automobiles Limited, a Kerala Govt Enterprise that manufactures and exports three wheelers and at Cochin Shipyard Limited. 

It is very important that engineering students spend some time gaining industry experience in the domain they are interested in. This is because, we study different engineering topics in our colleges and school but we do not know how it all comes together. We do not get a holistic picture of how a product is designed and developed. In India, the gap between the industry and academia is huge. Except for a few premier institutes like the IITs, there is virtually no Industry Academia partnership. Let me give you an example. We learn to make machine drawings in our college. But in the industry we make a drawing of a component for performing a function for a particular period reliably for a cost. And we want the part to be manufactured within a particular time frame within a set manufacturing cost. The part must be easy to manufacture, transport, assemble, service and dispose/recycle. This we do not learn in our colleges. And this entire process involves working with different agencies and people both internal and external. This involves planning, review, team work, communication, soft skills. 

It was during my industrial trainings that I saw how big and complex and beautiful the industry is. 

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

I think there were two important factors which I considered when taking my career decision. The first one is my love of automobiles, which I developed early in my life as a child. The other one was, the gentle nudging and support from my father. In the 90’s, India had opened her markets to the world, and many automotive giants were setting up shops in India. So, the second factor, I believe is, keeping your eyes and ears open in order to understand the opportunities available. It is very important that we follow what is happening in the industry in India and across the world and keep a tab of the trends in the areas of our interest. 

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

Most of my classmates started joining the software industry after passing out. I had already made up my mind. Even as I was waiting for my final semester results, I started ‘working’ at a Maruti Suzuki Service Centre where I was assisting the Service Advisor in running the shop and fault diagnosis. After I got my results I joined Techlab Autogas Pvt Ltd., a Delhi based company who were into CNG and LPG systems for automobiles. It was the time when Supreme Court had ordered conversion fuels of old vehicles into CNG to combat pollution. I was involved in the testing and certification activities of components and vehicles at the Vehicle Research and Development Establishment and Automotive Research Association of India. 

I worked in the alternate Fuel industry for about 5 years. 

With my first OEM, my profile was product design and development in Engineering Division and it was my entry into the design and development from the world of testing and homologation. This involves understanding targets, making requirements out of targets, making concept design, virtual validation, detailed designs and drawings, creating prototypes and prototype testing. Once the prototypes are validated at system and vehicle level, manufacturing readiness, tooling and quality maturity is ensured. Manufacturing ready parts and vehicles are tested and validated, issues if any, during development are investigated and resolved. The most critical thing to ensure is that all these parts (a typical car has over 2000 parts) must be ready at all development stages in sync with the project timeline. This requires constant monitoring of work, the accuracy of the work, quality of work, the expenses involved (we have a budget we need to adhere to) and the timelines. This sounds challenging and it is. But it is exciting too. And the pride you feel when you see the product/part you have designed and developed in the market, that feeling of elation you experience is beyond words. 

How did you get your first break?

I got my first break in 2006. Maruti Suzuki was conducting walk in interviews in Pune and I thought OK, here is my chance. Keeping in touch with people in the industry and having a good professional network are important to keep yourselves aware of the latest happenings and technologies in the industry. Along with these inputs, one has to sharpen his axe and add on to relevant knowledge. The automotive industry is not what it used to be any more. It is dynamically changing and with new technologies coming in every day, it is an area that is undergoing constant and fast changes. So, if you want to end up in your dream job, or you are planning for an entrepreneurship journey, it is important that you know what is happening around the ecosystem. 

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

Prior to 2006, I was into testing and homologation of components and vehicles, emission testing and engine calibration. In 2006 I shifted to powertrain design and development, a completely different area. Initially I was not sure of myself. I had to put in that extra effort. Earlier I was working on vehicle and engine dynamometer and driving vehicles on tracks. Now I was sitting in front of a computer, designing components, setting processes, developing tools and fixtures, building prototypes. But my colleagues and seniors were very helpful and very soon I started enjoying my new profile. 

Where do you work now? Tell us what you do

Since 2006 I have been with a major passenger car OEM, working in areas of powertrain, chassis and fuel systems. Clean fuel was always my area of interest and I continue to work in the area of clean fuels, and clean powertrains. To learn new things, you have to come out of the desk, don your gloves and get hands on. You have to study each component, interact closely with various agencies and talk to people. If you talk about fuels for instance, you not only need to be an expert in chemistry of the fuels, but also need to understand the engine, engine management and emission systems, the electronics and logics, the algorithms and technologies.

Lately I have been working on emerging technologies like Battery based Electric Vehicles too. Now, this is nothing similar to the work I have been doing all these years. Or is it? The fuel tank is getting replaced by a battery pack, because Battery is the new fuel! Now I must understand cell chemistry in place of gasoline chemistry. It is important that we learn new things and many a time unlearn what you have learned previously so that you stay relevant and contribute to the engineering fraternity. New skills can be acquired in various ways. Attend conferences, meet new people, read technical papers, do short term courses and, show passion and interest so that you will get an opportunity to work on new technologies.

How does your work benefit the society? 

All my career I have been working on making vehicles cleaner, be it alternate cleaner fuels like CNG and LPG,  Electronic Fuel Injection Systems, Urea Systems and now Electric Vehicles and I intend to continue doing this.

I have always been interested in clean fuel and renewable energy. Now, as India is moving towards increasing the renewable energy share of the power produced, I intend to do my part in making my country, and the world a cleaner place. This is what motivates me and this is what I love about my job.

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

One project which is close to my heart is the design and development of a CNG fuel injector.  I was involved in the project end to end, right from buying the land, registering the company, recruiting of manpower, training, selecting and tracking the equipment from the manufacturer, setting up the line, conducting trials. Now, why I found it exciting? It was the first company in the country to manufacture CNG injectors. And, it was an extremely valuable learning experience to me. And it was an edge of the seat experience, because the development was happening in sync with a vehicle project. One wrong move, the project timelines would have gone for a toss. With the completion of this project there was a huge cost savings, as the earlier parts were all imported and costs were volatile. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Find the area which excites you. Now, this is not very easy. Keep exploring new things. Try doing new things. Find your niche. Once, you have discovered what excites you, follow that road, and keep track of what’s happening in that space around the world. Look for problems and pains, because that’s where the opportunities lie. Find ways to solve those problems. Problems can be anything, big or small. Find ways to improve experiences. Think about the problems you are facing and those faced by people around you. Empathize with them. Then you will see solutions forming in your mind. Then you know what you need to do. 

Future Plans?

I plan to continue to contribute in whatever way I can in making the world a cleaner and happier place as long as I have the ability to.