It is always a matter of pride to work for a research institute that plays a crucial role in ensuring that safe, efficient and reliable vehicles ply on indian roads, by assisting the Government in formulating automotive standards and regulations.

Dr. Ajeet Babu (PhD), our next pathbreaker, Automotive Researcher at ARAI (Automotive Research Association Of India), works on Materials Research with a focus on problems related to automotive materials and manufacturing of the components.

Ajeet talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about always wanting to explore new technologies through multidisciplinary projects with the freedom of bringing innovation in the domain of automobiles.

For students, be extremely choosy and never be satisfied untill you get what you want. There is no room for mediocrity when it comes to your career !

Ajeet, tell us about Your background?

Hi, I am Dr. Ajeet Babu and was born in Madurai, Tamilnadu. My mother is a housewife and my dad was serving in Indian Airforce and thus I travelled throughout India for my schooling such as Agra, Chandigarh, Delhi, Bengaluru and Madurai.  I studied in Kendriya Vidyalaya till my 10th Std and shifted to TN State board for my higher secondary education. During my time, 12th Score was counted for getting admission in colleges and state board was easy to score as compared to CBSE. 

I would like to emphasize here that the CBSE syllabus gives us a well rounded education compared to other boards. I was never good at sports. I always scored in the top 10 of the class whose strength was around 40. My interest during schooling was in acting, drama and Dumb Charades in which i have won many prizes.

I was just a fun loving kid and did not have any career goals till 10th. My goals changed based on the situation/advice or the movie which I watched recently. Sometimes it was business or acting, while a few other times it was soldier/doctor. In my higher secondary, I focused on PCB (Physics, Chemistry and Biology) to become a doctor as per my mother’s wish. I did not score well in biology and MBBS was out of question, but I scored 197 out 200 in Physics. 

Thus, I decided to become an engineer because of my good physics score. I also did not score well in mathematics as I did not focus during my studies. This created a big hurdle in getting admission into good engineering colleges due to low cut off. 

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I decided to become an engineer. My next challenge was to select my domain of study. CSE/IT was a popular course and Biotechnology was a new discipline. I wanted to learn something which I could see/feel/touch and I did not find this in CSE/Biotech/ECE. Since I didn’t want to get into construction, I selected Mechanical engineering. I joined a medium ranking engineering college in Tamilnadu. 

After working for a few years in engineering (after graduation) I decided to go for higher studies (MTech).

Though I got multiple offers from India and Abroad. I decided to do an MTech in Automotive Engineering from Vellore Institute of Technology. VIT offers the M. Tech course in Automotive engineering in collaboration with ARAI (Automotive Research Association of India). It was the only course in automotive engineering in India at that time, even IIT did not have a course in automotive engineering. So, I selected this course which was in high demand. My only aim was to get placed in the top most institute in India and thus studied hard and was thorough with my fundamentals. 

I then did my PhD in Manufacturing Engineering from VIT/ARAI.

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

Right from childhood, cars and bikes fascinated me. My second job was also related to the automotive industry and I loved visiting Tata Motors and Ford Motors as a part of my job. This influenced me to study automotive engineering for my post-graduation.

A vehicle has multiple systems such as brakes, steering, NVH, engine, emission etc. During my studies, I understood that an engineer typically works on only one system. Though I was weak in mathematics, my theoretical knowledge was good due to two reasons. First reason was that my english was good which helped me study big books easily and the second (most important) reason was my teacher who taught me materials and manufacturing. This subject was a theoretical subject and the teacher was fantastic. I was immensely motivated towards automotive materials and studied hard. Not only did I study hard and top my class, but I also did multiple projects in automotive materials during my post-graduation and also interned in Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. 

As a part of my final PG project I participated in a competition wherein we had to form a team and build an 800 cc race car from scratch which would be inspected for competing on a race track. I was the leader of the team, we got a sponsorship and made this car. I got a deeper understanding of automotive systems and lots of practical knowledge on building cars. Our car passed all the static and dynamic tests and we also won the best engineered car award with a cash prize of Rs 3 Lakhs. Hence, I decided to become an automotive engineer.

Tell us about how did you get to where you are today

As I mentioned earlier, I was not good in mathematics and had an arrear in the 1st semester. This made me realize the importance of fundamental knowledge. I enjoyed my four years of graduation and just like in my school, I was in the top 10 out of 60 students. 

As a KV student, since my english was good (Fundamentals), this helped me in cracking the group discussion and Interview in my final placements which led to an offer in WIPRO. School teaching helped me in college placements.

I realized that an IT job will not make me happy because I am a person who believes in seeing; and coding is more of a PC based job. I turned down the offer.

I worked at Siraj Castings right after my graduation, a company that manufactured cast kitchen products such as tawa etc. As I had rejected Wipro and was idle, I got this job through my dad’s network. This was a very small industry and I started working directly with the owner. Being a supervisor, this job helped me in people management. I did my MBA in project management through distance education and this helped me in coordinating the various activities. Though there were lots of responsibilities, I couldn’t do any work related to high end engineering. 

In a small business you can learn about the workings of an entire industry and various departments such as account, HR etc., but not core technology.

Next, I started working in the L & T Nuclear Power Plant, Kudankulam. During my work there, I understood that an onsite job does not allow an engineer to innovate and that it requires a corporate office job in the design department to make new designs/products. 

My role was to plan and supervise the mechanical job, followed by inspection. The technology was Russian and the Nuclear power corporation of India controlled the activities. Though I learnt high end welding, I was merely implementing engineering designs and it was more of a site work. I felt proud working for a project of national importance though I did not get a chance to work on technology.

In site-based engineering work, though one can learn well established engineering practices and get exposed to core engineering principles, since the job site is out of city limits, the lifestyle becomes boring. And since the technology is Russian, there isn’t much to innovate from an engineering aspect.

Though the nuclear plant was good, the job was monotonous and thus I quit and joined Durr India Pvt Ltd (A German paint shop). The job was to coordinate with paint shops in the automotive industry. I learnt a lot of engineering aspects related to conveyors, hvac, structure etc. The pay in mechanical industries was never great as compared to IT. I struggled a lot for survival and career growth due to limited opportunities as a graduate.

My role was to carry out project management and engineering activities. I was posted in the Chennai design office. This was a corporate job with all the perks and facilities in the centre of the city. The design work was done in Chennai though I soon realized that paint shop technology was based on a well proven engineering field and we were just serving the customers and meeting their requirements. The actual engineering, robotic design or structural design was done by Germans either sitting in the head office or in India. Those Germans were called experts in that particular area.

I understood that mere graduation can take a person only up to a certain level. In order to design new products, innovate further and earn a good salary, one should become an expert. Thus, I quit my job at Durr and started preparing for higher studies. 

After completing my MTech, I got selected  for ARAI (Automotive Research Association of India)

I have been working in ARAI since 2011 and have completed my ten years in this institute. In my role I carry out applied materials science research and work with industry experts on high end technologies.  I was one of the top performers in my department and was involved in executing funded technical projects which would help Indian industries. 

At this point I realized that in order to develop technology we have to build our fundamentals further and just a post-graduation would never be enough. A single-minded focus on one subject thoroughly will lead to innovation. A thorough understanding of the subject can be obtained systematically by doing a PhD. I was fortunate to be selected for a fully funded opportunity by ARAI to do my PhD as a part of my job and I did it in the modeling of Aluminium materials and their deformation behavior. This PhD helped me in gaining the required knowledge and I filed my first patent on Bi-metal forging. 

How did you get your first break?

I got my first job offer at Wipro. I got through the aptitude test due to my fluency in english, but it was simple as it was an on-campus job. My second and third job was through networking. Thus, all the mentioned jobs were not big breaks in my life. Once I quit L&T, I was on my own.

This was during 2009 and there was a recession worldwide. I believed in consistency and started applying for off campus jobs. As a fresher it is difficult to even get an interview call without reference, but I succeeded. I got interview calls once I cracked the key to getting off campus calls. 

My Off Campus strategy was to make a very nice short one page resume and apply for selective jobs in multiple websites such as Naukri etc. I also found out HR details from the company website, email them and would call to inform them about my application. Some refused to entertain my calls and some responded well. I followed up with those who responded positively and also couriered my resume to them. Generally, people delete job emails but a courier is kept in a tray or file cabinet. This strategy of following up and sending a hard copy helped me crack off campus interview calls. 

I landed a good job at Durr India Private Limited. 

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

I wanted to work on new technologies rather than support existing technologies

I understood how important it is to become an expert to develop any simple design or engineering work. Else an engineer can only adopt the existing design and change it slightly to meet customer requirements. I also understood that it is better to work in a company which has India as its origin so that all work is done within India and we can get the opportunity to implement new ideas

Where do you work now? Tell us about your role

I work in The Automotive Research Association of India (ARAI) situated in Pune. It is a 50 year old premier research institute in the field of mobility. ARAI’s prime function is to check the safety and other important parameters of the vehicle and certify them for road worthiness. ARAI also carries out technology development for the automotive industry.

What problems do you solve?

The automotive industry is designing new cars/bikes/trucks and buses every year and is launching products in a very short time. 

Customers want more functionality out of their vehicles. Customers want comfort, cost effectiveness, safety and their demands are changing rapidly. The Automotive industry is trying to satisfy the customer and in the process of developing a good vehicle and meeting customer requirements, they face multiple problems.

My primary job is to forecast the problems which the Indian automotive industry is likely to face while developing a good product in the future as well as developing solutions for various problems. I focus on problems related to automotive materials and manufacturing of the components. 

A vehicle is a very less efficient machine. It takes a big vehicle weighing 1250 kg in order to transport four people weighing around 250 Kg. This leads to pollution and congestion in roads. I work on developing lighter vehicle parts through design of better manufacturing processes. I am also working in the area of developing electric vehicle systems which are less polluting compared to petrol vehicles.

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

There are three types of skills required to become a successful engineer and develop a good career. The first skill is core technical understanding and thorough fundamental knowledge about the product or process in which you are planning to work. This skill is called Intelligence Quotient.

The second skill required in research and development is to think innovatively. It is important to bring fresh ideas in R&D and to be able to see the future and predict the trends.

The last and the most important skill is emotional intelligence wherein you can manage the team, your seniors and other collaborators working with you. 

What is a typical day like?

A typical day in my job comprises three segments. 

The first segment is to discuss with my team members the status of various ongoing projects.  We also discuss new ideas/technology being developed worldwide and brainstorm on future projects that can be executed in India which leads to developing new project proposals. This takes around two to three hours of my day.

The second segment of my day is dedicated towards technical work along with my team, which happens as an experimentation with state-of-the-art equipment or virtual simulation in my workstation. This takes around three to four hours of my day.

The third segment is to discuss with my extended team within the institute and collaborators outside my institute on important developments on projects and future collaborations. 

We also have a lot of fun activities as a part of a team in ARAI.

What is it you love about this job? 

Working in a research institute has its own advantages and I love my job. One of the major reasons is that an engineer working in an automotive research institute is not bound by one vehicle or product. A researcher is free to work on multidisciplinary projects and I have the freedom to carry out innovation is my selected area of interest. Basically, the work profile is flexible as compared to other product-based innovation engineering roles.

The other reason for loving this job is the opportunity to meet many experts outside my institute. I collaborate with various industries, IITs, engineering colleges, national research institutes as well as experts and institutes from abroad. The networking opportunity in ARAI is very good. 

How does your work benefit society? 

My work and the solutions which I develop are being appreciated by the industry and being adopted to solve their problems so that the automotive industry can design a better vehicle making the end customer happy. 

Vehicles are becoming more sophisticated day by day with technologies such as embedded electronics, artificial intelligence, 5G etc. A career as automotive engineer will be fun because you will impact multiple lives who are going to drive a vehicle wherein your technology is implemented. 

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

My first project which was innovative was to develop a lightweight bicycle made of bamboo in the year 2011. I also won huge appreciation and prizes for this innovation. Today many companies have developed this product and it is available in the market as a sustainable product. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Till the age of 25 try to do different things which interests you. Don’t worry about failure or success, but focus on trying to find that one thing which makes you happy. Once you find your passion, pursue it without any doubts.

Future Plans?

I love technology, and innovation is one thing which wakes me up daily. I would like to be engaged with technology and innovation either as a researcher or as a teacher, and would like to be remembered as a technocrat in the near future.