Some childhood experiences leave a lasting impression on us, especially the sight of a person with a small computer controlling huge machinery (weighing over a ton) in order to perform heavy lifting tasks !
Ayushmoy Roy, our next pathbreaker, Founder & Product lead at PaceRobotics (incubated at IIT Mumbai), designs and develops Autonomous and Modular Robots which can automate wall finishing in building construction.
Ayushmoy talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about always being interested in the intersection of mechanical and electronics components with software, and taking up a career in robotics driven by his fascination for hardware.
For students, most people associate technology with software. Hardware and Software are like 2 sides of a coin, just like power and intelligence are the backbone of next generation technologies!!
Ayushmoy, Your background?
I grew up in Bangalore and studied science through 11th and 12th. Physics and Computer Science were my favorite subjects. Growing up in a family of engineers, a career in engineering was in some ways predestined, but I was always more fascinated with hardware even though trends in Software and IT were blowing up in Bangalore in the late 2000’s.
I spent a lot of my free time reading about cars and all the latest automotive-tech. The intersection of mechanical engineering (moving components) with electronics engineering (control) was always very intriguing for me! I remember spending hours reading about new engine technologies or the latest infotainment systems and then trying to tie that up with what I learnt in classes. That’s how my interest in robotics initially started.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
I studied Mechanical Engineering for graduation and Robotics for post-graduation.
I got an integrated Bachelor’s + Master’s from Sheffield. I received a 3000 pound scholarship for all 4 years of study which was about 30% of the overall tuition, the rest was self-funded. I choose a foreign university because I prefer a more practical oriented style of learning and from high school I was always had a much easier time appreciating and retaining course information when practical projects were added to theoretical lessons.
I also did my Master’s Degree (MS) in Robotics and Mechatronics from University of Pennsylvania.
What are the influences that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
I will never forget, I visited my Father’s factory when I was about 4 years old and the sight of robotic arms performing tasks completely captured my fascination. Something about a person with a small computer, controlling huge machinery (weighing over a ton) was so captivating and I knew then, this is what I wanted to do, once I grew up!
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
In hindsight my career has been typical of what you would see with most robotics engineers. My degree in Mechanical Engineering laid a good foundation for me to go on and learn more advanced topics in robotics. During my undergrad, I went for summer internships every year in the automotive industry and tried to learn as much about automation and machine technology as possible.
I tried to gain relevant industrial and academic experience throughout my undergrad. I applied for a summer research position at the low carbon emissions center at University of Sheffield where I spent most of the summer researching and suggesting techniques on making the gas turbine combustion process more energy efficient, especially during starting conditions.
During the first year of my undergrad, I got an opportunity to intern with a company called LuK in Germany. The company makes automotive components such as clutches for cars etc. I got the chance to walk through the entire product value chain starting from design/engineering to production to testing and shipping. This was my first insight into the world of industrial manufacturing and R&D and i still find myself trying to implement/improvise the practices I saw there with what I am building at Pace Robotics.
I was always very interested in the intersection of mechanical and electronics components with software. A car is a perfect example of this, there are mechanical components such as the engine or brakes which are controlled through a software via electronic circuits.
My mechanical engineering degree gave me a very good foundation in general engineering and in the mechanical aspects of robotics and hence, I decided to pursue another degree in robotics to really get a grasp of electronics and software which I had been only introduced to briefly, earlier.
My most interesting internship project was my internship project with Scheffler during my first year M.S in Robotics at UPenn. I was given the task of introducing a new design change to a mechanical sub-component for one of their products. This was my first opportunity to experience an industrial engineering project from conception to execution along with management of various tasks, timelines and coordinating with different teams.
My work at Schaeffler was primarily to do with control systems and design for Engine Camshaft phasers. Camshaft phasers are electro-mechanical components in an engine which can alter the intake and exhaust of air in engines, bringing various power or efficiency benefits. My job was focused on designing or improving subcomponents of the entire camshaft phaser and the control system which in general, is any piece of software that allows the machine controller to control the movement of motors or other actuators.
Once I graduated from M.S in robotics, I went on to work in the automotive industry for 2 years. I was working as a product development engineer where it was my task to research and develop new products for the company, utilizing my skills in electronics and mechanical engineering. This was an early glimpse into the world of industrial robotics.
Post that, I worked for a further 2 years in the agri-tech industry where I was developing robots that can work autonomously and help in harvesting fruits or removing weeds from fields. In this role I really got an opportunity to hone my skills and further improve my knowledge on topics like Computer Vision, Autonomous Navigation etc.
Having developed a decent expertise with autonomous robots, I decided to start my own firm in construction robotics last year. We are currently working on robots which will hopefully help build houses quicker and cheaper one day!
How did you get your first break?
My degree in robotics and past industrial internships had a lot to do with helping me land my first job in robotics. In many ways, the job was asking for a lot of the skills/knowledge I had freshly learnt during my M.S degree; so yes, I would definitely recommend getting a M.S or a PhD in robotics to get a good break!
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
Robotics is still quite a niche area and although it has started to penetrate the mainstream, it is still many years behind software or AI. So, finding jobs isn’t very easy as there aren’t many out there. I struggled quite a bit with my early job hunt. In my experience, internships are a great way to find career opportunities in robotics. It gives companies a great way to assess if an individual is really passionate about the subject and will bring value to the organization without making a big commitment. So, internships, paid or unpaid, are definitely a great way to make a breakthrough.
Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?
Right now, I am the product lead at my own start-up “Pace Robotics”. I am responsible for designing and developing all our products, all the way from conceptualization to deployment with customers.
This type of a role requires you to have at least a basic level knowledge in mechanical design, electronics, software, AI and robotic navigation. You don’t have to be an expert in all these areas but you should know the fundamentals to be able to coordinate and oversee the work of various teams. I acquired the knowledge of these areas primarily through my degree in Robotics and my industry work experience.
The best part of my job is I get to directly implement things I learnt in university every day and constantly learn more! These are things I am extremely passionate about! In fact, the learning never stops. I get to learn/experiment with something new almost on a daily basis. Also, the satisfaction of building a new part, making a circuit or writing a piece of code that makes a motor run and seeing these in action, is priceless for me!
The construction industry is going through a rough phase of skilled labor shortage, very low productivity, coupled with one of the lowest adoptions of technology.
We are making robots that can help reduce the labor intensive effort in the wall finishing process i.e, plastering and painting of walls. Wall finishing is one of the most labor-intensive processes and takes very long because there are no machines to help humans.
How does your work benefit society?
The robots I am developing now will make construction safer, quicker and more affordable. Our robots will hopefully convert your average mason or site worker into a qualified machine operator one day. Our work has the potential to change the very concept of how buildings should be constructed.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
At my second company, I was the project leader for a first of its kind, tractor mounted, robotic de-weeder for cotton plants. We developed a robot capable of spotting and removing weeds. It was a very proud moment for me, to physically witness a robot I had conceptualized on a piece of paper, come to life and work on a field in under 6 months. The most awesome part was that my own colleagues were surprised to see that this robot was fully developed indigenously for Indian farms, not something that was happening in the US or EU.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
I feel in India especially; most people associate technology with only software and often hardware does not get enough publicity. I would like to tell students, if you’re someone who’s interested in hardware, design, electronics etc, please consider a career in robotics and automation.
A career in robotics, although a little difficult in the early days, can be extremely rewarding and satisfying in the long run if you’re passionate about hardware. You will be a part of a highly disruptive and a limitless tech domain and the best part is that every industry, big or small will rely on automation (and as a result your skills) in the coming decades.
I plan to continue my work in construction robotics with a goal to change the way construction happens on sites today. My dream is to contribute to India becoming a construction tech leader for the world where other countries take inspiration from India’s construction robotics prowess.