Lightweight materials such as high-strength steel, aluminum (Al) alloys and polymer composites can directly reduce the weight of a vehicle’s body and chassis and therefore reduce a vehicle’s fuel consumption without compromising safety.

Akshat Agha (PhD), our next pathbreaker, Materials Testing Scientist & CAE Engineer at FADI-AMT, specializes in providing research and development support in advanced material testing for a wide and diverse client base (ranging from automotive/rail to cutting edge consumer electronics industry), who use high-quality materials for developing lightweight and stronger materials.

Akshat talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about one of his most memorable projects during his PhD studying the effects of thermal expansion/contraction on the roof panel of a car when heated to 80 degrees Celsius or cooled down to -40 degrees celsius.

For students, do not fall into traps that give short-term gratification just because it is easy to do so. Have lofty goals and strive to achieve them no matter how impossible it might seem !

Akshat, can you walk us through your background?

I am a materials researcher striving to make vehicles lighter and safer in the future 

I grew up in a small town in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, known as Lakhimpur-Kheri. I was fortunate to be born in a family of lawyers and academicians. My mother being a postgraduate in English literature, and my father being a PhD and Department Head of Zoology in a state university, always made sure that the environment in our house was inclined towards formal education.

My tryst with automobiles began during my childhood days when my grandfather used to repair and restore his beloved 1972 HM Ambassador Mark II. I knew nothing about that incredible machine, but my favorite pastime of the summer was being his apprentice. Those very instances created a penchant for cars. The training which started with just holding a torchlight for him slowly turned into a deeper interest in understanding and maintenance of the automotive components. I feel these experiences laid out my foundations as a mechanical engineer.

 What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

After finishing schooling from my hometown, I started mechanical engineering at BITS-Pilani Goa Campus and got my undergraduate degree in 2013. Following that, I enrolled for MS and PhD in Automotive Engineering from Clemson University (CU-ICAR), USA in 2015 and defended my PhD dissertation in 2019. 

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

In almost every student’s life, there is a point when they must decide between a good branch and a good college. When I was at that stage, I was equally interested in computer science and mechanical engineering. My destiny got me into mechanical engineering at BITS Pilani Goa. The atmosphere at BITS provided me with an incredible platform to think beyond the usual coursework and carve out a big-picture plan for my career. I decided to work for 2-3 years after my undergraduate degree and then go abroad for graduation, which led me to where I am today. I can’t say that I was specifically interested in doing materials research at that time, but I had a general plan of what I wanted to do in life – ‘R&D in the automotive industry’.

A big influencer in my life is my PhD advisor and my current boss Dr. Fadi. During my MS at CU-ICAR, I got a chance to work under him as a lab assistant, which got me excited about the impact of material testing and changed my career goals completely. 

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

After completing my undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering from BITS-Pilani, I got two campus placement offers- one from 3D PLM as a simulation software engineer and the other from Honda Motorcycle and Scooter India (HMSI) as a Graduate Engineer Trainee. I chose the job at Honda as it aligned with my final career goal of researching the automotive industry.

The job was in a manufacturing plant and I got experience of working in various departments over six months, following which I chose to serve in the Supplier Quality Assurance department. The job role at Honda involved mainly people management and problem-solving to improve the existing processes. It was not too technical to quench my thirst for developing something new. I wanted to be in the design team, but the chances of switching to those roles within the organization were negligible. 

This is an industry-wide problem. The development work in India is limited to only a few indigenous companies. Most of the automotive OEMs were designing the cars outside India and sending the finished designs to Indian teams for minor tweaking and making them market-ready. At that time, there was a lot of buzz about electric cars and autonomous vehicles, especially Tesla. All these reasons motivated me to apply for masters in the US and Germany. Though Germany is considered to be the best for automotive engineering, my inner calling told me to go to the US as there were no language barriers, it was more open to immigrants, and almost every automotive company on the planet has its presence in the US and in the end, I was simply more fascinated with America than with Germany.

My journey at Clemson University started as an automotive engineering masters student. My inclination was to major in powertrain systems and electric vehicles. However, in the second semester of my degree, I took a course on Vehicle Lightweighting and Advanced Materials. The course taught how the majority of the body components are still made up of mild steel sheets which are formed in a stamping press. It also shed light on how advanced materials like advanced high strength steel, aluminum behave differently when they are stamped, welded, painted, or crushed in an accident. I was overwhelmed by the great lightweighting potential these new materials have over conventional mild steel. By the end of the semester, I found myself completely fascinated with the area of materials research and started working under Dr. Fadi in the materials lab as a lab assistant. 

In the first summer of my coursework, my previous experience at Honda helped me in getting two internship offers at Volvo Group Trucks, North America, and Koyo Jtekt Bearings USA, both for Quality Intern positions. I joined Volvo as an intern but it took very little time to realize that I was doing the same work as I used to do at Honda in India, which was not what I wanted to do in life. At the end of my internship at Volvo, I had to choose between joining Volvo Group as a full-time quality engineer or starting my career in research as a PhD candidate which entailed several years of toiling. Being an immigrant in a new country with an educational loan on my head, it was a tough decision, but I was certain that I had to decline the full-time job offer extended by Volvo, and join the PhD program to do the research that I always wanted. There is no doubt that it was due to my elder brother and family support that I was able to choose this path.

My PhD journey of 2.5 years was very rewarding and exciting. The PhD programs at US universities are fully funded and paid for. This took the financial burden off my shoulders and allowed me to focus entirely on the research that I loved to do. My research focused on material characterization, modeling, and simulations. In simple words, my work focused on determining the mechanical properties of novel materials like advanced high strength steels, aluminum, and polymeric materials; fitting the mechanical properties to mathematical models, and then using those mathematical models to run finite element simulations on complex components. The determination of accurate mechanical behavior of materials is crucial to accurate predictions of material behavior at the time of stamping or crash. 

How did you get your first break? 

Although I have worked for Honda and Volvo before, I would consider my current role at FADI-AMT (after PhD) as my first break. FADI-AMT (stands for Advanced Material Testing) was founded by my PhD advisor in 2016. It is a beautiful provision given only to the university professors that they can start their own venture alongside teaching at the university. Upon my graduation in 2019, Dr. Fadi left Clemson University to completely focus on FADI-AMT and he extended an offer to me for a full-time position in the company. 

My case was different, but I believe meaningful connections and networking is the way to go. Unlike India, US universities do not have campus placements, instead, they have career fairs where students can interact with business representatives. But then you are on your own, the university takes no responsibility for getting the students placed. 

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

The biggest challenge for international graduate students is to focus on their university coursework, under the pressure of getting an internship/job by the end of the program, as well as pay off the thousands of dollars worth of education loan. I was no different in this regard. There were times when that pressure almost crushed me, but it all worked out fine. I always try to take some time out and think about the big picture of what I am doing and why I am doing it, and if it is going to help me in the long run. This answers a lot of questions.

Another challenge that comes in almost every PhD student’s life is regret. The PhD journey is a big commitment and a long rollercoaster ride – sometimes things work, and you are at your high, and a lot of times you find yourself depressed and regretting the decision to jump on the PhD train. It makes you compromise a lot on your personal and social life, while also impacting you financially. If I look back, it feels perfectly normal to me now. After all, that’s how life always is, right? The key is to just keep moving on through the small hurdles and making your way to your destination..

The other big challenge for me is navigating through the US immigration system. Engineering students (included in the STEM field) are granted a total of 3 years of work permit after their graduation. Before the expiry of this period, they must get selected for a H1B visa which is based on a lottery. It frustrates me that the future of a skilled immigrant is decided by a petty lottery. I did not get lucky in the H1B visa lottery for the first 2 years, and it has created a panic situation as I only have one more chance to get through. I have decided to explore other visa options which are available to only highly skilled people with extraordinary abilities. I am working towards streamlining my research profile in order to fit those strict requirements. I am hopeful that it will work out.     

Where do you work now? Tell us about your role as Materials Researcher

Since graduation in 2019, I have been working as a Material Test and CAE Engineer at FADI-AMT. 

FADI-AMT specializes in providing research and development support in advanced material testing for a wide and diverse client base (ranging from automotive/rail to cutting edge consumer electronics industry), which use high-quality materials data for developing lightweight and stronger materials, and hence more efficient solutions for the future products. 

I serve as a Technical Lead and the person in charge of the mechanical testing projects. In this role, I have to use the skills acquired during my PhD in performing standard mechanical tests, designing and executing customized tests on materials and components for material suppliers, and OEMs for the transportation and consumer electronics industry. I am also the subject-matter expert for advanced mechanical testing of materials and components using optical metrology techniques, especially 2D and 3D-digital image correlation (DIC) and its integration with the standardized and custom test setups. In simple words, I provide consultation to  clients to understand their needs, design test methods/plans based on their material data requirements, execute the tests and provide high-quality material response data to the customers for further research and development.  

How does your work benefit society? 

The research work has a crucial and direct impact on improving the lives of millions of end customers. Some real examples are: making sure that (1) the next car model manufactured by our client OEM using our research data, is durable and safe in a crash event, yet highly efficient on mileage, or (2) the next smartphone launched by our client has a well-designed and strong enough casing to withstand an unfortunate battery smoke-out or blast, or (3) the jet engine of the next commercial airplane does not fail due to thermal fatigue of its inner components. 

It feels incredible how the material data I generate forms a critical part of the product design process. It is this impact that keeps me thrilled and motivated every single day.

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

Every challenging project that I have contributed to is special to me. One project from my PhD time is really close to my heart. We were studying the effects of thermal expansion/contraction on the roof panel of a car when it is heated to 80 degrees Celsius or cooled down to -40 degrees celsius. On the final day of the test, we did not get permission to do the testing on the body of the university-owned car, so we placed my advisor’s new BMW 3 series into the temperature chamber, stuck several point markers on the roof, and used 3D digital image correlation (DIC) to record and study the movement of the roof while cycling the temperature. The sense of accomplishment of getting the work done with limited resources was a delight.

Here is a cool picture of the test setup (how it was supposed to be for the final day) which shows the university-owned body of BMW X3 inside the temperature chamber, and DIC cameras on top looking at the roof panel:

Your advice to students based on your experience?

My biggest advice to students is to set a goal for their career as early on as possible. Having a final goal makes it easy to make decisions, clears confusion, and makes one aware and equipped to differentiate substance from noise. Things change, plans change, adapt your goals to situations, that’s alright; but keep working towards your final goal and I am sure you will reach there whatever be the route. Always keep in mind the big picture and take every decision to count towards that. Making firm decisions with solid reasoning makes you confident, and this world respects confidence. This approach has helped me a lot in shaping my professional journey.

Do not fall into traps that give short-term gratification- for example, if you want to make an impact and do something good in mechanical engineering, do not take a job at an IT firm just because it is easy to do so and gives a short term financial benefit. Play chess, not checkers!

Future Plans?

For now, I plan on continuing the exciting work at FADI-AMT. In the future, I plan to start a materials research consultancy and use this valuable experience to provide technical inputs to clients.

I am also venturing into becoming a public speaker and giving technical guest lectures at Indian universities to motivate more students towards the field of materials research. 

I have always felt that good advice at the right time is extremely crucial for success. In my free time, I enjoy mentoring and helping out students. I am just a message away on LinkedIn (Akshat Agha, PhD | LinkedIn). Feel free to connect!