Farm Mechanization has the potential to revamp India’s agricultural sector by boosting productivity, increasing profitability and most importantly, improving farmer’s lives, thus supporting India in meeting its food requirements.

Rishabh Dev Sharma, our next pathbreaker, R&D Manager (Tractor Hydraulics) at Mahindra & Mahindra, leads a team that designs, develops and helps bring new technologies in the hydraulic system of Tractors.

Rishabh talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about the satisfaction of working in a unique field that applies engineering principles to bring innovation in agricultural and farm products.

For students, be a part of upcoming advancements in technology in agriculture and play a vital role in enabling farming communities to grow and prosper.

Rishabh, Your background?

I was born and brought up in a small town on the northern side of West Bengal, called Cooch Behar. I pursued my initial education all the way upto undergraduation from the same place. My mother is a graduate and a homemaker. My father is a businessman, managing a generations old restaurant business. He’s a graduate in commerce and has a keen interest in reading and travelling.

Since my school days, I have had a keen interest in Science (Maths, Physics and as well as Biology), thanks to my teachers who made these subjects easy to understand. Till date, I can recall few of those methods to remember those lengthy theorems i learnt during school. My interest in this unique combination of subjects (Maths and Biology) in higher secondary school led me towards a B.Tech. in Agricultural Engineering, where you learn to take care of plants & farm products, based on application of engineering principles. Though agriculture is widely practiced in India, this is a unique field with lots of fun for guys who love to apply engineering to agriculture. 

During my graduation, I observed that the western world has developed a lot in farm mechanization, whereas India has a lot more to do in the field. My interest in agricultural machinery and its design aspects grew. This love for machines drove me to pursue my M.Tech. in Farm Machinery and Power from IIT Kharagpur. 

I’m a keen traveler and have travelled to more than 21 states of India. I also love coding and reading books. 

I’m not a out-door sports guy, but I love to play cricket just for fun. I love to play chess, table tennis and badminton and enjoy spending time with my daughter. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

With career counselling from my school teachers and father, I decided to pursue my B.Tech. in Agricultural Engineering. Since I had an interest in both biology and math, I felt that this field of engineering covers both of them. I appeared for both AIEEE (All India Engineering Entrance Examination (which is now called JEE) and WBJEE (West Bengal Engineering Entrance Examination), and finally enrolled myself in B.Tech. (Agricultural Engg.) from Uttar Banga Krishi Viswavidyalaya (UBKV) through WBJEE. 

During the final year of my B.Tech, I appeared for the GATE exam, and secured admission in the M.Tech. program in Farm Machinery and Power from IIT Kharagpur. IIT Kharagpur is the only IIT which used to have an Agricultural Engineering Branch since its early days. There are different specializations under Agricultural Engineering in post graduation, like Farm machinery and power, Post harvest engineering/Food processing, Soil and water conservation engineering, etc. Students, based on their rank in GATE and interest in the field, can choose any of these specializations. 

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

Though Agricultural engineering was initially not familiar to me, my father, teachers and a professor from an Agricultural University were the key influencers as they noticed my interests and guided me to pursue Agricultural Engineering which was unheard of at that time. 

My father is like Ramakant Acharekar to Sachin, who guides me from time to time. His interest in reading keeps him well informed, in guiding me as per my interests. Also, my faculty during my B.Tech. and M.Tech. programs were my mentors. They all shaped me as a person and as a professional in becoming what I’m today. 

During my B.Tech., we had an educational tour to IIT Kharagpur. During those days, I was not very certain about my higher education plans. But the culture, atmosphere and scientific spirit of IIT Kharagpur hooked me in so strongly that I decided to appear for the GATE exam. I was so enthusiastic to go to IIT that I kept myself busy in the university library for most of my time in my final year exploring and understanding different topics in depth. I studied almost 14-15 hours a day. I especially like to thank my faculty in UBKV who helped me to clear doubts in any of the concepts which enhanced my understanding of the subjects. 

Finally, I qualified GATE with All India Rank 5. My passion to get enrolled into IIT since that educational tour helped me to get admitted at IIT Kharagpur with Farm machinery and Power as Major. 

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

I wanted to pursue a career in Farm Mechanization. The course was offered by State and Central Agricultural Universities. To enroll in these universities, one has to qualify the entrance test conducted by ICAR (Indian Council of Agricultural Research). I didn’t appear for it, but rather focused on getting admission into IIT Kharagpur through the GATE exam. 

During B.Tech, as per AICTE, two internships were mandatory. I did my first internship at North Eastern Regional Farm Machinery Training and Testing Institute (NERFMTTI), Biswanath Charaili, Assam. This is a sister branch of Central Institute of Farm Machinery Training and Testing (CIFTT), Budni, MP. They provide a comprehensive training of all mechanization available in India, the benefits and applications. This also includes overhauling, service and assembly of basic farm machines like engines and tractors. This training further strengthened my interest in mechanization in farms.

I did my second internship at Central Institute of Post Harvest Engineering and Technology (CIPHET), Abohar, Punjab. During my training at this institute, I worked closely with scientists who work on post harvest technologies for fruits and grains. We gained a handful of experience on post harvest methods being used on Kinnow (a citrus family fruit) and how a scalable production model can be designed for commercial purposes. 

For students who want to pursue their career in Farm Machinery and Power, I recommend that they do one internship at Central Institute of Farm Machinery Training and Testing (CIFTT), Budni, MP or any of its sister branches. I suggest students to take another internship in any of the organizations that work on farm mechanization machinery like Tractors, Combine Harvesters or any other farm machinery OEMs. This will help students be future ready to take on roles in these organizations. 

During preparation for the GATE exam, I mostly focused on my B.Tech courses, as the majority of GATE syllabus is covered in it. Basics need to be very clear to understand questions and crack the exam. I utilized maximum resources from the University library. The Internet was neither fast nor did it have too many resources for my subjects back in those days. I took notes and clarified any doubts from my faculty. It is important to go through last few years’ question papers, to understand the level of effort needed. As the GATE score is valid for 2 years, students of third year can also apply for it. I appeared for GATE in my third year just to get the feel of the exam. Although I didn’t qualify that year, it gave me experience on what not to do in the exam. Many formulae used in those questions were similar, which creates confusion in the exam hall and can be overcome only by practice. Also, one can easily get stuck in different systems of units like SI, MKS, British units. I prepared a small notebook of all formulae and units used which helped me avoid confusion and quickly solve all those unit conversion problems.

All GATE qualifiers get MHRD scholarship for 2 years, once enrolled for a Masters program. Scholarship is quite sufficient to pay your tuition fees, hostel fees as well as save for good books and magazines to keep yourselves updated in this VUCA world. 

I appeared for job interviews on campus. I still remember, when asked by the interviewer, if I had any question. I responded with, “Which department you are hiring for? I want to work as a designer.” 

They asked me, “what if we hire you for any other department.” and I replied, “I want to work with your organization, but in that case, I need to look for some other suitable job in design”. 

Finally they hired me as Deputy Manager, R&D, as a designer to work for the Swaraj tractor division of Mahindra group. I understand that one shouldn’t have reservations in the early years of his career, but my passion to design and build a product led me there. 

I started working with the design team of the Hydraulic systems of the “Swaraj” Brand tractor. The concepts and learnings from my graduate and postgraduate courses, helped me in the design of hydraulic systems, which is the best in the industry in the 60 HP segment. Tractor designing is very interesting work, as in India, we design a general purpose tractor, which needs to be suitable for almost all crops and haulage applications. My education helped me a lot in designing and delivering practical products to the customers which help them in their routine farm work. Understanding what a customer demands in a tractor, what are his practices, what are the real world usage patterns and most importantly, how to deliver a product which will provide a customer delight, is key for any organization.

How did you get your first break?

During college placements at IIT Kharagpur, I appeared for different rounds of tests, group discussions and personal interviews by Mahindra & Mahindra. During the interview, I kept my basics right and showed my keenness to work with the organization, which helps farmers who typically use a bullock drawn farming system, through its products which offer a complete mechanized solution. In India, there is ample scope to tap the farm mechanization market. This led me to work with the world’s largest tractor manufacturer, Mahindra Group. 

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

Challenge 1: During my B.Tech, we did not have a good library for Agricultural Engineering books, as this course was very recent in the university. In those days, access to the internet was expensive and very limited contents related to the subject were available. We students used to pass on a few of the available books amongst ourselves, make notes and share it among each other. With the help of faculty recommendations and the librarian, we gradually built a good resource of books and magazines during our four years stay at college. It was hard to get information outside of the main textbooks. Our librarian and faculty helped us a lot in our efforts.

Challenge 2: Being an introvert during my college days, I generally used to skip asking doubts in the class. This attitude changed during a course in my M.Tech when I had to deliver a seminar on a research paper to a selected audience. Being the center of attention and delivering a seminar was initially a tough thing to do. But this course was designed in such a way that we had to study and deliver a seminar on scientific research work as well as work on our stage fear. That course helped me a lot to work on managing performance anxiety.  

Where do you work now? Tell us about your role at Mahindra

I currently work with Mahindra as a Manager in the R & D department. My job is to lead a team to design and help bring innovations in the hydraulic system for upcoming products. For those who don’t know about a hydraulic system, it actually works on fluid power and plays a vital role in enabling agricultural and construction equipment to raise heavy loads and for smooth actuation of complex systems.  Also, I work on new technologies on tractors to build future ready products. So far, I have filed 4 patents with Mahindra and 3 more are in pipeline.

In the tractor industry, product planning teams acquire market information, that is, customer demand. Based on specifications provided by the product planning team, a designer works on product development which includes details like what horsepower should the tractor engine deliver, how many gear shifts the tractor have, at what speed it should work, how much weight the tractor can carry using its three point linkage or trolley hook as well as the kind of steering system for ease in maneuvering of a tractor. Most importantly, the designer needs to be very cautious about product cost, as affordability plays a big role over a design in the Indian market. 

What are the skills needed for your role?

To perform these activities, a designer like me needs basic engineering skill sets, broader knowledge of farm practices and understanding of real world usage patterns in the Indian agricultural domain. My agricultural engineering course helped me to understand farm practices and applications of machines in India. Skills like design for service, design for manufacturing, design for six sigma, failure mode analysis, reliability analysis and value engineering are few of the skills that I learned during my professional work. Apart from designing, there are other soft skills, like managing projects to meet costs, managing timelines and performance targets, managing teams, agility, being a team player, enhancing customer value proposition, etc. which are very much essential to grow and sustain in a professional career. A good organization provides training on a regular basis by looking at the potential of an employee, to equip them with the skills needed to handle upcoming tasks.  

What I love in this job profile is that it gives me a challenging role that makes me think out of the box and design something innovative. Learning is a never ending process. I keep myself engaged in learning new stuff. 

How does your work benefit society? 

India is still a growing market for agricultural mechanization and is in its nascent stages. As compared to western countries, India still has a lot more scope and market potential in farm mechanization. With rising labour shortage in farming business, farm mechanization plays a key role in filling the gap. Additionally, it also improves the life of a farmer. In the last 20-30 years, penetration of farm machines in agricultural work has grown exponentially. Eventually, it improves farm productivity and supports India in meeting its food requirement. 

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

I was on a business trip, and on one side of the road, I saw a farmer driving a tractor designed by me. I took a detour and met this farmer, without mentioning my job details. I enquired how he felt about driving this vehicle and doing his farm work with it. I was shocked to learn about the benefits which this customer was getting, which I had not perceived while designing it in the first place. Getting such positive feedback anonymously on a product designed by me is something which motivates me to work harder for my customer. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Currently, I see there’s a gap in the Indian education system, which doesn’t prepare a student to take a role in the industry immediately after they complete their education. They learn a lot more about product design only during their professional work. 

Changing the education system is beyond the scope of a student, but I recommend that they make career choices based on their interest. And when they are in undergrad, they should at least do internships in the industry of their interest to learn processes, methods and approaches beyond engineering tools to scale up a business. Keeping their basics clear is the most important thing to focus on.   

Future Plans?

With upcoming advancement in technology in agriculture, my plan is to work with organizations to make agricultural products available to large groups of farming communities to enable them to grow and prosper.