The interplay between sustainability and technology is nowhere as evident as it is in the field of Automotives, powered by advances in clean technologies (EV) and Mechatronics.

Uday Akasapu, our next pathbreaker, is pursuing his Master’s in Automotive Mechatronics and Management at University of Applied Sciences Upper Austria.

Uday talks to  Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his work on an autonomous electric tractor and systems integration aspects of light commercial vehicles that stirred his interest in advanced vehicle engineering.

For students, always upskill yourself while keeping your basics strong, to adapt to the changing needs of the automotive industry!

Uday, your background?

I grew up in Mumbai. Well, technically speaking it is a small town called Kalyan which is 54 kms from Mumbai, but is still very much considered as a part of Mumbai. It is the entry point to the city of dreams. My father used to travel 54 kms daily to ply his trade as an accountant and my mother was a housewife! I did my schooling in a semi-government school, but it was a great one. I was not very active in sports but had an interest in art and building things. When any science project came up, I was first to sign up for it. If there was any drawing competition, I added myself to the queue. During my formative years, I had an interest in two things, one was architecture, and the other was vehicles. I loved cycling around and also thought of becoming a cyclist once! But it was never a viable option, i felt. Luckily, I got good guidance through my teachers at school and that felt great. I decided to become an architect. But where did I end up? I became a Mechanical engineer. Well, I messed up the deadlines for the entrance exam because I didn’t have much information, and ended up giving the entrance exams for engineering. Well, civil engineering came close to architecture, but I couldn’t get into a decent college. My marks were not something to be proud of and there were very few colleges in Mumbai which had civil engineering courses. I ended up joining Mechanical Engineering in SIES Graduate School of Technology and it’s a decision I would always remain grateful for. I had the best days of my life, I did all the things I wished to do, I made some really great friends and was able to participate in many of the automotive related events. I was also able to explore many of my own skills during my bachelor’s degree. I participated in the collegiate club of automotive engineers where I was able to take my theoretical experience and put it into practice by working on designing go-karts, all-terrain vehicles in both a virtual world as well as bringing those Computer Aided Design (CAD) models to life. This piqued my interest in automobiles and I wanted to continue working in this field. 

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I completed my bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from SIES Graduate School of Technology in Navi Mumbai, which is affiliated to Mumbai University. I finished my bachelors in the year 2016 and I worked in the automotive field for 4 years. In the year 2020, I started my master’s degree in Automotive Mechatronics and Management from University of Applied Sciences Upper Austria in Austria, Europe. I will graduate in the year 2022 on successful completion of my studies and defending my master’s thesis. 

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

I was influenced by reading automotive magazines as a kid, and had a keen interest for bikes and cars, after watching Topgear and car shows etc

I was also influenced by the people from Topgear and their crazy love for cars. Though I did not have a specific mentor, I met some inspiring people during my professional experiences at Maruti Suzuki and Force Motors. Mr. I. V. Rao, who is the former head of R&D for Maruti Suzuki India Limited, was a pioneer in the field of Automobiles in the whole Indian Automotive industry. During my time at Force Motors, I had the pleasure of working with people like Mr. U. S. Prabhu, Mr. Pradeep Chandrasekaran, Mr. Kaushik Shah who were at the top positions in R&D departments of the company. But one of the most inspiring people I was lucky to share space with was the Chairman of Force Motors, Mr. Abhay Firodia, and the way he carried himself during meetings with different companies, or his own colleagues or how he spoke to our young team at Force Motors. I always have felt inspired by him and also aspired to become someone like him, who knew about everything inside-out about one’s own company, how stuff actually works and how to take care of a huge business empire. 

When I participated for the first time in the BAJA SAE competition, I realized that I would want to work in this field. When I went to the actual competition, it was the first time our college went to any such competition. The perseverance of the collegiate teams and the efforts they put in to come up with different cars for the competition, were visible. 

As soon as I graduated, I wanted to do my master’s in automotive engineering to learn more about vehicles and explore the latest technologies in this field. But I got an opportunity to work with a team of innovators at AutoNxt Automation Pvt. Ltd. on an autonomous and electric tractor. This paved the way for me to work in the automotive sector. 

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

First thing I did was to start looking for internships in places close to me, companies around me in the industrial estates. Also, this helped me to land an internship in an automotive workshop where we worked on servicing different parts of buses and trucks. 

After having done my bachelors, I went through different websites to apply for jobs, like approaching the company directly through different job portals. I got the most hits in terms of interviews from the website, I was always interested in working with startups, and the network was probably the best website to find one. The other websites where I could convert applications to interviews were Indeed and LinkedIn. 

I got my first break through networking. I worked with AutoNxt Automation Private Limited where I worked as a Mechanical Design Engineer. I worked on the system sizing, deciding the size of the motor and integrating the electric vehicle powertrain into a diesel tractor. I worked on designing parts like shafts and couplers, manufactured them with local workshops, disassembled a whole diesel tractor and retrofitted it with an electric motor and battery and brought it to life. I worked on testing the tractor in a farm land close to our office. While building the tractor and after testing the tractor, we met people at different positions in companies to pitch our idea of building an electric and autonomous tractor. 

Once we reached a point where we were still looking for funding for the project, I felt there was a lack of resources to learn more from the project, and hence decided to move on. Here again, networking helped because I contacted people who I had met earlier. I asked them if they had any openings and applied to their companies. That’s how I landed my 2nd job at Force Motors as Senior Engineer in the Electric Vehicle R&D. Here, I worked as a product development engineer (coordinating with different teams to select the different parts needed to develop new vehicle concepts) and contributed as a requirement engineer (deciding specifications of the vehicle, benchmarking different vehicles to learn about their presence in the market) and helped the team with sourcing components required for building prototypes. Product development also involved constant follow-ups on the progress of the stages at which the product was in the development life cycle, creating test scenarios for the vehicle to be tested, and creating validation processes. 

After having worked for another two years, I always wanted to complete my masters degree. This is when I came across the course I am currently pursuing. It is a perfect mix of different fields – Automotive Components and Dynamics, Automotive IT Systems, Model-based Engineering and Management. Hence, I decided to pursue this course in Austria. One of the main reasons to choose a country like Austria is its proximity to Germany, its contribution to the automotive sector. Also, studying in Austria is also free, just like in Germany. The tuition fee is 750 Euros per semester in Austria in a public college and I felt there wouldn’t be a need for a scholarship, unlike colleges in the USA where the fees are as high as 20,000 dollars. 

I was looking to apply for Automotive courses in Germany when I came across this interesting course in Austria, which is called Automotive Mechatronics and Management. This course caught my eye and I applied it along with a few other courses in Germany and also some backup courses in case I don’t get through. In Germany, there are two types of Universities, namely TU (Technical University) and FH (University of Applied Sciences). TUs are more research oriented where as FH work closely with the industry. I wanted to learn by doing more practical projects which is why I ended up doing this course. We learn about Automotive IT Systems, Driving Assistance Systems, Vehicle Components and Drive Systems, Model Based Engineering, Sensors and Mechatronic Systems etc. We have had teachers who were full time professionals from companies like MAN Trucks, Continental, BMW, LeddarTech, Vector, Bosch and these teachers introduce us to the latest industry methods and technologies. In my 2nd semester, I worked with KTM on an object detection project which was related to driver safety and driver assistance systems. I will be working with another company for the 3rd semester and could either continue my project there as a master’s thesis or work with any other company to complete my thesis. 

How did you get your first break? 

My first break was through networking where I knew a colleague who was from the electronics and telecommunication department of my college. He was working with a bunch of guys on developing an electric and autonomous tractor. They were looking for a mechanical engineer to help them out on building the tractor prototype. This is when he connected me with the CEO and CTO, and we had a chat on my experience on building things and how I could contribute to them on this project. This was how I landed my first job. 

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

Challenge 1: One of the challenges while working for the first time with a newly setup company was knowing and understanding the things to work on. You always need to be in constant touch with new technologies and keep in mind the different limitations to do what you would want to achieve. Research is always a tricky part for someone who’s new to the field. The easiest and best solution to address this challenge is to discuss the problem with as many people as possible. Interact with different people, your colleagues, family, and forums on the internet. You are bound to find solutions.

Challenge 2: Another challenge is to sustain yourself when you are working in a bootstrapped startup. You need to find ways for sustenance and that’s what the startup I was working with focused on. Being able to invest funds in research was always great, but having a source of income helps to gain confidence. It is always great to work with the very same team if you can contribute in different ways or do part-time work or freelancing. I worked on writing articles for sports websites, found people who needed technical guidance in their projects and also did some technical writing in the form of alt text development. You need to upskill yourself in things other than what you like. 

Challenge 3: When I wanted to switch to a different company, I couldn’t find jobs of my choice. The market in India for electric vehicles was still very new. Here, networking helps. More the people you meet, more the chances of knowing what’s happening in different parts of the automotive sector. By contacting them and getting to know if there are any suitable positions open, you can always try to find new jobs. 

Where do you work now? Tell us about your role

Iam currently a master’s student in Automotive Mechatronics and Management from University of Applied Sciences Upper Austria in Austria, Europe.

I worked in Force Motors until December 2020 in the field of product development. The problems I solved were related to how the product is progressing – checking on how the tests were going on, checking on the different prototypes that were being built, working on managing the requirements as well as the inadequacies in the development process, resolving hindrances between the various teams. A typical day would involve meetings with people from different departments, meeting with own teams, making presentations on critical issues, finding solutions for different obstructions in the development process. 

One of the most important skills in the job was knowing how to use office tools, knowing CAD tools like CATIA, understanding the different terminologies of Automotive field, having patience to understand different people and different ideologies, having the ability to cope up with pressure, having ability to speak and present yourself. A few of the skills can be learnt through continuous practice and the others will only be possible when you are put into different situations. You learn your ways by making mistakes and through the guidance from your seniors. Working as a team on one product, to bring it to fruition and the dedication of my colleagues always kept my motivation levels high. Meeting new people, solving different problems every day and being able to work with an exciting bunch of engineers was what kept me moving and loving my job. 

As you have already seen it in the Auto Expo 2020, Force Motors displayed their Light Commercial Vehicle range of Electrified products. It was a small traveller bus with a capacity of 13 seating and 7 standees. Another one was their new traveller vehicle, which they intended to bring to the market in both forms, diesel and electric. In these vehicles, my responsibility was to work on system integration, on how and where the battery/motor/inverters were placed in the vehicle and building the initial prototypes. So in the bus that you might have seen, I played a role, along with our prototyping team, in fixing all the components to the vehicle and building the battery packs in-house along with the Electric Vehicle department’s Battery team. Apart from this, I also worked on system sizing – deciding what kind of motors and batteries will be used for a different kind of product, something from the current portfolio of Force Motors products. 

How does your work benefit society? 

The work that i have done till now is towards a greener world, because working on electric vehicles is the best possible way to enter the field of clean automobiles. Whatever contributions were made on my end was to benefit the company. A company can contribute not just to the employees but also to the families of the employees. It’s always important to understand that even the smallest of the contributions that drive profits for the company is like contributing towards the society, helping people who work along with you to sustain themselves, and sustain their families. Keeping this in mind, one should always work with dedication that you would emulate when you are working on stuff that helps you. 

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

Right before I left my previous company, I worked on something which was privy to the company. I not only learned a lot during that period, but was also able to repay the faith they had shown in me with the work, when I got to showcase the same to the management and earned praise for my contributions. The work done is being used as a reference and it involved my contributions as a proper mechanical engineer working on building an automotive component. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Always keep your head high, feet on the ground, be strong in your basics, work hard on upskilling yourself, try to be cohesive with your team-mates, be empathic and learn from each and every person you ever come across. 

Future Plans?

I would like to work first in Europe and then bring the learnings from here to India. I also want to work on products that would prove useful to the Indian market and hopefully start a company of my own in the future.