All it takes is an experiment or a project to shed light on your career path, by drawing upon all the concepts that you have learnt in theory, to address a real problem that intrigues you !

Bharathwaj Narasimhan, our next pathbreaker, Optical Engineer at Kimball Electronics, applies optical and illumination technologies to identify defects and faults in the assembly line in an automated fashion.

Bharathwaj talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his inherent interest in “lens” and the associated physics that goes with it, which was a defining moment in his career, as this formed a basis for his Master’s and PhD in Optics.

For students, while theoretical knowledge is good and solidifies our foundations, always remember that the experimental aspects are the ones that show us where our interests lie !

Bharathwaj, your background?

My name is Bharathwaj Appan Narasimhan. I come from a middle-class family based out of the lovely city of Chennai, Tamilnadu. My father was a pharmaceutical representative, and my mother was a lab in charge at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology Madras. I did my early schooling at Kendriya Vidyalaya, IIT Chennai. I was blessed enough to grow up inside the IIT campus, full of lush greenery all around (at least 20 years back!). Having been at the center of the IIT campus at KVIIT, we were exposed to the academic environment right from our early childhood. We used to hear stories about how innovative the students of IIT Madras were, who went on to assume important positions at the forefront of almost all the tech companies, be it in India or somewhere abroad. So, I would say the campus itself was initially my source of inspiration to secure a spot at IIT Madras. Also, coming from a typical middle-class family, living inside IIT campus, also came with the pressure of getting into this institute which required a lot of effort and focus. Typically, students start to prepare right out of their tenth class for the JEE (Joint Entrance Examination) and I was no different. But on the first day of the “coaching class”, my best friend and I knew we weren’t cut out for this sort of pressure. At this point, I also found out I did not have this natural flair for picking up concepts instantaneously and that I had a learning curve when compared to others. I did not try to fight this but started to put in a lot of effort and perseverance to get an in-depth understanding of concepts, rather than blindly memorizing them. And because of these limitations I had, I did not get through JEE. I did eventually get into the institute, albeit, for my post-graduation, but more on that later.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I got my Bachelors in Engineering in Electronics and Communications Engineering from Jerusalem College of Engineering – Affiliated to Anna University. It is a 4-year course which gives a superficial introduction to the majority of the principles in electronics and communications. To know one’s passion, it is important to dip into a variety of subjects and this course is designed such that you get a wide exposure to various topics. At the end of it all, you will be in a good position to judge for yourself as to where your passion and interests lie. This serves as a bridge to your final year project which draws upon what you have learnt in the past 4 years and helps tell a comprehensive story about a certain problem that you chose to tackle. I chose Optics! I had this inherent interest in carrying out experiments and also was interested in “lens” and the associated physics that goes with it. Although not inherently intuitive about certain aspects of optics, I was more than keen to experimentally learn it. That is how I narrowed down my final year project to be a simple active tracker based solar concentrator. We all might have used a magnifying glass in our school days to concentrate the image of the sun, down to a spot to burn a hole through a paper. In essence, my final year project was just that, except that when the sun travels around during the day, the concentrated spot also moves and if you want to maintain the position of the hole on the paper, you need to move your lens/optics to compensate for the sun’s motion. In the process of moving the optics, I was able to draw upon the principles I had learnt in my electronics course in designing a simple stepper motor set up to mount the lens to move it to offset the Sun’s movement. This was a defining moment in my career, as this formed a basis for me doing a Master’s in the same field.

In every student’s life, the presence of a mentor or a Guru is very important. I was fortunate enough to be blessed by many mentors in that regard. During the course of my final year project, I would meet my mentor who would also become my Master’s thesis guide, from whom I drew upon a lot of my founding principles with regards to research and, in general, life itself. I was very motivated by the findings of my final year project that I gave all my efforts into cracking GATE to get into IITM. This was sort of an effort to avenge my failure of not securing a bachelor’s seat at IITM. I was so motivated that the entire process of preparing for GATE was stress free (contrary to what I experienced while trying to crack JEE). Nonetheless, because of this I was able to get a chance to work under my mentor for the next three years in securing a MS (Master of Science by Research, EEE/Photonics) from IIT Madras. As they say, one door leads to another. 

My master’s thesis was an extension of my bachelor’s thesis where we used a diffuser to capture the sun’s rays instead of physically tracking the sun through movement.

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

During my undergrad and masters, I had several opportunities to attend conferences in San Diego, California to present my work.

By then, I had developed an interest in non-imaging optics. During my master’s course, I was able to meet my PhD supervisor in one of the conferences I had presented my work at. 

Since he was working in the area of non-imaging optics, I reached out to him through email and expressed my interest in a PhD in this area. I subsequently received a Erasmus Mundus Fellowship to do my PhD. Since this scholarship was valid for only 3 years, I received another scholarship from the Spanish government which helped me complete my PhD thesis. This proved to be a game changer for me as I got an opportunity to work under him for 6 years along with the very best of talent and diverse nationalities. More on that in the coming sections.

My PhD was in collaboration with a startup founded by my PhD supervisors. Infact, my first ever job was as an optical engineer at this startup. I was working parallelly while I was working on my thesis. The decision to choose this path was an easy one, as I had found a good synergy working with the team which was easily one of the best experiences of my entire professional career till date. I was lucky to get a firsthand experience in what was expected of me during my initial stages of my PhD and I had to just build on it for my work at this startup. So, this was an easy decision.

Here, I worked on compact optical designs for high resolution VR/AR headsets. After completing my PhD I worked at the startup, collaborating with the university on their VR products.

After completing my PhD, it was time for me to move on to Silicon Valley, as it is the hub of deep tech companies and I wanted to be able to contribute and be at the forefront of breakthrough technologies. I was fortunate again to have a reference with respect to the workings of my second company, a world leader in instrumentation, who were working on improving some of their products by upgrading the optics. I was recruited to spend about a year there on a postdoctoral fellowship, to see if my PhD thesis could be applied there to improve some of the existing optics. 

This was my first job working in a real corporate environment. My previous job was in a startup, where the dynamics were entirely different. Since the team was small, communication was more straightforward and not so procedural. But in my second job, I was able to learn to communicate in a more streamlined manner, which is expected in a corporate setting. After the end of my post-doctoral fellowship, I had a chance to come back to India to serve as an Optical engineer in a company specializing in machine vision and automation related products. I took up this job, since having spent almost a decade outside India, I was itching to get back to my home country and to be close to my family.

How did you get your first break? 

I would consider my first break as the job I got in India as an Optical Engineer. While I was working in California, I was contacted by a recruiter for a job opening in India. Since I was also planning to move back, I attended the interview and got the job.

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

My first challenge was the language problem I faced in Spain. Since a lot of our discussions were in Spanish, I had to not only understand the language but also the associated thought process and then translate it into English. Since I had to deal with government officials regarding my visa and other administrative issues and they predominantly spoke Spanish, this was a major challenge.

My current role requires me to travel a lot globally, to visit factories and manufacturing setups. Due to Covid restrictions this has been a big challenge. Remote working is not an option because I need to physically inspect components. We have been trying to address this by collaborating with local field representatives in each country, but again local language is a challenge.

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve as an Optical Engineer?

I work for Kimball Electronics in Trivandrum, Kerala. I am an Optical engineer for machine vision applications and mass production testing. We use optical and illumination technologies to identify defects and faults in the assembly line in an automated fashion.

The department I work in, largely focuses on building test equipment, mostly Non-Destructive test based ones, in this case optics based test setups that could inspect a given sample for surface level defects, like scratches or other deformities and inform the production line of its quality. These setups are usually deployed worldwide to investigate a range of consumer electronic products for aesthetics and manufacturing defects. The main objective of these machine is to increase the quality of output while increasing the throughput in an automated manner. For more details, one can visit: https://www.geservs.com/

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

The role of an optical engineer in this context is a bit different from the other roles I have worked in. The role here involves not only design of the equipment but also to see it through all the different phases of a product development life cycle. In my earlier roles, i was predominantly involved in design and did not require me to see it through all the way to production and further deployment. This role is a start to finish role which requires extensive knowledge about manufacturing processes across domains, to make sure the product meets a certain quality standard that is in accordance with company’s policy. I was fortunate enough that my company’s management gave me that space to learn and iterate on my inferences. As noted earlier, I did not have all the necessary skills when I started out in this role but built upon what I had, with constant collaboration and a lot of experimentation to reach a stage where I had the right balance of the all the necessary features of a product development engineer. The key was to ask a lot of questions to get up to speed on the existing working style of the company and align my working style with the company’s to create some sort of a synergy to benefit everyone involved.

What’s a typical day like?

As I said earlier, a lot of my work involves travelling to manufacturing facilities and ensuring that our computer vision based testing works as it is expected to and if it doesn’t, we need to improvise it to work as expected. So that requires real testing on the field. 

My work in the office is focused on coming up with different illumination and optical techniques for the software to process depending on the components/products being tested

What is it you love about this job? 

I love the fact that I am able to apply my background in optics to address quality control issues in products and hence play an important role in making our lives easier.

How does your work benefit society? 

Optics plays a diverse role in our modern society whether it is by facilitating interacting experiences through VR/AR, or enabling better illumination of cameras, smart phones through better optical designs or fully automated AI driven fault-detection of components and parts, thus enhancing productivity with minimal defects.

We can look at it this way, without automated testing and high-quality throughput, the mobile phone industry will not be able  to meet the ever-rising demand!

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

There was this student competition, back in 2018 in its first iteration, organized by a well-known professional society in optics, focusing on optical models for VR/AR headsets. I was also nearing my PhD completion and I initially chose to not participate in this competition. For some reason, my colleague forced me to send in my application and I took this as an opportunity to showcase the work that my company was doing at that time. I had a strong belief that through this platform showcasing our work, that I will be able to turn more eyes towards the work we were putting out. The work that went towards my participation in this competition, required me putting in some extra hours outside my regular work hours. This personal motivation I had towards showcasing my company’s work to the who’s and who’s of the optics world, made it even more rewarding in the end when I won the first prize in my category. The work focused on taking a classic optics problem and putting a spin on it using the set of unique approaches developed by our company in improving the optical model. More information on that work can be found here: https://www.spiedigitallibrary.org/conference-proceedings-of-spie/10676/106761G/Ultra-Compact-pancake-optics-based-on-ThinEyes-super-resolution-technology/10.1117/12.2315688.short

Your advice to students based on your experience?

I would say, don’t take too much pressure. Take the time to know your interests even if you have to take the difficult route. Explore, fail and learn and repeat until you know what you like. And once you know it, be relentless until you achieve it.

Future Plans?

For the immediate future I am focusing on getting back into the VR/AR industry and sometime down the line, maybe in ten years, get back to my undergrad college to work as a teacher, my way of giving back to the community.