Machines are getting smarter and smarter, thanks to control systems that constitute the brain of industrial setups, with a focus on efficiency, energy optimisation and cost effectiveness !

Taranjit Singh (PhD), our next pathbreaker, Mechatronics Research Engineer at Flanders Make (Belgium), designs control algorithms for manipulation of robots, energy management of industrial grids and robust control of pneumatic systems.

Taranjit talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his interests in designing optimal and robust controllers to minimise energy utilisation, given how important sustainability is in the current era.

For students, don’t go where everyone is going, rather go where you would like to go even if it requires a steep learning curve!

Taranjit, what were your early years like?

I grew up in Vadodara, Gujarat. My father worked as an engineer in an electrical engineering company and later switched his job to align with his interests in mechanical engineering . My mother is a housewife. I was initially interested in computers. I also worked for a shop repairing and programming computers in 2005-06 for a while, which gave me enough motivation and curiosity to seek a career in IT or computer science. Little did I know that this was the beginning of my journey filled with hard work and opportunities in the field of robots and space vehicles.

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

As years passed and it was time to choose my career path, my interest in robotics grew and the fact that robots would involve a lot of programming led me to choose B.E in Mechatronics engineering from GCET, Vallabh Vidyanagar, Gujarat. I first felt I was taking a risk considering Mechatronics was an offbeat branch combining Mechanical, Electrical, Electronics or even Computer Science. But as the years passed, I realised that was the best decision I made with the support of my parents.

I pursued MSc in Mechatronics engineering with a focus on Control Theory and Numerical Optimization from Technical University of Hamburg-Harburg, Germany. I also recently completed my PhD in Mechanical engineering with a focus on Control Theory from KU Leuven, Belgium with a full scholarship funding.

Tell us about some of the strong influences that drove you on this career path?

I decided to go for control theory. Control theory is a broad topic in economics, sociology, biology and so on. In engineering and mathematics, control theory deals with finding the optimal action required to manipulate a variable of a machine that can be considered as a dynamic system to achieve a desired outcome. My curiosity towards control algorithms implemented on a computer or a microcontroller, which is the brain of any automation system, grew. This was when my mentor, during my bachelors, introduced me to the simplest of Industrial controllers as well as the most modern controllers. The question that bugged me was, even though there were many modern control rules available, why aren’t they being used in the industries. This is when I discovered PhD programs that focused on Dynamics and Controls and I knew the path I needed to follow.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted?

The moment I knew what I wanted to do, I started researching several universities around the world. It was around the third year of my bachelor’s studies, and I started preparing for GRE and TOEFL in order to apply for universities in the US. I did get into a few universities for Masters in Mechanical engineering with specialization in Dynamics and Controls. I decided to join UT Austin, Texas. Unfortunately, my student visa was rejected. I didn’t sit for any placement since my vision for further studies was clear. By the end of graduation I neither had a job nor an option for higher studies, which was a tremendous setback for me. While taking 12th standard mathematics tuitions and being an attending lecturer, I decided to continue researching for masters programs elsewhere. I also decided to learn German and apply to the universities in Germany. I ended up doing my MSc in Mechatronics engineering at Technical University of Hamburg-Harburg, which was a nice decision. The best part of studying in German public universities is that there are no tuition fees. The only cost I had was the living cost which I could handle by doing part-time jobs where my German language proficiency came in handy as well. I enjoyed my studies a lot. I got to learn a lot of different subjects, mainly in control theory. I also did a mini-thesis on collision avoidance during formation control of drones. 

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Since there was no tuition fee, I completed my Masters in three years instead of two, while attaining a research internship at the Institute of Space Systems at German Aerospace Center (DLR), Bremen. During my research internship, I modelled and designed a control algorithm for a heavy robotic arm whose purpose was to emulate landers and rovers on different planets, the moon or asteroids. 

The purpose of the heavy robot was to offload the weight of landers and rovers and provide motion to them in such a way as if they were on different planets or asteroids with lower gravity. Then these landers and rovers (with their weight offloaded) were made to have impact on virtually made celestial grounds and their legs or wheels were studied. A great example of this would be, a heavy robot lifts 2/3 of your weight and then you are allowed to move, and behave like you are on moon with this offloaded weight. But, in no way the machines built to lift machines should be used for humans. Anyway, this task required designing motion as well as force control.

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I was also able to use my research internship as my research based master’s thesis at my university in Germany. I also worked on designing optimisation solvers for the modelling of the entry phase of Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) of space vehicles. I did not work on actual space vehicles, but I did gather data from everywhere and created or rather mimicked the dynamics of how these vehicles would behave considering the supersonic speeds they attain when they re-enter earth’s atmosphere, altitude of the vehicles, the angle at which they re-enter and so on.
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My hunger for learning more about control theory didn’t stop there. I wanted to go back to my main aim of doing a PhD with a focus on control theory, and so while I was looking for a PhD position, I started working at Nüwiel GmBH, Hamburg as a Control Engineer. In Nüwiel, I worked on designing robust and optimal control algorithms for an effortless electric trailer for bicycles. Imagine you have a bicycle on which you have to carry a huge load and there are so many slopes in your way, no way you would like to waste your energy, you would rather use the electric bicycle. However, Nüwiel made an innovative electric trailer, which can be attached or detached to your bicycle. The purpose would be to push or pull whenever you are biking such that you do not have to use your energy. This required optimal control for pushing and pulling and robustness no matter how much weight you put on the trailer. By the end of the year 2016, I got a scholarship for a PhD position at the Department of Mechanical Engineering, KU Leuven, Belgium. The main funding for this PhD was for the topic “Robust and Optimal Control of Multivariable Mechatronics Systems”. It excited me a lot considering this was a new country, new language, and new place. Moreover, my thirst for more knowledge and learning control theory made this an easy transition. Leuven is the Flemish part of Belgium where Dutch is spoken. Knowing German was an added advantage in order to have a grasp of Dutch. Anyway, since I was in an international team in the university, English was always the communication medium. 

During my PhD, I came across plenty of mechatronics systems to apply my theoretical knowledge on dynamics and control. Few of the areas where I applied my knowledge were for dynamic models of suspension control of a car, seismic isolation in a tall building, anti-swing control of a crane, joint position control of a robot, finding optimal sensors and actuators for smart composite plates which are found on aircraft wings. I mainly worked on theoretical research, creating algorithms such that, you not only obtain an optimal control, but also know the number, or location of sensors and actuators on a building or a plate. Hence, you not only save energy by making optimal controllers, but also save money by using the optimal number of sensors and actuators.

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It is true that PhD life is a tough life and COVID19 pandemic didn’t really help initially. However, you get to know a lot of things, you get to work on different projects with different people, you get to teach masters students at the university level and even get to travel to various countries for attending conferences. I went to Japan for my first conference where I published two of my papers and I even won the best paper award for one. I even traveled to Brazil, Italy, and the Netherlands to attend conferences, present my research/ results and got to converse with people from around the world who are experts in the control field.

After my PhD in June, I worked as a postdoc until the end of the year 2021. I took a month off and decided to join Flanders Make, a government strategic research organization in Mechatronics as a Research Engineer in Dynamics and Control.

How did you get your first break ?

My first break came when I was working at a restaurant flipping hamburgers in Hamburg. I remember those nights making CVs in English and in German and writing cover letters tailored for research internships. I wanted to apply for a research internship, when I came across this position for modelling and controlling a heavy industrial robot that is used to emulate the off-loading of landers and rovers. I applied and got a call from the institute. I immediately stopped working at the restaurant and joined them. 

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

Challenge 1: The first challenge was when I didn’t get my visa for UT Austin even though I had the admission. I remember I didn’t sit for any placements because my goal was clear. I kept applying for visas (three times). But by the time I decided to apply for job placements, all the companies had left. I was desperate. I took up the role of a training and placement coordinator and kept contacting companies. There was one company, Motherson Automotive. I was happy that I got placed there. I went to Delhi to attend the training, where I was told the package would be 1.5 lakh CTC. I did feel that my friends got placed at way higher packages and I even helped my colleagues get admission in US universities and they were taking off literally. I was destroyed, yet I decided to give this job a shot just for experience. The company sent me to Pune saying Mechatronics is a very weird specialisation. They then sent us to Chennai, and I was still happy to take up this job. But they placed me as a trainee, supervising a construction of a new plant in the Chennai heat. I knew I wanted to work on control theory and simulations and this job was just not for me. I took off within a week and started giving tuitions and joined as a lecturer. I applied everywhere, I had to do everything alone, but thankfully I had my parents supporting me.

Challenge 2: The second challenge was to get out of the hectic life of studying, changing bed sheets on a docked cruise ship and flipping burgers. I had to take care of living costs while studying and attending lectures at the university in Hamburg. Like I said, what really helped me was constantly applying in both German and English with tailored cover letters and calling companies politely for feedback after rejection and constantly updating my CV based on feedback. 

Challenge 3: The third challenge was when I was looking for a PhD position. I knew the trick of tailored cover letters and calling rejected applications for feedback. This time I was addressing them to professors. I knew I easily sent tailored emails to approximately 50 universities and dozens of professors. I remember, I was on a holiday, and I wanted to apply so much for this position in Leuven Belgium that I sent the professor an email saying I am coming there for holiday and I would like to talk and discuss about this position. I did. They liked me, they liked my initiative. I then had a phone interview, a skype interview and then a technical interview in person. 

Where do you work now ? Tell us about your role as Mechatronics Research Engineer

I am currently working as a Research Engineer in the Control domain at Flanders Make. Flanders Make supports the manufacturing industry in Belgium by increasing their competitiveness. We work together with universities in introducing technological research into products or production innovations and find industry-driven solutions. We also have in-house laboratories with mechatronics systems to test such solutions.

I am involved in the design of control algorithms for robots, energy management systems for industrial grids and robust control of pneumatic systems. The key to becoming a research engineer is to be able to ask companies questions about the problems they face, and answering questions like, can we design and implement new control design solutions from academia to address a problem in the industry? I am rather new to asking questions to companies regarding this, but I am getting there. 

What are the skills required?

Certain technical skills like Matlab, Python, C++ etc. definitely help in the job, from a programming point of view. My typical day would be spent in deriving mathematical models or deriving optimal control or mathematical control laws in Matlab/Simulink with some toolboxes, or making some toolboxes or using python modules to get the work done and present these results to research partners like universities and to companies.

How does your work benefit society?

The most important part of designing optimal and robust controllers is to minimize energy utilization which is the goal. We all know how important sustainability is in the current era. During these times, companies around the world want their machines running non-stop for their manufacturing needs. They either require production innovation or product innovation to meet sustainability requirements. 

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

If I have to mention a memorable work, I would mention the work at German Aerospace Center, DLR, Bremen. At the end of PhD, one has to come up with a dissertation. Everyone who has done a PhD would agree that what you are doing is you are basically writing the story of your PhD life with proofs and validations and you have to defend the story that you wrote. This makes the PhD thesis as your baby. The title of my PhD thesis was “Managing the complexity and closed-loop performances of optimal linear controllers for mechatronics systems”. Maybe it is too much, but think of this way, the industries know that these moderns controllers exist, but they don’t use it because these controller have very high complexity. So my thesis contributed to this domain by finding controllers for mechatronics systems and at the same time managing the complexity of these controllers, such that it takes us a step further in convincing industries to use these controllers.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Don’t go where everyone is going, rather go where you would like to go. 

If you are in a lecture or in a presentation, don’t hesitate to ask questions if you don’t understand anything that is going on. You are not an expert, but asking questions to an expert will help you grow. I will tell you this, forget about how people will judge you in the beginning if you ask questions, if you don’t know anything, that is how you would learn. 

Don’t forget to admit your mistakes. Because that will help you know how to correct them. I have learned more when I made some mistakes.

Future Plans? 

I am going to be here where I am right now, in my current place, job for the next coming years learning more and more. It is time to get settled.