Modern vehicles are no longer purely mechanical machines, but rather highly sophisticated machines controlled by the complex coordination of physical and software systems.

Rakesh Jayaprakash, our next pathbreaker, Industrial PhD Student at Scania Group (Sweden), performs research in the domain of Model Based Systems Engineering (MBSE) through a collaboration between KTH and Scania CV AB, a Swedish company that provides transport solutions for heavy trucks, buses and engines.

Rakesh talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about fascinating aspects of his research that aims to support the development of electrified, connected and autonomous transport solutions that can improve the quality and safety of transport systems.

For students, as technology evolves rapidly to address new requirements, there will be a need to explore futuristic technologies through industrial research !

Rakesh, can you walk us through your background?

I was born in Mumbai, India and come from a middle-class family. My mother is a homemaker, my father, who is retired now, worked as a procurement manager. I have a younger brother who is a mechanical engineer. I am married and I live with my wife in Sweden. My parents have tried their best in giving me the best they can and in the process have made some sacrifices. My family has played a large role in what I have achieved and what I am today, which makes me extremely grateful to them.

My father shifted to Muscat, Oman in the ’80s to build his career there. My mother and I moved from Mumbai to join my father in Muscat a few years after I was born. After completing schooling up to grade 8 at Indian School Muscat, my mother, brother, and I moved to Bangalore, where I continued from grade 9 in Oxford Senior Secondary School. My father, however, stayed back in Muscat to continue working there.

Being interested in Science, I opted for Science subjects and completed my 11th and 12th grade from Deeksha Center for Learning, Bangalore. I had a keen interest in Physics and Mathematics during my two years at Deeksha.

In my school days, like many other young Indian boys, I was also interested in cricket and underwent cricket coaching for 4 years. During this time, I also learned Carnatic music and developed an interest in sketching. However, after moving to Bangalore, Carnatic music and sketching took a back seat as I was trying to adjust to a different lifestyle. I missed many chances to cultivate those interests further. But I continued to play cricket as well as football during my high school and undergraduate days.

Nevertheless, I still have plenty of interest in sports, music and sketching. Though I don’t play much now, I love to watch sports. I bought a guitar many years back which I am trying to learn now, and am also trying to kick-start my sketching hobby like I used to before.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I completed my Bachelors in Mechanical Engineering from BMS Institute of Technology (BMSIT), Bangalore and later graduated with a Master of Science degree in Machine design from KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm.

Tell us, what made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

I developed a keen interest in mechanical design during my bachelor’s studies, especially in Computer Aided Designing (CAD). I wanted to learn more about CAD and work with different CAD software that were available. That’s when I realised that I needed to gain more theoretical and practical knowledge about mechanical design as it is a vast subject. Understanding that this was possible with a master’s degree, I began searching for options to do masters in India and later extended the search to universities outside India. Looking for suitable opportunities, I finally selected the master’s program in engineering design, specialising in machine design at KTH Royal Institute of Technology.

Through my master’s degree in machine design I learnt about the product development process. I was taught about different stages involved in developing a product such as developing and evaluating concepts, designing the product from the concept, verifying the product etc., and the different aspects that need to be considered while designing, such as material selection, dimensioning, optimising etc. I was also taught how components belonging to different engineering domains (e.g. mechanical, electrical, software) come together during the development of a technical system. A course in Systems Engineering gave me more insights into understanding the practicalities of developing a systems thinking mindset.

My knowledge and interests in computer aided modelling deepened at KTH after taking some courses, working on projects and subsequently doing a master’s thesis at Scania, and I was focused on building my career in this line. I was not interested in a research career when I started working as a development engineer at Scania. But a position for an Industrial PhD student at Scania in the field of Model Based Systems Engineering (MBSE) interested me. A combination of a course in Systems Engineering at KTH, my interests in model based design and my experience as a development engineer working at a systems level gave me a good foundation to apply for the position.

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 began my professional career as a Trainee engineer in Quality Assurance at Danish Steel Clusters Private Limited (DSCPL), Bangalore. My responsibilities mostly involved collecting data for parts that were found to have minor defects or were rejected during quality checks, maintaining a record for calibration of measuring instruments, and documenting inspection reports for incoming materials and parts manufactured in the factory.

I was made permanent after a year or so and accordingly my responsibilities increased. I was first made responsible for quality control of all incoming materials from suppliers. After learning more about quality standards I took up responsibilities to prepare control plans and flow charts for selected processes such as electroplating, acid pickling and powder coating. The company was into metal fabrication and worked with different clients in multiple projects. So, with time, I was also handed responsibilities to monitor development of new parts from a quality control perspective and coordinate with clients for some projects.

I had a very good exposure at DSCPL in terms of understanding the entire process of how parts were manufactured, right from the raw materials stage to the final product. I also had the opportunity to interact with people from design, purchase and production departments, along with suppliers and customers. I gained valuable experience in product development at DSCPL before moving to Sweden for my master’s degree.

I was involved in multiple projects during my master’s degree, both as a part of my machine design and external projects. I was a part of the mechanical design team in the KTH Formula Student for about 1.5 years. My major responsibility was to design and develop a fabrication jig for building the car. Other activities were to support the mechanical design team and my involvement in welding the car. Another project I was a part of was Miniature Student Satellite (MIST), where I was responsible for creating a material database that aided the material selection process for the development of the satellite.

I did my master’s thesis at Scania along with a classmate, where our goal was to develop a software tool that can calculate the space occupied by cable harnesses running through a truck to connect different electrical systems. Upon completion of the thesis, I was absorbed as a development engineer into a team that worked on electrical system design and development of cable harness for customised trucks. My responsibilities were to design 3D CAD models and electrical schematics for the cable harness, and create functional logic for customised electrical functions. Working with customised trucks helped me to learn about a truck’s electrical and embedded systems and understand the truck’s architecture from an overall perspective.

How did you get your first break? 

My first break was through the job offer I received from DSCPL. Since I was not placed through campus placements, I had to look for opportunities off campus. I applied for the position of a design engineer through a reference, but due to the absence of vacancies in the design department I was offered a position in the quality assurance department. Even though my interests were in design, I knew that I may have to start somewhere and keep taking small steps and so I took up the offer to work as a Quality Engineer.

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

There were some challenges and struggles that I faced during my career and I try to learn from them. 

Challenge 1:

My first challenge  was during 12th grade. Along with regular studies I was also studying for competitive exams for a seat in the reputed IITs and NITs. I had high aspirations to do well, but my scores in the competitive exams were not good enough. It was a difficult time for me as my classmates cracked the exams and were admitted to reputed institutions all over India, but life must go on. I overcame my disappointment with help from my parents and realised I could still build a good career. I was admitted to do bachelors in Mechanical Engineering at BMSIT. My education there was excellent and it provided me with a good foundation to understand “mechanical engineering”. My highest point in BMSIT was when my final degree project with two of my classmates was appreciated by the Mechanical engineering faculty. The project was to develop a solar powered lawn mower. By not giving up hope and being patient while continuing to try, I was unknowingly and slowly planning my career ahead.

Challenge 2: 

The second challenge was during the final year of my bachelor’s degree. I did not qualify the first time when I appeared for the GATE entrance exam during my 3rd year of bachelor’s. But as campus placements were scheduled to happen during 4th year, I shifted my focus on job offers and had high hopes of getting an offer. After numerous aptitude tests, group discussions and interviews I remained unplaced. In all the jobs I applied for, I progressed till the final round before being rejected which disappointed me a lot. Though I re-shifted my focus on GATE, I felt that I should work while I am preparing for the exam so that I can gain valuable professional experience. I prepared for GATE while I worked and qualified with decent marks. But unfortunately I was not able to find a seat in design engineering. I was always aspiring for a Master’s degree in Mechanical design post completion of my undergraduate degree. I understood at that point of time that things won’t come easy and if you keep trying you are bound to be successful.

Challenge 3

Another challenge I want to bring up is the “cultural shock” when I moved from India to Sweden for my masters. I had always been a day scholar and even when my father was working in Muscat, I was living with my mother and brother. So in a sense I was never away from my family before moving to Sweden. So there were many mini challenges; moving away from family, new country, new people, new culture and figuring out everything by myself. Initially, without a doubt, it was difficult and strange to be in Sweden all by myself. But as everything takes time, I slowly made new friends, acknowledged the cultural differences and understood that I can live independently.

There are newer challenges that I face during my PhD studies now. For instance, on some days I am clueless about how to proceed and on some days things go smoothly with the flow; on some days I am highly motivated while on some other days I am not. But I am slowly figuring things out and in the process tackling some of the challenges.

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

I have begun the third year of my PhD, which is a collaboration between Scania CV AB and KTH in the domain of Model Based Systems Engineering (MBSE). Scania is a Swedish company that provides transport solutions consisting of heavy trucks, buses and engines.

An industrial and an academic (or a regular) PhD are pretty similar when you look at the research process and how it contributes to scientific studies. Industrial PhD students are registered at a collaborating university but employed by an investing company and an academic PhD student is employed at the university. An industrial PhD position is generally created out of a requirement to solve an industrial challenge or research into future technologies funded by the company while an academic PhD is more flexible topic wise and may require external funding. Another difference is that there is almost always teaching duties at the university associated with an academic PhD which may not be the case for an industrial PhD.

Modern vehicles are becoming highly complex due to the increasing use of electrical and software systems that play a significant role in controlling a truck’s behaviour. So, they are no longer purely mechanical machines but complex machines controlled by the coordination between physical and software systems. The complexity is higher in the case of autonomous vehicles due to the uncertainty in how the vehicle behaves in different scenarios.

Technology is rapidly evolving and there are new requirements, for instance, from the market, customers or government regulations. This is where my role comes. It is important to cater to different needs while constantly maintaining or improving the product quality, ensuring high safety and being competitive in the market. My research is focussed on managing complexity in the product with the help of MBSE (Model-based System Engineering) so that new developments and improvements can be introduced in a smooth and controlled manner.

The important skills in my research are analytical and critical thinking. These skills are important for me to implement the principles of systems engineering through system modelling and to have a holistic view of the truck. Interpersonal skills, communication skills and academic writing are some other skills I need for my research. Relevant courses, training and experience have helped me in acquiring the above skills.

I work independently with a time plan for the different activities or tasks connected to my research. My typical day would be anywhere between writing a whole day for a publication and plenty of reading to gather information for my research or to be updated with things happening in my interest areas. I also need to build a good network of connections with people that work in similar domains, with whom I can share my work. 

The best part about my work is the research itself that I get to do, to learn and explore something new. This gives me the excitement in working towards something that can have a significant contribution. 

How does your work benefit society? 

The research I perform aims to support the development of electrified, connected and autonomous transport solutions that can improve the quality and safety of transport systems. MBSE can be considered to be a valuable tool or methodology in the development of future transport systems that will be intelligent, complex and capable of operating in dynamic and uncertain environments. I believe MBSE has a large role to play in domains other than transport such as energy, healthcare, smart city infrastructure.

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

This was during my first job. I had just finished my training period and had been learning about different activities under quality control from my mentor. After being made permanent, I was handed over some responsibilities and was assigned to work on a particular product for a specific customer. The product was dimensionally and functionally critical for the customer. Manufacturing and inspecting this product was a challenge due to its large size and because it had different configurations. Some configurations were frequently produced while some very rarely.

Before I started working on this product, a batch of one of the rare configurations was manufactured and supplied to the customer. Unfortunately the entire batch was not as per the customer requirements, so the customer sent its quality manager to investigate what went wrong. My manager appointed me as a representative from the company to coordinate with the customer and resolve the issues and ensure further supplies were as per the customer’s requirements. Though it was highly intimidating, I was also excited as it was a huge opportunity. Along with the customer, I analysed the problem areas, developed preventive actions and designed an inspection jig with the design team to ensure high quality for that configuration. Similar techniques were used for other configurations too to improve the quality. The next batch of the same configuration met the customer’s requirements.

Production and inspection of the product became smooth and the production capacity also increased. I was commended for my work and was invited to the customer’s plant in Sri Lanka on my first business trip. It was an excellent learning experience and I am extremely proud of myself for what I did. I still have a copy of the appreciation mail from the customer which I read when I feel low.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

I am happy to share some things that I keep in mind and hope it helps the students in their life too.

  • What I have learnt the most from the different experiences is to have patience. When you put in all your hard work and efforts, success is on its way, but you should have patience!
  • Try to identify your interests, strengths and weaknesses so that you can work on them while planning your career. So, be open to change and be flexible.
  • Keep yourself updated in the fields or domains you are interested in.
  • Give importance to soft skills too while developing technical and core skills.
  • Try to identify some activity that you like to do and that cheers you up. This will help you during the times you feel low or lack motivation to work.
  • This is something that my wife asks me to do when I am going through a difficult time. Reflect on the times when you were facing challenges earlier and how you got out of it. If you have done it earlier, you can do it again!
  • There will be times when you have failed or things don’t turn out as you want, even though you have put in all your efforts. Never doubt yourself or underestimate your capabilities!

Future Plans?

My highest priority now is to successfully defend my thesis and complete my PhD. Then, I would like to contribute as much as I can with my research and lead projects that can implement my work.