As the world of machinery becomes more and more complex, modeling of physical systems in the virtual domain is of utmost importance if we intend to focus on performance and energy efficiency.

Abhishek Gaikwad, our next pathbreaker, R&D Engineer at Picanol Weaving Machines (Belgium), creates a multitude of CAE based models to understand the behavior of weaving machines and their systems in the real world.

Abhishek talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about being fascinated by how a design problem could be translated into a numerical model with all the details required to understand complex systems.

For students, there is something marvelous and stunning about machines running at insanely high speeds and performing unthinkable operations !

Abhishek, what were your growing up years like?

I was born in Pune but grew up in multiple cities including Pune, Vadodara and Baramati. Living in multiple cities prepared me sub-consciously for different kinds of challenges that I had not foreseen, like adapting to change, interacting with people from different backgrounds and cultures etc. I was very skeptical about what my career choices would be while I was growing up as a late teenager, since they oscillated from engineering to political sciences. I was and still am keenly interested in not only technology but history as well for its large-scale implications on our society. Ultimately, I ended up doing my Bachelors in Engineering from BITS Hyderabad and my Masters in Mechanical Engineering from KU Leuven, Belgium. 

My parents have been a huge support in my journey till date. Their support ensured that I was able to explore whatever I felt was interesting. My father is a mechanical engineer by profession whereas my mother is a homemaker. 

During my teens, my initial interests other than academics were mainly in playing sports (football and cricket) and reading fiction books, though my interests have grown over time. I still enjoy sports and also like working out and doing some relaxing yoga from time to time. In addition to sports, I love reading unconventional non-fiction books regularly and also play some guitar from time to time. These activities keep me sane during these insane times!  

What did you do for graduation/post graduation? 

I did my BTech in Mechanical Engineering from BITS, Pilani and MS in Mechanical Engineering from KU Leuven, Belgium.

After finishing my schooling in Vadodara, I started pursuing my undergraduate studies in engineering at BITS Pilani’s Hyderabad campus. My time at BITS was primarily responsible for shaping my personality and honing my fundamental engineering skills. I realized in my 1st year that classic undergraduate courses were not sufficient unless practiced and therefore I worked on several projects throughout my undergraduate studies, of which some were failures and some were partial successes. The projects allowed me to explore multiple sub-domains within mechanical engineering, from vehicle aerodynamics to heat transfer and diesel engines. Initially, you would feel that working on a focused area would be a better idea, but retrospectively speaking, I think that my decision of working in different domains within mechanical engineering was a good idea because an undergraduate student is supposed to explore without intending to become an expert in a specific domain. It also allowed me to understand my strengths and at the same time, made me aware of my limitations. Outside of academics, I firmly believe that my life at BITS has helped me become an well-rounded individual since I explored life outside academia by being a part of several teams that were responsible for organizing different college events (technical and cultural festivals). I also led one of the teams during one of the technical festivals which was also a good learning experience for me as it helped me understand the intricacies of managing people and has made me a better person by honing my leadership skills. 

After consulting some professors at BITS about appropriate career choices, I decided to pursue a Masters in Mechanical Engineering at KU Leuven. The curriculum at KU Leuven was very rigorous and helped me develop some specific skill sets necessary to be a good mechanical engineer. The special thing about the curriculum at Leuven was that the projects and courses allowed me to adopt a systematic structure (thinking from 1st principles) when solving engineering problems which I believe is essential if anyone strives to be a good engineer. During the university years, I started developing interest in an area within mechanical engineering that was at the intersection of the virtual and real world which was modeling of mechanical systems. Numerical modeling is essentially trying to virtually replicate the behavior of a physical machine using physical laws (Newton’s laws, solid mechanics, fluid mechanics etc.) and this is something that fascinates me the most. 

Tell us, what were the drivers that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and interesting career? 

My teens were a period of confusion as is for many students when it comes to planning for future studies. My parents were supportive in figuring out the pros and cons of different career trajectories, but a tuition teacher in Baramati was an important figure in guiding me. He showed me that I had a good analytical acumen which could be used to solve engineering problems. This was further reinforced by my teachers in 12th standard, especially one of my mathematics teachers. My father’s background as a mechanical engineer was an additional source of information that I used to my advantage. For all the buzz about information technology, there is something marvelous about machines running at insanely high speeds and performing unthinkable operations that stuns me to this date which is why I decide to follow my father’s path and started pursuing my studies in Mechanical engineering. The professors at BITS also played a role in my decision to pursue a Master’s degree. 

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 

At the end of my 2nd year in undergraduate studies, I did my 1st internship in an unconventional organization, a steel plant in Rourkela. It was quite fascinating to observe the functioning of such a big organization which manufactures products that we use knowingly and unknowingly every single hour of our lives. From a learning perspective, I gained some experience from a macro perspective as to how these big organizations are structured based on different technical aspects and eventually performed a small optimization study for one of the departments. Although this internship was not related to anything that I do at the moment, it was a fruitful experience since it helped me understand some of the complexities of the manufacturing industry. The beauty of these internships is that they provide you insights into the practical stuff and keep you grounded. You need this practicality especially when you are working everyday on a computer screen with numerical models! 

Eventually, my other internships and thesis projects were more focused from a technical perspective. During my bachelors and masters, I worked on projects some of which can be elucidated below as examples: 

Investigating airflow around scaled vehicle models: Typically, cars are optimized for multiple parameters, some of them being fuel economy, drive comfort and power. One such parameter that I investigated was the vehicle drag which is extremely important at high speeds. We prepared models of prototype vehicles and virtually investigated the airflow around and just behind those prototype vehicles. We investigated a couple of ways to reduce the drag that the vehicle encounters and modeled those design ideas as well. 

I participated in some other projects at BITS as well. The emphasis was on gaining a combined know-how of experimental work and numerical modeling. For instance, an experimental project involved investigating the influence of biofuels on the performance of a diesel engine whereas other modeling work involved investigating the thermal behavior of some interesting tubes known as heat pipes which have so many applications (do check out what they are!). 

During my studies at Leuven was where I started to focus on some specific areas in order to develop some specific skill-sets. In Leuven, I worked on a project for a company named ASCO where I made some structural models of a sub-assembly of the wing of the airplane to evaluate whether that assembly was failing or surviving the loads that were applied on it. It was very fascinating to translate a design problem into a numerical model with all the details (devil lies in the details!). This interest in structural modeling continued as I worked on combining experimental and numerical modal analysis (vibration analysis in simple terms) on a rocker arm (a component used in vehicle suspension systems). An academic course on structural acoustics and noise abatement fascinated me and I eventually ended up doing my masters thesis for Tenneco industries where I tried to reduce noise generated in their suspension pump by designing, modeling and manufacturing a solution for their problem. This project further reinforced my intentions of continuing to work in modeling of mechanical systems with emphasis on structural dynamics. I ended up doing a research internship at the university in Leuven after my Masters in structural dynamics followed by my job where I now work on a variety of numerical modeling problems. 

How did you get your first break? 

Unlike India, there is no campus recruitment in Belgium and many other countries in Europe. So, I had to apply to jobs myself using multiple platforms such as LinkedIn, Indeed and company specific job portals. There were also a couple of job fairs in the town where I studied, through which I contacted some company personnel as well. Ultimately, I applied to the company where I currently work, using LinkedIn. After my CV was shortlisted, I had an interview with the manager and HR followed by an aptitude test and finally another interview with my team leader. 

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

I think that applying for jobs in a foreign country is a very challenging task due to a multitude of reasons which are dependent on where you are situated. An important challenge that I faced in Belgium when applying for some jobs was my lack of knowledge of the local language. Although the world is globalized, internal discussions within an organization are mainly in the local language in many places across the globe, Belgium being no exception, where Dutch and French are most commonly spoken.

Additionally, the immigration rules in most countries, if not all, typically promote local employment (no surprises there!). The companies typically need to fund your visa and sometimes need to make extra efforts to integrate in an economy which disincentivizes them to hire foreigners unless necessary for a high-quality job. Though it was not possible to address both these challenges completely, I tried to look for high quality engineering jobs where language requirements were comparatively less weighted relative to my skills. The company where I work now had absolutely no problem with my language skills but trusted my technical abilities and decided to hire me based on my enthusiasm, personality and technical know-how. I am learning Dutch not only for professional purposes but also to integrate better socially with my colleagues and the Belgian society in general. 

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

I work for Picanol Weaving Machines headquartered in Leper, Belgium as a CAE engineer in the R&D department. My job primarily revolves around creating a multitude of models (finite element models, CFD models, system models etc.) to understand the behavior of weaving machines and their systems (These machines are used on an industrial scale to manufacture our jeans, shirts, carpets etc.). We combine these models with experiments to make appropriate design choices and to anticipate problems apriori. As an example, we try to virtually replicate the motion of different mechanisms that are employed in the weaving machine and using these models, try to predict stresses in components, lifetime of bearings etc. The diversity of working not only in the domain of structures but also fluids and system modeling makes it fun and challenging at the same time. 

What are the skills needed in your role?

I think that the most important skills that are needed for my job are a good understanding of engineering fundamentals, interest in numerical modeling and most importantly, an appetite for learning new things. Since the world is changing at an unprecedented rate, I think creativity and adaptability are the most important skills that any future engineer should focus on. 

I acquired many of my skills (modeling skills, software tools, fundamentals) by working on a multitude of projects at the universities in India and Belgium. Additionally, there is a definite learning curve when working on projects at the company itself. There is no other way to acquire these skills than by working on real life problems and projects. 

What’s a typical day like?

My typical work day involves working on some modeling tasks which cater to a couple of projects. Since I am a junior engineer, my agenda is relatively clean, giving me ample time to work on my projects and develop my skills further by following courses/webinars from time to time. Consulting colleagues to discuss problems is something which obviously takes place on a daily basis when we have some ideas or thoughts about each other’s work. 

What do you love about this job?

There are many reasons why I enjoy working at Picanol. First and foremost, Picanol has a good working culture with a relatively flat hierarchy, with everyone treating each other as equals especially when it comes to discussing and debating ideas (Emphasis on objectivity over personal egos!). At first, being the only non-Belgian in the R&D team seemed like a big challenge in itself but my colleagues have been more than welcoming which has made life easier (welcoming work culture!). The flexibility of working on multiple subdomains is something that I enjoy since it ensures that I am learning all the time. Close collaboration with academic partners also ensures that we as an organization utilize first principles as much as possible which makes my job challenging yet enjoyable! 

How does your work benefit society?

As the world of machinery becomes more complex, modeling of physical systems in the virtual domain is of utmost importance if we intend to design performance driven as well as energy efficient systems. I believe that my work will augment our understanding of modeling complex physical systems better and help pave the way for better machine building. 

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

I remember a very simple project that we did during my masters, collaborating in a team of three. We conducted experiments on a rocker arm (a component used in vehicles) and then made some models replicating the measurements. The project reflected how far humans as a species have progressed since the model replicated reality very well, and yet the imperfections emphasized that we still have some ground to cover! 

Your advice to students based on your experience? 

Based on my limited experiences till date, I think that students should emphasize as much as possible on using first principles to think about problems. As the world becomes more complex, first principles are going to be more vital than ever before. We ask a lot of questions as kids, but stop doing that as we grow up. I think the easiest way to learn is to ask more and more questions and more importantly, reflect on those questions whenever you can! Tinker around and try working on simple yet creative ideas. From my experience, simple yet elegant solutions are always the best! Times like Covid have also shown us that one needs to have a harmony between professional/academic life and personal life (sports, music, art etc). So, work hard, be physically active and enjoy your life to the fullest in whatever way you can. 

Future Plans? 

I enjoy working at my current organization due to a plethora of learning opportunities and would continue to do so for the next few years at least since I have only entered the industry a couple of years ago. I am also an avid reader and I intend to use some of the lessons that I learn in this journey to invest better, eat healthier, stay fitter and hopefully communicate some of these learnings via such interesting mediums in the future as well.