Ground Breaking technologies such as Digital Twins, Predictive Maintenance and Artificial Intelligence are being applied in manufacturing to improve production sustainability.

Dhanush Krishnan, our next pathbreaker, Automation Engineer at Northvolt (Stockholm), works as part of the central automation team responsible for commissioning the battery manufacturing machines for production.

Dhanush talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about the concept of connected factories (Industry 4.0) wherein machines can communicate with each other in real-time with minimum human intervention.

For students, manufacturing industries are leading the way in addressing global warming challenges and thus raising the bar for others to follow !

Dhanush, can you talk a bit our yourself, and your growing up years?

I was born and brought up in Bengaluru, India. I did my schooling from National Public School, Rajajinagar which has been a crucial factor in shaping me into the person I am today. My parents, although from Kerala, have now settled in Bengaluru for 40 years. My father is an Industrialist and the Managing Director of Dawn Foods and Flavours, Bengaluru, India and my mother was a high school teacher who taught Biology and Hindi.

Since my early childhood days, my father has always been an inspiration for me and my sister, by showing us that the sky’s the limit if you are willing to work hard enough to achieve your goals. His entrepreneurial journey from being an accounts manager to setting up his own industry naturally intrigued us to pursue a career in Engineering and Business, in order to identify real world problems and explore the possibility of using neoteric solutions to mitigate the same.

My mother, being a teacher, enrolled me and my sister in a lot of extra- curricular activities like music and dance. Her constant care and advice gave us the necessary personality traits that have helped us to shape our future.

As a child, I was always curious about machines and an avid automotive enthusiast, trying to see what was inside them and how they operated. This passion eventually grew from creating small lego models to dismantling and fixing household equipment. In my 12th standard I was faced with a dilemma of choosing between engineering and medical as this is the time when you have the entire society just filling your tiny little head with information and their thoughts. Eventually, after all the discussions and debates, I decided to pursue my passion for machines by studying Mechanical Engineering.

What did you do for graduation / post graduation?

I did my Bachelors in Mechanical engineering from M.S. Ramaiah Institute of Technology, Bengaluru, India. During my bachelor’s at Ramaiah, the course and syllabus were structured in such a way that you could choose from several tracks within mechanical such as design engineering, thermal engineering, manufacturing engineering, mechatronics etc. after the second year.  I had chosen a concoction of manufacturing and mechatronics related courses.

After my bachelor’s, I did my master’s in Production Engineering from Chalmers University of Technology, Göteborg, Sweden. Similar to my bachelor’s, we had several tracks to choose from within production engineering and my focus was on manufacturing digitalization or Industry 4.0 along with robotics and manufacturing automation.

What were some of the key moments or turning points that led you to where you are today?

As I mentioned earlier, one of the key influences for my career was of course my passion towards machines and robots. However, over the course of time, after I graduated from my bachelor’s and started working in an energy recovery firm, I was quite dispirited to see the poor and rampant use of resources due to unsustainable production practices which is one of the main reasons for global warming.

This urged me to pursue my master’s in production engineering at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden which was a well reputed university with a focus on research in developing technologies and strategies to improve production sustainability.

Tell us, how did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted?

When I actually think about my career plan, to be honest, I did not have one initially during my college days. This of course does not mean that I did not have goals, I always knew what I wanted to do and I was constantly looking out for every single opportunity that was out there.

I was always made to believe that there is always something to learn from every job no matter the title or role.  So, I did a lot of internships and sometimes these internships were not even related to engineering (content writing, finance and accounting, UI/UX designing, construction etc.) and had no relevance with what I had been studying. At that time, I was quite confused about what I had been doing with my time and sometimes wondered if it was even worthwhile doing these internships. However, even though those internships did not have much influence on the career that I have chosen now, they gave me access to a wide network of people that I could always reach out to. Infact, my first job at Minput Energy Pvt. Ltd after my bachelor’s was not through campus placement but through one of my connections at Megavent Technologies which was a roofing and construction company where I was an Intern. I wanted to mention this because even though I had internships from several MNC’s such SKF, Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited and HAL, it was a totally offbeat internship that gave me my first breakthrough.

In my first job, I was responsible for the mechanical design of heat pumps and thermos-compressors which were used for heat recovery from energy-intensive industrial processes, usually from furnaces and Kilns. We usually did an energy audit of the processes to identify where excess energy is lost in the form of heat. Our systems were deployed to recover and reuse this heat to power the same process or for other utilities in the factory, thereby reducing the overall electricity consumption of the industry.

Although this approach would contribute towards a lower carbon footprint for the company, the manufacturing of the heat pumps and thermos-compressors were themselves an energy intensive process which essentially meant that there was no decrease in the overall carbon footprint. It is then when I realized that this was not sustainable and there must be a different approach to achieve sustainable production. My first job was indeed the key influencer for my future career goals.

This led me to pursue my master’s in Production Engineering at Chalmers to help me bridge my knowledge gap. Here I was introduced to the concept of Industry 4.0 and the Circular Economy.

After completing my master’s, I went on to work for Northvolt, an emerging Swedish start-up company whose goal is to make the world’s greenest Li-ion batteries to power the cars and industries of the future and make oil history. At Northvolt we are indeed building one of Europe’s first giga-factory with a capacity of 150 Gwh by the end of 2030. I am currently working here as an automation engineer for developing cell production lines that are as smart as they are sustainable, which enables deep cell traceability, more efficient manufacturing and enhanced cell performance by prediction of lifetime performance and degradation.

Can you explain the concept of Industry 4.0 and how it addresses challenges in sustainable manufacturing?

Industry 4.0 basically talks about the use of ground-breaking technology such as Digital Twins, Predictive Maintenance, Smart/Connected Manufacturing, Artificial Intelligence etc.. to improve production sustainability. Consequently I chose to do my master’s thesis on digital twins for enabling manufacturing sustainability. A digital twin is a high fidelity virtual simulation of a real world manufacturing environment. My research was focused on developing these high fidelity virtual models which can be connected with field level controllers or sensors through IoT for enabling a bi-directional exchange of information in real time. What this technology could potentially do is provide real-time data of all machines which could be further used to analyze the most optimal operating conditions that consume minimum energy and provide maximum production capacity through simulations of several different manufacturing scenarios.

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

Challenge 1:  My first challenge was in adapting to a new culture and environment when I moved to Sweden. Just the idea of going to a new country where you do not know anyone, and English is not the first language can be quite hard to get used to. I had always been within the comfort zone of my home in Bangalore without having to worry about my day to day activities such as transport, cooking or even laundry. One of the most arduous tasks for me was to learn cooking because eating out everyday can be quite expensive for a student. However, one of my best strength’s again came to my rescue as I was able to make a lot of friends and connections who helped me to easily integrate into Swedish society. 

Challenge 2:  My second biggest challenge was the knowledge gap that I mentioned earlier compared to other international students enrolled in my course. I always had to put in a lot more effort during the initial months of my course compared to others. I started spending long hours in the library and sometimes in the comfort of my room to strengthen my fundamentals and learn to use new software.

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

I am currently employed as an Automation Engineer at Northvolt.

I am working with the central automation team and we are responsible for commissioning the battery manufacturing machines for production. I am responsible for validating the PLC programs for its robustness to ensure that the machine and system behaviour is as expected. Furthermore, at Northvolt we are more focused on enabling connected factories wherein the machines can communicate with each other in real-time with minimum human intervention. Another concept we work on is called traceability wherein we use API’s to transfer machine data to the cloud in order to be able to track the status and quality of each individual cell that is being produced.

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

A strong knowledge about sensors and control systems is essential in order to understand the core concepts of automation. Knowledge of basic programming or familiarity with some sort of programming language is also required, as well as a very broad understanding of networking technologies, for example LAN/VLAN, network topologies etc. Most of the other skills are more job specific and can be learnt on the job if you are able to think logically and can arrive at rational conclusions.

What’s a typical day like?

Usually, my day starts with a strong cup of coffee as soon as I get to work, followed by a morning meeting with my team in order to align the activities of the day. I then get back to the factory to start with testing and verification of the machines and trying to solve the tasks that have been planned for the day. We then have our usual lunch breaks during which I socialize with my colleagues before getting back to work again.  I usually try to wrap up by 5pm after which I try to hit the gym or play a sport depending on the day.

What is it you love about this job? 

The fact that everyday is a new challenge is the most exciting part about this job. Each day you encounter problems that you have not dealt with before and there is always something new to learn and experience. Also, being able to work with a team that has some of the smartest engineers makes it all the more pleasurable.

How does your work benefit society? 

Personally, I feel that battery technology is a really strong driver for decarbonizing transport and energy, in order to help combat climate change. Transitioning from fossil fuels to a clean energy source can significantly improve the air quality, lower the fuel costs, reduce emissions which improve our health and nature.

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

It’s hard to pick one project as each one is unique and challenging in its own way. However, the work that is very close to me is when we built a go-kart from scratch during my bachelor’s for the national kart racing championship. One reason that this work is very close to me is because it’s during this project that I made some really good friends. 

While working on a project with no prior industrial work experience and access to limited amounts of resources it was not an easy feat to achieve what we had committed ourselves to doing. I would consider this as my first milestone project where I learnt professionalism and the importance of commitment to get things done. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Just follow your passion and always strive to be the best at what you do. 

Future Plans?

My future plan is to get better at what I am doing right now and help Industries drive the change towards Industry 4.0. However, in the far future I would like to pursue my own entrepreneurial goals for which I would need a deeper understanding and knowledge about setting and scaling up the industries of the future.