Aircraft Interiors need to maintain a delicate balance between ergonomics/comfort and safety while offering a superior customer experience.

Ashwin Srinivasa, our next pathbreaker, Staff Engineer at Collins Aerospace, works on the design of First-Class Aircraft Seats and Suites (Premium Aircraft Seats) for the aviation industry. 

Ashwin talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his exposure to cutting-edge research facilities at the National Institute of Aviation Research (Wichita, Kansas) which gave him insights on the Aerospace Industry, and more importantly, the challenges related to design thinking and problem-solving.

For students, as the world becomes increasingly connected through air transportation, there will always be a need for world class innovative solutions to make air travel smoother and safer!

Ashwin, Tell us about your initial years?

I’m 37 years old, born and raised in Bangalore. My parents Srinivas Rao and Susheela were employees of Canara Bank, and my wife Sindhu is a practicing Nutrigenomist, an employee of Navipoint Health. We have an 8-year-old son Avyay. 

During my growing up years, I joined Shanti Niketan school which  was disciplined and strict. After my 7th grade, I joined Vijaya High School which I consider as a major turning point in my life. The school, which was located in Jayanagar, was a very popular school in our state. The school boasted of various records and rank holders in 10th grade board examinations. The teachers were exceptional, and the students were brilliant and competitive. 

Vijaya High School was ahead of its time in the 90’s and provided students with exposure to all the right things. Students were given vocational training on typing, tailoring, book binding etc. Apart from this, they had numerous clubs and the school vociferously encouraged students to be a part of various curricular activities. 

I was part of Literary, Debate and Philately clubs, and won a Bronze Medal in 2000 for my collection of stamps in a State Level Philatelic Exhibition. I also did quite well in sports where I was a competitive player in both cricket as well as table tennis.

I always loved mimicry and thoroughly enjoyed performing Standup Comedy on stage in both solo and group events. Even though this doesn’t have any connection with what I do today, it gave me the self-confidence to communicate with an audience. This is a very important skill to inculcate at an early age.

What did you do for graduation/ post-graduation?

I somehow had the affinity for Mechanical Engineering considering that Physics was one of my favorite subjects, and also because I grew up hearing that Mechanical Engineering was an evergreen branch in Engineering. 

I completed my Mechanical Engineering in the year 2006, from Visvesvaraya Technological University. One of the abiding memories during my engineering days was the time we would spend in the labs understanding the various nuances of machines, forging them in the foundry and workshop. It was a great learning experience which taught me the value of teamwork. 

After my engineering, I joined an organization called FirePro Systems where I worked for a period of 11 months from Jan 2007 – Dec 2007. During this period, I also prepared for my GRE and TOEFL to pursue my higher education in the United States.

Based on my scores, I had applied to 6 universities, but got admissions in 5 of them. Though I was motivated to go to San Diego State University, an offer from Wichita State University to study Masters of Science in Mechanical Engineering which included a fee waiver, made me change my mind. Coming from a middle class family, I knew my parents had to bear the brunt of my educational expenses. So, to make things easy for them and also pursue my dream of studying abroad, I made this decision which was a win-win for both of us

What were some of the influences that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

As I’ve previously mentioned, the key influencer was the fact that Physics was my favorite subject where I had studied a bit about IC engines, Strength of Materials and Heat and Mass Transfer. This prompted me to take up Mechanical Engineering which would give me more in-depth knowledge on these topics.

My biggest mentors were always my parents who motivated and guided me in all my decisions, as well as my paternal aunt, Smt. Rama Tumkur, a well-known, well learned teacher in Mumbai who teaches Physics and Math to 10th graders to this day, and my maternal uncle Dr. C. Raghavendra Rao, who was a Professor in Physics with the Bangalore University and was a very respectable educator. I would regularly speak to them and all of them have had a role in me taking up Mechanical Engineering.

All my friends opted for Electronics and Communication Engineering or Computer Science Engineering, and I too could have secured an admission with Computer Science , but I somehow felt disconnected with these branches. 

In the early 2000’s, our honorable PM, Shri Atal Behari Vajpayee ji had promised to invest a lot in Industrialization and Manufacturing, which in turn paved the way for burgeoning opportunities in Mechanical Engineering.

Late Dr. A.R.K Swamy, who was our Head of the Department, was a mentor I fondly remember even today. He was a man of principles and believed in mentoring people. Every student in my class remembers the lessons and the life lessons he taught us. We all truly remember him as a remarkable human being and a knowledgeable professor. 

Professor M.S. Shankar, a former IITian, who ran tutorials was another mentor. When we attended his classes, engineering was fun. One thing I learnt from him was the art of explaining concepts. He was a cut above the rest. The most difficult subjects would sound easy in his class.

During my master’s, there were 3 people who I’ve to make a special mention of, Dr.Hamid Lankarani who is one of the leading Crashworthiness Professors in the world with over 11,000 citations on his Research Work was my graduate advisor under whom I did my thesis at Wichita State University, and Dr. Ramazan Asmatulu, a nice and caring professor who always pushed me to raise the bar. Both these professors are some of the finest humans I’ve met in my life. The third person is Mrs Connie Wells Owens, who works in the Graduate School of Wichita State University. She has been a mother away from home to many grad students like me and a very nice and helpful person. 

All these people have not just made me the engineer I’m today but also taught me valuable lessons on life, on good conduct and professionalism. They were kind enough to overlook my mistakes and helped me develop a positive attitude which has surely helped in my career.

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 days in Wichita State University, I worked as a Research Assistant in the National Institute of Aviation Research (NIAR), an organization with cutting-edge research facilities which is located on our campus. They worked in proximity with the aerospace industry and the students who are part of NIAR get regular exposure to how the industry works. I was a part time employee of NIAR working with the Crashworthiness and Virtual Reality Lab.

NIAR would work directly with the Aerospace OEMs on various aspects of engineering which included crash testing, crash simulations and aircraft ergonomics. As a graduate student, I would assist them in coding for the simulations.

This experience gave me insights on the Aerospace Industry, the nuances involved, the way of working and more importantly the challenges related to problem-solving. 

One of the biggest takeaways for me as a Graduate Research Assistant was the perseverance required to solve a problem with the right approach and attitude rather than looking for shortcuts.

This was the phase when I decided that I’ve to be associated with the Aerospace industry for the rest of my career. 

I restarted my career with Ransomes Jacobsen located in Charlotte, North Carolina after my graduation in December 2010. The product line of Jacobsen was the state-of-art lawn mowing equipment related to the Golf Industry.

I worked here for a brief period before relocating to India. Back in India, I continued to work for them for a brief period and took up my first leap towards being a part of the Aerospace Industry in January 2013 with a job in B/E Aerospace, a leading organization for Aircraft Interiors. 

Aircraft Interiors as the name goes, is about designing the interiors of an aircraft. This includes seats, suites, stowage bins, galleys, lavatory systems, oxygen systems and PSU’s. However, what we can never compromise is the safety and the customer experience. The Aircrafts are predominantly Commercial Jets and Business Jets.

I’ve been associated in a design engineering role for over 10 years having worked predominantly in the area of product development. It has also given me an opportunity to be a part of various invention disclosures and innovation contests which has resulted in 4 patents. 

Even though I waited for a period of 2 years, I kept pursuing my goal till I eventually cracked it and understood a particularly important lesson along the way.

Qualification only merits eligibility and skills may decorate a person’s resume. But what an organization seeks in a potential candidate is the willingness to learn and adapt. These are precursors to what we call a positive attitude.”

How did you get your first break? 

My first break was on campus in Wichita State because of my friend and room-mate Girish who told me about this opportunity with Jacobsen. I approached my professor Dr. Hamid Lankarani who recommended me to this job as one of the personnel in the Top Management was a dear friend of his. However, I had to go through the drill of attending and cracking 2 sets of Technical and HR interviews before I got the job.

I got my break in India in Aerospace based on my profile in one of the job portals. B/E Aerospace had a more traditional process of recruiting. I had to appear for a written test followed by 2 – 3 rounds of interview. It was quite exciting for me.

I would believe that in the current scenario, there are ample opportunities in the Aerospace industry and sometimes we fall short of finding the right talent. 

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

The first job in Jacobsen after my master’s was quite a memorable one. It came with a certain set of challenges.

As they considered me as a fresher out of college, my training was laborious. There were things which I had to understand about the product, workflow processes and the tools required to execute my job. 

I did feel at some point that a good GPA in academics will never give the exposure of working in a dynamic industry. I had to learn a lot of information in a short span of time and adapt myself to the dynamic culture of the organization. 

Communication was a harbinger to my success as I was honest to admit the things I knew and the ones that I was not aware of. I would like to thank Dr. Vasant Gondhalekar who was the Vice President of engineering, Mr. Hector Jaramillo, my first ever Manager, Mr. Uriah Baet, Mr. David Sulhan and my colleague Mr. Shifath Khan for being a constant source of motivation. Without these wonderful mentors I would not have been successful in my stint with them.

After my stint with Textron (parent company of Jacobsen), I joined B/E Aerospace in their Product Development Team as a Senior Engineer. Here the challenges were different, as I was working for a different product altogether which also meant that I had to unlearn what I learnt before and relearn the new processes and tools. 

Whenever we change jobs or an industry, the initial few months are always a litmus test when you are presented with a plethora of challenges. Once we swim across this period, things get better, and we ease into the job.

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

I work for Collins Aerospace in Hyderabad, which is a part of Raytheon Corporation. Collins Aerospace which was formerly UTC Aerospace, is a major player in Commercial Aviation with a product line across Avionics, Interiors and Aftermarket Services. Collins has been a major force in the Aerospace industry, thanks to its push towards innovation and excellence.

I work as Senior Product Development Engineer namely Principal Mechanical Engineer with a focus on the Design of First-Class Aircraft Seats and Suites (Premium Aircraft Seats). 

What are the skills required for your role?

The skills required to execute the work ranges from a good knowledge and an expertise of mechanical engineering design principles, project management, knowledge of materials, failure theories, certification, upholstery, manufacturing, and data export control along with a plethora of soft skills.

These skills are extensively used by everyone in our organization to complete a design along with understanding of the Aircraft Seating Standards governed by the FAA. These skills do take time to acquire and are more of the result of experiential learning and on the job training.

What’s a typical day like?

A typical workday starts at 9.45 am by checking my mails and then planning the day with a quick stand-up meeting at 10 am with our team members where we micro commit to each other on the required deliverables. After the 20-minute meeting, we start our work. As we work during the COVID times, we have 50% of staff working from home. So, my job is to also follow up with the engineers who work from home. We have a review with our counterparts working in the United States where we review the design deliverables, collect the feedback, and continue to improve the design.

Project Management plays a key role in collaborating with global teams. Tracking the deliverables and ensuring the quality meets acceptable standards, play a significant role in the success of a project. Keeping this in mind, I went ahead and got myself a Project Management Professional (PMP) certification which is believed to be a tough examination to crack. My wife Sindhu and my son Avyay were incredibly supportive and helpful during this exhaustive stint of 6 months. In the end, the effort was worth it.

What I love in my job is the juggling act I do, while I work with the various departments and the different personnel I deal with. Apart from bouncing off on each other’s technical skills, I also learn a bit about their backgrounds. 

The other part which I love in my organization is the opportunity for Invention Disclosures. I always dreamt of having a patent during my younger days. I can now proudly say that I am a co-inventor of 3 patents which are published and a few others in the pipeline. They handsomely reward the inventors and give them a platform to highlight inventions through Innovation Contests.

How does your work benefit society? 

Serving the aerospace industry is a truly enriching experience as the products we design are used by the public both domestically and internationally. As we design seats, we have to keep in mind the passenger’s comfort, safety along with providing him/her a superior customer experience that they desire when they travel in an aircraft.

I believe Engineering is a field which is mainly for the public, the products that we engineers build truly make a difference in people’s lives. In the recent past, products related to fintech like PayTM and PhonePe have completely transformed the lives of a common man. 

Students who are pursuing engineering today have to work with dedication because when their time comes, they’ll be doing their bit for society by making the world a safer and a better place.

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

The one I am going to narrate is something that is close to my heart as it came against all odds.

There was an Asia Pacific Innovation Contest in December 2017, a few months after Rockwell Collins had acquired B/E Aerospace in April 2017. There was a renewed hope and a fantastic opportunity to compete on a Global Platform. 

We were a team of four (Rajesh Mohanam, Arvind Gad, and Siva Kumar) and we conceived a concept called “Ergonomic Seat Comforter for Economy Class.” After a few days of thorough research and literature review, we had almost gotten ready to submit our exhibit to the review panel. 

When we reviewed the idea with our management, we didn’t receive favorable feedback. We went back to the drawing board and reworked on the idea. We presented the idea again and this time, they were more than willing to submit our entry.

There were a total of 400+ ideas submitted, and the panelists would select a total of 30 ideas for the finals. After a few anxious days, we got the answer in the affirmative as our idea was selected for the Main event.

The contest had a total of forty judges who were the Global Top Management personnel from the United States and Asia Pacific region spread across 5 different groups who would randomly visit a booth and spend a total of 10 minutes within which we had to pitch the idea and explain the prototype.

I had taken the responsibility to pitch the idea and I had done my thorough homework, at least that’s what I believed. When the contestants were informed about the format of judging, there were perplexed faces. Somehow, I had self-belief in what we were presenting, and I got the opportunity to present to four groups out of 5, with each pitch getting better than the previous one. We as a team were satisfied with our effort given the platform that we were participating in.

When the results were announced, we were truly thrilled to be receiving the Technical Award in the Product Innovation Category. The sleepless nights and the efforts were all worth it. It also paved the way for my first ever Invention Disclosure. 

This is something that I can never forget as it was the first ever contest won by our Business Unit, which became a foundation for such Invention Disclosures and Innovation Contest wins.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Work with a clear vision, be sincere, and don’t give up. Don’t look for shortcuts and more importantly, have a positive attitude and an inclusive mindset. 

Even though some of these terms may sound cliche, these are the building blocks which will help you succeed not just in your profession but also in life.

Future Plans?

Building Innovative Products and making a transition to the Management Ladder is something I want to accomplish soon. I’m optimistic that once I get this opportunity I will surely thrive!

Apart from my professional plans, taking good care and fulfilling the needs of my wonderfully supportive and dedicated wife Sindhu, my inquisitive son Avyay and my parents and in-laws because family always comes first and this is that once place where your past, present and future gets shaped!