Mechanical Design forms an integral part of new product development and value engineering processes in Industrial Automation, Robotics, Transportation Systems and many other hi-tech industries !

Nilesh Suryavanshi, our next pathbreaker, R&D Team Leader at Knorr-Bremse, manages a team of engineers who deal with product development & project engineering of different climate control systems used in high-speed trains, metros, locomotives & other rolling stocks.  

Nilesh talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about being drawn towards engineering design during his work on a final year project that used Biogas as a cheap alternative to petroleum based fuels, for a Spark-ignition IC engine.

For students, engineering comes to life only when you do things rather than just read concepts. Experiment with different things and get your hands dirty in order to identify your interests !

Nilesh , Your background?

I am basically from Pune but completed my schooling & higher secondary education from Mumbai as we used to stay there due to my father’s job. My father worked as a driver in a private company and my mother is a housewife. Since I was the eldest child in the family, there was not much of a defined career path. But during my childhood & even now, I am fascinated by machines. I used to dismantle & try to re-assemble most of the household equipment in our home just to see how they worked. My mother used to hide new things from me due to this habit of mine. This interest was the first stepping stone for me to pursue engineering. Moreover, I was very good with subjects like mathematics & science.

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I graduated from Savitribai Phule Pune University with a Bachelor of Engineering degree in Mechanical Engineering and did my M. Tech in Manufacturing Management from BITS Pilani. It was a work integrated learning programme. 

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?

During my 4 years of undergraduate study, I was very much interested in most of the design subjects. I like to solve problems which involve hand calculations, analysis. I also participated in many robotics competitions which increased my interest in product design, but the major factor was my engineering project, on which I worked with my friends during my last year. Our project was to use Biogas as a Fuel for a Spark-ignition IC engine. We were developing a cheap alternative for petroleum based fuels. There were two main parts, the first was purification of biogas and 2nd was testing SI engine with biogas to check performance. We worked hard and almost for a full academic year, right from finding a suitable IC engine, doing modifications to the engine to use biogas as fuel, designing & manufacturing the engine test setup, finding purification methods for biogas and so many other things. 

I also like to add one more experience which solidified my choice. In my 1st company, I started as a GET. They had a very innovative three month GET training programme back then & I was part of that. We were a batch of around 15-20 GETs and it was really a very smooth onboarding. During that training, I came across Mr. N. R. Kulkarni, who was the head of the training department at that time. He is one of the key influencers for me. He helped me a lot, tried to clear all my doubts, introduced us to the industry in a very positive way, and taught us real/practical engineering. He used to say that Designers are the Brahma, “the Creator” of products, they need to start imagining the product before it is born, defining everything to give it shape, thinking of every probability of failure & how to overcome it.

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

In college, we normally used summer holidays to learn new things. After my 3rd year exam, I started exploring opportunities to learn some courses on CAD, CAM & CAE, & found a good institute, Indo German Tool Room (IGTR). I completed some CAD tool courses from there which improved my understanding about Mechanical design processes. During my final year, I got placed through college placement, but the job and the product profile were not much in line with what I was interested in, and so I applied for and got my 1st job off campus.

I started as a graduate trainee, in Wipro PARI in Pune. I was put through one of the best training programmes after which I started working as a Design Engineer in the standardization team which deals with floor automation such as different types of conveyors & accessories. These are commonly used for handling of industrial materials for on-ground material transportation. My second organization was Konecranes, a Finland based MNC. I was part of the Port Shipyard & Container handling crane department as a design Engineer, serving more than four years. At Konecranes, my work was in concept design, solid modelling, manufacturing drawings preparations for different crane machinery, as well as steel structures, walkways, cable ways, erections & transportations. I also worked on some new product development like Boxhunter RTG cranes. During this time, along with my regular job, I completed my PG in Manufacturing Management from BITS Pilani. I was part of the global innovation team, travelling to Europe a couple of times for project coordination. Overall, it was a great learning experience.

After five to six years of experience I was a little saturated with the Material handling Industry and wanted to try a different field. I was able to find a new job in Onward Technologies, an engineering service company for the Rail industry. We worked with GE Transportation & the main product was Locomotives. I was responsible for design and development of mechanical structural applications and product packaging of different locomotive cabs. We used to manage and execute entire product development cycle right from capturing customer requirements, designing, manufacturing, validating to commissioning and field support for various locomotive cabs. 

Before COVID, I was very inspired with start-ups and had some ideas to start something on my own though I did not have much knowledge about entrepreneurship, nor did I have the required financial freedom to explore a start-up business. 

I was associated with Peppermint Robots, one of the technology start-ups which was supported by SINE IIT-Bombay. They are into the development of intelligent housekeeping robots for industries and commercial spaces. I mainly worked on the standardization of their initial Product Development lifecycle & Mechanical design processes as well as setting up processes & tools for Product Lifecycle Management. After doing some experiments in the last two roles, I moved to the Rail domain again & am currently working as a R&D Team Leader in Knorr Bremse.

How did you get your first break? 

During the final year of my engineering, I got placed in an Industrial boiler manufacturing company, but the job profile and product were not much in line with what I was looking for, so I started my own research and shortlisted some companies for job applications. At that time, since my core interests were in robotics, industrial automation, I mostly applied to companies in that domain and after 2-3 months of effort, I was able to receive some interview calls. I cleared interviews with my 1st company and joined as a GET. I was unable to apply for any job through contacts; it was all through self-research and by reaching out to the company’s website, or sometimes visiting physically. Now, there are many online portals for job postings and connecting with people.

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

As engineers we are always challenged with problems and our job is to address them. But since most of them are technical and product specific, I will not discuss them here, but during my years of experience I have come across some broader challenges, which I want to enlist,

Challenge 1: Shift from Academics to Industry 

Switching from theoretical engineering, and learning an actual engineering job is a tough shift especially considering our current education system. Moving from academics to the industry is not easy, and it can be much harder without a mentor or proper guidance. It is a lifestyle change as well because it can cause discomfort.

Challenge 2: Presentation & communication skills

Effective communication & presentation are the key skills needed in whichever field one is working, especially when dealing with different people. In the technical field, we do not pay much attention to these & this is the same mistake I made in my academic journey. We should develop techniques to connect with people quickly and easily, as well as clearly presenting ideas.

Challenge 3: Learning new language 

Again, we consider language to be out of scope for engineers but let me share with you a recent example. I started studying Spanish recently because our work counterpart is from Spain, and it is needed for better collaboration. Learning a language is a really difficult task considering the last foreign language I have learned is English & which I have been learning from school days.    

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

I am currently working as R&D Team Leader at Knorr-Bremse Technology Center India. The Knorr-Bremse Group is the world’s leading manufacturer of braking systems and supplier of many additional sub-systems for rail and commercial vehicles & it is not related in any way with knorr soup 😃 I am handling a team of engineers, who deal with product development & project engineering of different Climate control systems. This is mainly used in high-speed trains, metros, locomotives & other rolling stocks.  

We are working on Rail HVAC (Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) systems. Our work mainly consists of two types, Product Development & Project Engineering. We deal with the health & comfort for all types of vehicles, for all kinds of conditions. Our company calls it a COOL PASSION.

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

HVAC stands for Heating, Ventilation & Air conditioning. The HVAC system’s main functions are Interior temperature & humidity control along with Filtration & Replacement (Ventilation) of the Air in the interior areas of all Rail systems. As a HVAC Engineer, one should be aware of the refrigeration cycle and air handling. He should be able to understand comfort requirements, heat load calculations, sheet metal design, electromechanical product integration. Other than this, in the Rail sector, one can explore a number of different profiles in mechanical design right from heavy structures, different components & subsystems design from HVAC to aerodynamic designing of trains.

What’s a typical day like?

I normally start working at around 8.30 AM and finish around 6 PM or sometimes later depending on the workload. My working day mainly includes some concept design, change management, reviews, project management, technical support & capacity planning for the team, meetings, and presentations. In addition, I always plan some time for my learning, which mainly involves online courses focusing on the latest developments, and reading current developments in my field.

How does your work benefit society? 

Railway is one of the most economical & sustainable transports and helps in overall development of society in many ways. We are working daily to make it more safer, reliable, and available than ever, as well as better in all ways. As HVAC Engineers, a good climate is our business. We are working for the health & comfort of all passengers.

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

During my last job I have taken a not so common path & associated with a technology start-up. They are into manufacturing of Housekeeping Robots and Material Handling Robots. It was a very short collaboration, but it is one of the most memorable experiences I ever had. I worked on product development & design standardisation, along with setting up processes & tools for Product Lifecycle Management. I really loves the ownership and freedom I got from the founder.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

For students my advice will be 

Follow your Passion:

For students who are at the stage where they need to decide their career path, my advice would be: Try to find your passion & relate it with the jobs available in the market. If you fail to find your passion at this stage you will be forced to pursue your passion during free time outside of work, it is a compromise most of the people make. In this case people get bored easily with work and it becomes a burden. But if you are able to dedicate your day-to-day work life to your passions, it will be a natural recipe to be successful. I know finding your passion is an ongoing, sometimes lifelong journey, so start with your interests, things you like to do, your strengths, you like to hear-read and make a list of all these areas. Once you have identified a few areas of interest, spend time exploring relevant jobs available & their market potential, you must be able to balance your interest with future potential of that field. Whatever path you take, take it because you are interested in it and not because it is planned for you by someone, or others are doing it. 

Keep Learning:

Second most important thing is learning, it should be an integral part of your life. Academic education is a small step towards finalizing your interests & your actual learning starts after that. 

You should have a strong desire to know or learn something. There is no such thing as a stupid question, only answer can be stupid, so always ask questions & keep learning. 

Future Plans?

Currently, I’m leading a team at Knorr Bremse. I would be looking forward to expanding my work to a full product life cycle in the coming future and helping to grow my team. Learning is always there, both on the technology side & on Leadership, Project / Programme management & entrepreneurship.