Computational Models can simulate material behaviour during the prototyping/design phase of a manufacturing process thereby saving costly and time-intensive physical tryouts.

Kiranmayi Abburi (PhD), our next pathbreaker, Senior R&D Manager (Manufacturing Intelligence Division) at Hexagon (Hamburg), solves problems regarding manufacturing of metallic and metal-alloy components for industrial applications, through computer algorithms.

Kiranmayi talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about realizing the significance of Computer Aided Engineering in finding relevant and effective solutions to engineering challenges.

For students, Sustainability is one of the major challenges that we are facing globally today. Virtual simulations are reducing material scrap, improving performance and avoiding unwanted failures during service, thus contributing to sustainability and profitability.

Kiranmayi, what were your early years like?

I was born and raised in the state of Andhra Pradesh. My schooling until graduation happened in Vijayawada city. Growing up as a kid, my maternal grandfather had a great influence on me. He was an English lecturer by vocation and also held a degree in Physics. I come from a family of teachers including my father (higher secondary maths, physics and chemistry), my aunt (English and social sciences) which instilled in me a great thirst for knowledge right from a very young age. I was very interested in maths and physics, especially curious about the universe and the secrets it held. 

My mother was instrumental in my pursuit of education. She strongly believed and supported the education of girl children. It is her relentless determination that propelled me towards engineering. I loved understanding, knowing and solving. This led to my doctoral studies at the University of Bristol in the UK.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I finished my bachelors in Mechanical Engineering, Masters in Production Engineering and PhD in Mechanical Engineering. As a woman, mechanical engineering wasn’t considered an ideal choice, but my mother strongly believed that knowledge and education has no gender barriers. She encouraged me to pursue mechanical engineering and be the first engineer in my family. I finished my bachelors at Koneru Lakshmaiah College of Engineering. My father was an aided school teacher and the sole breadwinner for the family. With three kids, it wasn’t easy for him to pay my tuition fee (even a Govt fee), but he worked twice as hard from 6 AM till 9 PM to provide us all with education and opportunities. 

After my bachelors, though I realized I had a lot of theoretical knowledge and understanding, I knew I had to specialize further with real engineering experience. So, I pursued my masters in Production Engineering at PSG College of Technology (Coimbatore) where I had the opportunity to learn from some brilliant minds as well as get hands-on industrial experience through internships and project work. 

After my masters, I worked for a few years in a mechanical software company (Computer Aided Designing). But I was still yearning to learn more and hone the ability to research and develop something that can contribute to the world and make a difference. This led me to the University of Bristol in pursuit of my PhD and there I was blessed with opportunities I never dreamt of. Research was hard but exciting and it enhanced my approach to problem solving and my ability to critically think, assess, review and develop. 

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

Education hasn’t always been just a means to an end in my family. Although the importance of financial stability and independence is certainly taught, we were also encouraged to be authentic and do what makes us genuinely happy and fulfilled. So, my work is a means for me to grow, learn and give back. It allows me to be authentic, use my unique talents and skills to add value and do something meaningful in my eyes. In a way, it’s an expression of what I am.

My grandfather and family members were certainly key influencers for my career path. I have been taught from childhood that financial independence is critical for women as much as it is for men and that I should be the creator of my life. In addition, I had some great mentors/teachers/lecturers and friends who helped me understand my strengths and passion, and find the courage to go after my dreams. 

My university supervisors have enabled me to participate in a host of conferences that allowed me to get in touch with industry and understand the challenges from their perspective in order to be able to find solutions that are relevant and effective.

I also worked on multiple projects that required collaboration with various partners from the industry and academia from around the world. This helped me develop crucial networking and communication skills, as well as an understanding of the business/industry by looking at the bigger picture. 

I would say every major milestone in my education has been a turning point to where I am today. I can’t pin it down to one incident that led to where I am today as it’s everything coming together. Nevertheless, giving birth to my son, and my journey during my PhD are two main turning points in my life. Being a mother made me realize my inner strength and resilience as a person, and my PhD journey has helped me understand my values as a human, my passion, my core strengths and abilities, and how best to utilize my unique skill combination. 

Tell us about your career path

I worked initially as a Software Developer for a mechanical software company named Triad Software Pvt Ltd., in Chennai. I always wanted to stay in my core field, “mechanical engineering”. I thoroughly enjoyed my work which involved using a lot of mathematical concepts in geometry for designing purposes. Nevertheless, I wanted to do more where I could use critical thinking and systematic investigation to understand and solve something. This is what truly excites me. So, I began looking for PhD opportunities primarily in the area of CAD as it was then my field of work. However, an opportunity landed in the form of an interview for a PhD position at the University of Bristol, which was completely new to me. 

My PhD was on high temperature structural integrity of nuclear power-plant components, “Characterizing High Energy Beam Welding in Structural Steels with Numerical Simulation and Validation”. The structural steels application was in nuclear powerplants. I analyzed the suitability of high energy beam welding processes such as laser and electron beam welding as a joining method for nuclear structural components and the impact of these welds in comparison to conventional welds in actual service. 

The project was a collaboration between UK universities and BARC, IGCAR from India. It was a tremendous opportunity and I was so excited when I was shortlisted and offered the position. In a way, I was taking a chance, but it was worth it. 

During my PhD, I worked closely with several universities in the UK such as Manchester University, Imperial College London, The Open University etc, and with several experienced and renowned researchers from BARC and IGCAR, India. I developed the required experimental and numerical (computational) skills required for the work and successfully defended my thesis and received the degree in 2015. 

Following that, I applied for a post-doctoral researcher position at University of Bristol as this would help me grow into an independent researcher. During the three years, I worked on various projects and finished them successfully which helped tremendously in growing my confidence and improving my network. I also wrote several research funding proposals and was awarded funds to conduct independent research as a principal investigator (PI). I also applied to various fellowships that would allow me to grow in my academic career.

During my postdoc, I expanded my experience and knowledge from mechanical engineering (analysis of stresses/strains and deformations) to materials science. High temperature failure mechanisms such as those in nuclear powerplant structural components is often due to combination of mechanical and microstructural behaviour. This greatly helped in enhancing my skills and expertise in failure analysis and estimation. 

However, I once more had a calling to do something different. I still wanted to be in research and development, though I wanted to solve industrial challenges that made a difference. I wanted to be able to see the direct impact of the work I do. With this in mind, I started applying for various jobs in the industry in Europe. I also wanted to move to a different location owing to Brexit. 

I applied at organizations/industries that worked in areas of my research and expertise. I was interviewed at my current company for a job in a new department that was created very recently. So, I was the first employee under my boss in that department. 

After 3 years working as a Senior Research Engineer in that group, I was promoted in 2021 as a Senior R&D Manager and I manage my team now.

How did you get your first break?

My first break would be my first job at Triad Software Pvt Ltd. Although I had good grades in my bachelors and masters and was placed in TCS during campus placements after my masters, I had to quit my job at TCS right after the induction period due to my marriage. 

For 3 years, I couldn’t get a break although I applied relentlessly. I took up various jobs including a lecturer, a recruiter for HR management consultancy and a few others. I was rejected from lecturer job applications due to my aspirations to become a researcher. I was rejected from several jobs due to over-qualification and several others due to lack of sufficient job experience or that I was not a fresher and so on. 

Nevertheless, I continued to apply and attend interviews as there was no other option for me. I was determined to be financially independent and use my knowledge/skills in a meaningful manner. Then there was an opening at Triad Software Pvt Ltd., for a tester. This wasn’t my dream job, but I attended the interview. I was selected and offered a developer role due to my performance in the written test and interview.

Another break was the opportunity to do my PhD. The area of my PhD research was significantly different from the field of my work at that time. Nevertheless, I had a strong background in mechanical engineering. The concepts that I learnt during my engineering studies helped me clearly demonstrate my capabilities for the PhD research topic. Although, it was a different area, my interviewers were convinced that I could pick-up the required knowledge and expertise to successfully complete the research. This made me realize that our attitude and aptitude are as important as our experience and expertise. Furthermore, a friend of mine was already pursuing his PhD at the same university (Dr. Anil Shirahatti) and his referral certainly benefited me. This clearly demonstrates the value of networking.

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

Challenge 1:

Self-doubt: I think most of us struggle with this at some point or the other. And there is no one best way to address this in my opinion. We all have to find our own way that works best for us. For me, it was to break down any given situation/challenge to smaller manageable steps. It helped me not to be scared by the bigger picture and become crippled with self-doubt and self-worth. Instead, I would try to focus on the thing at hand and just that step alone. Of course, all this is observed in retrospect. 

The other is to have a back-up plan. For me, knowing that there is another option helps me face my worst fears. 

Challenge 2: 

Uncertainty: In life, situations are hardly predictable. Uncertainty is the only certain thing about life, ironically. Of course, we all die for sure, but the dance in between, that’s uncertain. For me, knowing that I did my very best helps to surrender and let go. I give myself a certain time until which I go all-out on the problem/challenge/situation. Once I am truly convinced that I gave it my everything, I am able to surrender and let go. 

Challenge 3

Empathy and compassion towards ourselves or others. Oftentimes we hold “images” of what we think as “ourselves” or what we should be. When something happens that threatens this “image”, we deny, protest, ignore or do some other thing. Our images aren’t real but just our perception, and our perceptions are always skewed. Instead of living upto an image, it’s helpful to accept and embrace how each one of us is or the other person is in the present moment with compassion and empathy. This is extremely hard especially when we are in the midst of a situation, but it is immensely powerful as it gives us the freedom to choose our next course of action as a response to the situation instead of reaction to past experience.

Where do you work now?

I work at Hexagon in the Manufacturing Intelligence Division as Senior R&D Manager. 

What problems do you solve?

I solve problems regarding manufacturing of metallic and metal-alloy components for industrial applications. Sometimes, the manufacturing process leads to unwanted material/component behaviour during service which can be detrimental. Knowing this beforehand through virtual means can help bring down material wastage as well as other costs and enhance operational safety. I develop ways to virtually analyze materials and manufacturing processes using computer algorithms and analysis for better design of parts and components. 

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

My work is truly interdisciplinary as I must be able to use computational algorithms/programming to simulate material behaviour. So, I must know the physical behaviour of the material and be able to represent it in mathematical form for ease of simulation using computer programs. So, I must know material physics, mathematical modelling and computer programming. I also manage my team and work with customers. So, I should also have very good communication skills and team management skills. Since I also lead the research projects, I should also have very good time management skills and accountability for delivering results. 

What’s a typical day like?

I would be developing or investigating a new mathematical model for representing some physical aspects of the material behaviour during manufacturing. I would sometimes be talking to customers/prospects to explain complex concepts and breaking them down into a simpler sense while providing all the relevant information. I would be having discussions with my manager/team members on the best way to address an issue such as a new concept or proof of concept. I would also be talking to project collaborators and/or external partners to streamline the work and make sure that the project deadlines are met. 

What is it you love about this job? 

I love that I can see the benefits of my work and how it contributes to addressing some of the pressing industrial challenges. It allows me to think out-of-box and find solutions in a way that’s easier to implement and relevant to the industry. It helps me to learn more every day and find ways of improving what we offer currently. It challenges me to find my weaknesses and improve upon these continually. 

How does your work benefit society?

Sustainability is one of the major challenges that we are facing globally today. My work helps move some of the experimental investigations during the prototyping/design phase of a manufacturing process to the virtual world thereby saving costly and time-intensive physical tryouts. It helps reduce material scrap, improve performance and avoid unwanted failures during service. So, my work contributes to sustainability and profitability.

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

There are several things that I do as part of my job that are extremely rewarding to me personally. However, I can’t reveal these due to confidentiality. But some of the work that I did has helped few customers improve their existing processes. This was very special for me as it enabled further collaboration and opened doors to other customers.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

You are so much more capable than what you think you are or give credit for. 

Failures are always part of the process. So, don’t shy away from them. Instead learn from them. 

Always give your best to every situation. It’s not the situation who is in charge but you. 

Future Plans?

Rise in my career and become the CTO.