To make the entire business value chain carbon free is the biggest challenge that we all face. Though we are still very far from reaching our goal, every step in reducing the overall carbon footprint is a step in the right direction.
Saket Mohan, our next pathbreaker, Senior R&D engineer at Daimler Trucks Asia (Japan), is responsible for development of EV charging systems, on-board charging components and charging interfaces as per different standards across the globe.
Saket talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his work on wind turbines and power grids which strengthened his desire to pursue a career in clean energy technologies based on power electronics.
For students, develop a research oriented mindset, because the solutions to our environmental challenges are not going to be straight forward !
Saket, can you tell us about your background?
I was born in Patna, Bihar. Just before my birth, my father had completed his PhD from IISC Bangalore, Karnataka and got a job in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh. My father was living alone in Hyderabad for about three to four months after which my mother and I joined him there. We lived in Hyderabad for six years after which my father got a job in Jamshedpur (then Bihar, now Jharkhand). After staying in Jamshedpur for five more years, my father got another job in Bangalore. My parents have since then settled down there.
I lived in different parts of the country and attended at least seven schools. I was an average student (in terms of grades) and opted for science as my major subject. I had a keen interest in geography, arts and craft, physics and sports throughout my school days. I was also particularly interested in computer science (after 8th standard).
I did not explicitly want to become an engineer later in life. However, my interests during school definitely helped me in pursuing an engineering career.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
I did my Bachelors in Engineering (Electrical & Electronics) and Post-graduation in Masters in Technology (Power & Energy Systems)
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?
My father was the main driver. He himself is an engineer. So, he was a major influence on my choice of specialization. Moreover, I was lucky to have had two very good physics teachers during my high school (8th to 10th standard) who sparked my interest considerably.
I completed my bachelor and master’s degree back to back. I did not have much say in my bachelor’s subject/course, as it was largely dependent on my rank in entrance exams. If I had to choose, I’d have chosen computer science (CS). However, I finally ended up getting Electrical and Electronics (EEE). I later realized that a substantial knowledge of CS is required in EEE as well. In retrospect, I’m quite happy that I was able to study EEE. For my master’s degree, I had three options to choose from. I finally decided on Power & Energy systems (Mechatronics and Communication Engineering & Networks were my other options) as it felt the most interesting to me out of the three options.
How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Tell us about your career path
I had three internships during my bachelor/ master’s program. The first was at Silvan Innovations Lab (during bachelors) where I worked with two other classmates on designing and developing a printed circuit board (PCB) for a universal remote. Second internship was at a bigger company (Universal Electronics) where the project was an extension of what I did at Silvan. This was for my final year B.Tech project. The third internship (during masters) was at MOOG electronics where I worked on simulation models of electronic circuits.
Towards the second half of my master’s program, I got interested in collecting vinyl records of my favorite music. As you can imagine, playback of records needs specialized equipment. You need a record player (also known as turntable), phono amplifier (to amplify the millivolt output from the turntable to line level output needed for the main amplifier), main amplifier, and speaker. Whatever spare time I got, I used that to do a good amount of research on the equipment I would need to play records. I joined a few relevant online audio forums where I could interact with people having the same interests.
In my quest for purchasing my first set of equipment, I realized that many struggled with the second stage of the chain: phono amplifier. This was mainly because even entry-level phono amplifiers were quite expensive. This could get very challenging for someone new into the hobby with a limited budget. So, I tried to do some research online about the possibility of making a phono amplifier from scratch using locally available electronic parts. Fortunately, I found a good number of audio forums where people were discussing about this same problem. I got hold of a few circuit designs for the phono amplifier and started to build it at home. After building it successfully, I got in touch with a few friends and forum members (that I’d discovered over this entire journey) about this phono amplifier that I had built. A good number of people expressed interest. So, with a bit of rudimentary planning, I built and sold about 40-45 phono amplifier units. I stopped this in late 2014, as I was unable to dedicate a good chunk of time for this anymore.
My first job (after my master’s degree) was as a post-graduate trainee in L&T Technology Services (TS). This was a service-based work environment where engineers would be assigned to projects (depending on their skill set). My first project was for a client called Vestas Wind Systems.
I joined Vestas when one of their projects (which I was a part of) was almost about to end. I had three main roles: a) identify and solve software issues occurring at sites where the wind turbines were already installed, b) improve efficiency of microprocessor within the wind turbine, and c) software improvements of an already implemented de-icing feature (de-icing is a process of melting ice from blades of wind turbine in very cold areas).
After working at L&T TS for about a year, I got an opportunity to work at ABB Global India Services and Pvt. Ltd., Chennai. The main motivation for moving to ABB was because the job description was very similar to the courses I studied during my master’s program. Here, I was able to learn and hone very specific skills in the field of power electronics and energy systems, with which I was able to execute multiple projects. The projects were to develop products that would be installed at substations in order to improve efficiency of existing power transmission lines by 20-40%, and to greatly improve stability of power grids where multiple energy sources (for e.g. wind, solar, tidal, thermal, etc.) would be integrated.
Two years ago, there was a job requirement in the R & D department of Daimler Trucks Asia, Japan. The job description was to develop on-board charging systems for electric vehicles. I applied for it, and got the job. This has easily been the most challenging job of my career so far. The R&D department for electric vehicle development in this company started very recently (and thereby it’s a very small team). The responsibilities per person are extremely large. It’s as good as a startup organization (though this organization was formed almost 90 years ago, they’ve only had experience with conventional trucks). The learning curve that I’ve had by working here has been really exponential.
How did you get your first break?
My first job at L&T Technology Services was not through campus placements. I was searching for a job via Naukri.com and the company’s recruitment team contacted me.
My first break outside India was with Daimler Trucks, Asia in Japan. I was looking for a job in Japan (as at that time, my wife already had a job in Japan). During my job search, I came across an open position at the career portal of Daimler Trucks, Asia. It was not exactly the same job description as my role at ABB, Chennai. However, the fundamentals needed for the role were pretty much the same (power electronics converters, simulation models, etc.). Of course, the applications were very different. At ABB, it was application of power electronic converters (PECs) in power transmission systems. At Daimler Trucks, it was application of PECs in EV charging systems. That was also one of the reasons for me being selected in the technical interview. I did not have prior experience with EV charging systems, but I had a good understanding of the fundamentals from my previous job. Once I cleared the technical interview, the visa process and other formalities were quite smooth (luckily, the visa process in Japan is straightforward and inexpensive for employers).
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
Challenge 1: Getting used to a start-up-like environment. My previous job role in ABB was well defined where I had clear direction and daily/weekly tasks. For e.g., a project is currently in state A and the end goal is G. In my previous job role, the how/when/why/what of intermediate stages B, C, D, E, F were clearly defined (simply because those projects were being executed for many years). However in my current role (because of the small team size and large workload), stages B, C, D, E, F are very loosely defined. The only things clear/certain are A and G. Therefore, there has to be a lot of self-initiative to understand, define and create a roadmap for each of those stages. This was probably the biggest challenge for me. It took me a few months to get used to this change.
Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?
I work at Daimler Trucks Asia, Japan.
The main ‘problem statement’ of my role is to come up with a technical solution for the charging system in electric trucks for different applications which is efficient in terms of cost, energy and most importantly; something that can reduce the overall carbon footprint. It starts with research of the charging system concept/topology, followed by design of the charging system (which includes mechanical, thermal & software design). Testing and validation of the entire charging system is the next part of the role.
What skills are needed for your role? How did you acquire the skills?
Design of a charging system basically requires electrical and mechanical engineering skills. I had to pick up mechanical engineering skills with the help of colleagues, but I was well equipped with electrical engineering skills due to the courses in my bachelors/masters. Testing and validation requires knowledge of computer programming and simulations. My bachelors/masters courses again helped me considerably here. However, it definitely wasn’t enough to make me an expert, which comes from experience with real time projects. Moreover, as these are new/upcoming areas of development in the industry, a lot of research has to be done by staying up to date with current industry standards to make sure that the design is state-of-the-art. Having gone through a master’s program definitely helps with developing a research-oriented mindset. And of course, project management skills are needed, as a lot of collaboration is needed with colleagues from different departments (battery, electric motor, etc.). As I don’t have any business management background, I had to learn these skills on the fly.
What’s a typical day like?
It’s hard to say that there’s a ‘typical day’. It’s one of the things I like about my job. It depends a lot on the entries in my daily planner. In general, I check my emails to begin with and then immediately focus on the highest priority items. The number of highest priority items depends heavily on the stage of project. I prefer to focus on technical work early in the morning as I find myself most efficient then. I try to spend an hour after lunch reading something new to improve my skills. The second half of the day is reserved for detailed discussions/collaboration with other teams.
What is it you love about this job?
As I mentioned in earlier, the fact that every day is a new challenge, is one of the best things about my role. There is no ‘typical day’. In addition, I’m part of a very new and small team. Therefore, there’s a lot more responsibility per person as compared to a larger team. That increases the scope for learning new technologies, improving processes and project execution. It has also given me a lot more perspective and understanding of how a complete project and business is executed. Another thing that I really like about my job is the fact that I’m able to contribute (however big or small) in reducing the carbon footprint. Of course, we’re still quite far away from reaching absolute zero emissions, but it’s a step in the right direction.
How does your work benefit society?
As I mentioned earlier, one of the main problems that I need to solve is to offer a solution that can reduce the overall carbon footprint. We’re of course still very far from reaching our goal, but it’s a step in the right direction. For e.g. coming up with just an electric vehicle is not going to reduce carbon emissions to zero. The factories that produce each and every semiconductor, battery cell, electric motor, relay, etc. need to run on carbon free sources of energy. To make the entire chain carbon free is the biggest challenge that we all face; but it’s not impossible. Coming up with the best charging system for an electric vehicle is one part of the puzzle. Every new technological advancement/improvement in my field will help in reaching this goal. This benefit to society is a big source of motivation, which fuels my drive to keep doing what I do.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
I had the opportunity to present a seminar to Electrical Engineering students from two colleges in my previous roles. It ended up being a very interactive seminar with a lot of fruitful discussions, which would hopefully spark students’ interest in the field. Another very memorable milestone in my career took place very recently, when I successfully developed a state-of-the-art charging system for an electric vehicle project. This electric vehicle is set for market launch in early 2023.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Question everything. I mean literally, everything. Question things that you don’t understand; things that everyone takes for granted. Without asking the right questions, it’s really hard to understand the problems, and thereby also hard to come up with the right solutions. This is the only way to make progress; not just in science & technology, but also as a society.
A second piece of advice would be to prioritize developing one’s skills over making money early on in one’s career (for the first 5-7 years). For example, if you’ve recently kick-started your career, it wouldn’t be wise to turn down an offer in a new green/upcoming field just because the salary is lower than your peers. If you’re able to develop a certain skill set over a period of time and attain mastery, it would always have high demand (and thereby, would attract appropriate compensation).
Final piece of advice: always value/appreciate feedback. A lot of times, we tend to dismiss critical feedback either because of the apparent negative tone of the person giving feedback, or perhaps we just don’t like the person giving us feedback. Irrespective of either case, feedback in a professional environment should always be taken in good spirit. Receiving feedback is one of the best and quickest ways to improve oneself. So, if you ever receive feedback (good or bad); take it as an opportunity to discover things about yourself that can be improved.
To keep learning as much as I can to make this world a better place for future generations. I am more inclined towards technical roles rather than management ones. I would like to work on certifications, and be part of technical memberships/committees. This way I could use my skills to make important decisions that could shape future technologies.