Iron Ore is the most essential mineral for the development and progress of our world. It is a necessity for everything from buildings, to cars to phones to cutleries and more !

Pranab Pai, our next pathbreaker, Rolling Stock Specialist SME at BHP, a Metals and Mining company based in Perth (Australia), develops long term strategies for BHP’s rail network that focuses on overall growth of the business by improving tonnage, reducing downtime and increasing efficiency.

Pranab talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his experiences on-the-field, looking at huge machinery and massive 4500 HP locomotives that pull 200 ore cars with 100 tonnes of iron ore in each car.

For students, the mining industry is full of opportunities because the world of rail is looking forward to replacing diesel locomotives with battery based electric locomotives, and you can play a part in this transition which will go a long way !

Pranab, can you tell us about your background?

Growing up in Chikmagalur, a small town in Karnataka, I was blessed to grow up in a very social surroundings and a well-knit community that always cared. My thought process, ambitions and aspirations were partly influenced by people around me who gave me space to dream and plan my own path. 

My father is a 3rd generation planter and mom a homemaker. Our family has been in the farming business for more than a century.

Technical skills are important to be a good engineer, but you can never grow if you don’t have skills outside of your technical knowledge.

Although my parents do not have a professional engineering degree, I believe that absorbing some of their skillset has helped me massively in my profession. That is why I am a firm believer that all parents are ‘engineers without degrees.’ My father’s leadership skills, communication skills, and problem solving skills, and my mother’s managerial skills, critical thinking, empathy skills combined with organizational/decision making skills have involuntarily helped me shape my career. Prior to starting out my journey outside the country, I didn’t specifically know what career I wanted to get into. All I knew was that I was prepared to embrace the uncertainties, to relish in uncomfortable circumstances, to put myself out of my comfort zone and to fight the unknown. 

Once in Australia, all these, combined with ambitious goals made it inevitable that I found myself starting out in a career in Australia’s biggest industry (Iron ore mining) for the world’s biggest iron ore producers, working on some of the world’s biggest and longest heavy haul railway as a Rolling Stock specialist.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I did my bachelor’s in mechanical engineering and Master’s of Professional Mechanical Engineering from the University of Western Australia in Perth

What were some of the influences that made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career in mining?

When you are choosing a career, It is very important to identify the market and the economy, to study the future of the industry and do extensive research. Passion is one thing, but choosing the right career is another. If these 2 actually blend into one answer, that’s a perfect combination. I am glad that the answer to both my quests turned out to be the same. Once I learnt about the heavy haul industry in mining, I just knew this is where I want to learn, earn and grow.

It is a quite common industry in Australia where mining is predominant. Although there is a specific mining engineering degree course that one can do, mining, at the end of the day is an extremely vast business. There are thousands of subdivisions within a mining company, from engineers, to geologists, to environmentalists, data scientists, IT teams, marketing teams, auditors, legal advisors to even cultural team, public and media relations, supply chain, healthcare and many more. When I started, it wasn’t a complete change of field. I still needed a mechanical engineering background to understand the concepts and to apply that knowledge to my work. It’s a mix of people from different technical backgrounds working as a team and that is very important. You will normally find an electrical engineer, mechanical engineer, planner, schedulers, safety reps, technicians etc. working in one team, bringing in different skillsets to achieve a common goal. So its not all that different. However, understanding the business and having knowledge of the field is important, this could be either rail, port, fixed plant, mobile equipment etc. most of which is not normally covered in universities. This knowledge is gained over time while working on the job.

It is very important to meet the right people and attend the right events. I define luck as a point where opportunity meets hard work, and I was lucky to get my first break in the industry as a Rail Maintenance Engineer at RioTinto when I met Mr John McArthur. That first meeting with John is where my years of hardwork met with opportunity.

John has been the most influential person in my career and he laid the foundation for me to establish myself in the industry. I still remember the words he said when he offered me my first job – ‘It  always feels great to bring joy into someone’s life’. John nurtured me and allowed me to express myself and be successful in the role. It takes outstanding leadership skills to trust someone new in an extremely high-risk job. I think that trust from my leader is what put the pressure on me to deliver good results and excel in my work. 

My university thesis on ‘Virtual Work integrated Learning’ was a major turning point that helped me meet Dr Sally Male under whose supervision I conducted the thesis for a year. 

Here is the abstract of my research on Virtual Work Integrated Learning – abstract attached below

This research was supported by various universities as well as the Govt, and played a vital role in my development. Sally was a professor who I looked up to when I was in the university. In fact, after graduating, it was under her that I landed my first professional job which was that of a ‘teaching staff’ at the University of Western Australia. Teaching undergraduate students was personally a very refreshing experience mainly because communicating with fresh minds of the students helped me learn. 

In fact, it was Dr Male who gave me the leads that connected me with the Principal of Rail at RioTinto, John McArthur.

Over the years, I have attended plenty of events and met plenty of people. Networking is the biggest foundation on which a career can be built. One event I particularly remember is the first ever event that I attended in Australia. This was in the 2nd week of me being in the country. As a new student in a new country, with a lot of uncertainty and anxiety, I dared myself to attend a symposium at the university sponsored by RioTinto which happened to be organized by Dr Sally Male. Life did complete a circle when 2 years later, my thesis was under Dr Sally Male and because of whose recommendation, I landed an interview with RioTinto’s John McArthur.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Tell us about your career path

Initially, I was a Teaching Staff at UWA where I facilitated the unit, “Introduction to Professional Engineering- in order to guide students who had just entered the world of engineering (bachelor’s degree). I taught various project management concepts and facilitated problem solving, critical thinking and decision making around various hypothetical projects that simulate real life industry problems

I took on my next role as Rail Maintenance Engineer at RioTinto. It was a FIFO role. Fly-in fly-out is a method of employing people in remote areas by flying them temporarily to the work site instead of relocating employees and their families permanently.

I did not have any prior experience in Rail when I started out with RioTinto. It was because of a great vision that John had for me, that he recognized something in me that I, myself couldn’t. Once I was in, I knew this is where I wanted to be. Rail is such a broad subject that it allows me to broaden my experience and keep exploring the unknown within the same industry.

Networking is highly underrated, and it works wonders. 

So I used to fly to the mining site every Monday and then back every Thursday. Day starts at 4:30AM and work 12 hours a day every day in Pilbara environment (harsh dry and super humid weather conditions)

I was involved in investigating the weekly losses and delays on the network, planning and scheduling maintenance activities on the rolling stock to ensure reliable operations, implement tactics to counter train separation events, take the lead in managing the performance of instrumented ore cars and lead various rail projects by engaging with external vendors.

Next, I joined BHP as a Rolling Stock Specialist SME where I develop and implement strategies that add value to the overall growth of the business. I look at long term strategic improvement opportunities and overall optimization of the BHP rail network

How did you get your first break?

I got my first break at RioTinto after I met John McArthur in 2018 who trusted me with the job of a Rail Maintenance Engineer for RioTinto’s Rolling Stock Maintenance Department.

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

Challenge 1: 

It is always a challenge when you are in a new country amidst new culture. The trick is to be open to changes and adapt quickly. Accept the new way of life, make positive adjustments to your lifestyle. Adaptability helps your perceptions and caters to more forward thinking.

Challenge 2: 

Most graduates from my batch went through an entry level graduate program. In my case, at the start of my professional career, I found myself in a high-risk role dealing with real time operations with chances of delays and potential catastrophic failures. The job came with a lot of responsibility and accountability. I feel that finding myself in this role helped me a lot. It helped me gain as much knowledge as I could. The approach is to find experienced people in the industry and reach out to them. Seek mentors. Ask as many questions as you can. There is no such thing as a stupid question when you’re starting out. Don’t hesitate to be vulnerable and express your discomfort. People understand that you’re new. You can ask stupid questions only until a certain time. Once you gain experience, you lose this liberty. Also, read as much as you can. Read research papers, standards, previous works anything and everything related to your work field

Challenge 3

FIFO is a challenge some people enjoy and some don’t. I enjoyed the challenges that came with it. I embraced it with open arms and cherished my time doing FIFO (Fly-in Fly-out). It’s not easy catching 2 flights every week, working 12 hour shifts and staying thousands of kilometers away from home while you work. The hot and humid weather adds to it. (temps can get up to 50 deg C). Being open to this change helps a lot. I developed a very disciplined routine because of it. I got used to waking up early. I started enjoying the lifestyle that came with it.

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

I work for BHP as a Rolling Stock Specialist SME.

The role is very broad and covers a lot of aspects of Rail, but in summary, I come up with initiatives that look at overall value add to the business. I develop long term strategies and implement them on BHP’s rail network by looking at overall growth of the business in terms of improving tonnage, reducing downtime and increasing efficiency 

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

I have already mentioned a lot of soft skills that an engineer should possess. Other than that, my role relies a lot on ‘on the job learning’.

Generally, skills on reliability analysis, conducting RCA, FMECA and knowledge of maintenance standards (ISO55000) always come in handy. Knowledge around understanding the general railways are specific to the job, but very important. Material degradation and defect elimination knowledge can be very handy. I feel the most important role is project management. You need to be able to run huge projects and it comes down to your managerial skills.

What’s a typical day like?

When I work from office –

My workday cannot start without coffee. Once the coffee goes in, the skills come out. A typical day in the office always starts with creating a to-do list for the day. Engaging and communicating with the maintainers is very important as they are the ones who work on the ground. The day revolves around running to multiple meetings, engaging with various external and internal stakeholders, running to more meetings, and looking at what’s going right, as well as what’s going wrong, and focusing on the wrong. I also work on scoping up new projects, and making changes to existing projects. An important aspect of my role also involves analyzing datasets , identifying shortcomings and developing strategies to overcome these shortcomings.

When on-the-mine site –

This is all about hands-on work, and looking at huge machinery and massive 4500 HP locomotives that pull 200 ore cars with 100 tonnes of iron ore in each car. I get to work on things hands-on, see things and understand the work, the challenges, the projects and get a better perception of what happens on the ground. I also get to engage with people who work on the floor in workshops, talk to train drivers and maintainers, workshop supervisors and yard supervisors to understand their pain points and identify how I can help them by adding value to their work. 12 hours feel so less when you are onsite.

What is it you love about this job? 

No two days are the same. I love how everything keeps changing in this ever changing world. The fact that the role is not routine based makes it even more interesting. People who have been in the industry for more than 20 years have told me they see issues and experience things for the first time even now. Also, with so much technology that is being brought into the rail world, the opportunity to get involved in various things always pop up.

I also love how it gives me an opportunity to engage with so many different rail companies, talk to vendors, look at their products/technologies and pick their brains on how it can contribute to the growth of the industry.

How does your work benefit society? 

Iron Ore is the most essential mineral for the development and progress of our world. It is a necessity. From buildings to cars to phones to cutleries and more, everything needs Iron ore. RioTinto and BHP together produce more than 620 million tonnes of Iron ore per annum from Pilbara. This accounts for more than 50% of world’s Iron ore production. The rail network is the most efficient way to transport the ore from the mine to the port. A small mistake or a minor error can cause losses up to millions of dollars in revenue. A heavy haul train carries around 30 to 35000 tonnes of Iron ore. A delay means that dumping at the port gets delayed. 

Making sure the business hits the KPI target for tonnage by ensuring the ore goes from the mine to the port on time without delays or failures is very important to the process. The world relies on iron ore for industrialization, for progress, for making life easier and better. Imagine a world without steel in it. 

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

I worked on instrumented ore cars, a new technology that many were not used to. I took it up as a challenge to look at them and in a year we went up from just 6 working instrumented ore cars to a record 26 operational and capable instrumented cars. These cars are crucial to the network as they monitor and report on the health of the track. They provide data on acceleration, track geometry defects, the roll rate, bogie spring deflection and other issues on the track. The software then puts a speed restriction on the trains and alerts the teams on the location of the  issue on the track which then gets attended to.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

A few pointers on the approach and thought process

  • Attend as many professional events as possible
  • Make as many industry connections as you can
  • Never hesitate to ask questions
  • Don’t underestimate yourself. Be more ambitious than you are
  • Careers do not work on online applications. You are a product. Go out, meet the right people and sell yourself
  • Maintain connections with other professionals. Never lose a connection that you value
  • Be receptive to feedback and keep introspecting on how you can be better

Always be ambitious and never underestimate yourselves

Academics only plays a small part in your career. What you do outside of it defines your success in your career. 

Put yourself out of your comfort zones and challenge yourselves with how much you can achieve

NETWORK – you never know where an opportunity pops up

Don’t stress if you don’t know what you want to do, be open to opportunities and embrace the uncertainties

Future Plans?

I am excited and looking forward to working on some of the decarbonization projects. Being on this journey is my goal. Net zero emission is the talk of the world today. It is a concern that businesses and governments are attending to today. It’s not the future anymore, it is the present.  In my role, I have the opportunity to be on this journey and play my role in contributing towards bringing this change. The world of rail is looking forward to replacing diesel locomotives with battery based electric locomotives, and I am passionate to play a part in this transition which will go a long way.