‘Baja creates industry ready engineers like no other competition’: NATRAX Director Manish Jaiswal

The Indore-based test track facility, which is the largest proving ground in Asia, is also home to the SAE mini-Baja off roading student championship held every year since 2007.

By Mayank Dhingra calendar 07 Jul 2024 Views icon1874 Views Share - Share to Facebook Share to Twitter Share to LinkedIn Share to Whatsapp

The SAE MINI -Baja student off-road competition is highly respected in the Indian automotive industry. For over 15 years, it has been a breeding ground for budding engineers who go on to design, develop, and manufacture cutting edge products for two-, four-, or more-wheeled vehicles. The annual competition takes place at the National Automotive Test Tracks (NATRAX) facility in Pithampur, Indore. It draws engineering students from across the country who spend over a year meticulously designing, fabricating, testing, and proving their vehicles' capabilities, putting their classroom knowledge into practice. Manish Jaiswal, Director, NATRAX, explains how the state-of-the art facility has been promoting the incorporation of the right talent in the industry. Here are some excerpts:

What role has NATRAX played in the evolution of the SAE Baja competition in India over the years?
NATRAX, or National Automotive Test Tracks, is where Baja was born in 2007, around the same time when the NATRiP (National Automotive Testing and R&D Infrastructure Project) was being established. When the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) approached NATRAX to host the Baja student offroading competition, we gladly agreed.

NATRAX has hosted the SAE Baja student competition since 2007.

For the past 17 years, we've consistently hosted Baja, with the 2024 edition taking place this January. Therefore, NATRAX has been a key pillar of support to Baja by providing its land and other resources, and aiding the competition's evolution to become one of the most prestigious competitions in India for engineering students.

Baja has helped us groom hundreds of thousands of engineers across all three versions of the competition — Mechanical Baja, e-Baja, and Hydrogen Baja — which was introduced this year.

We've had the privilege of holding all formats of the event at our premises. Going forward, while the e-Baja will be organised at a different location, NATRAX will continue to host the mechanical and hydrogen Baja events at its facility, with autonomous Baja also being introduced in India in 2025.

What is your roadmap for Baja in a transforming industry landscape?
While the competition has evolved significantly over the last 17 years, our ambition is to take it even further. We've noticed that after Baja, many engineering students end up in jobs that don't fully utilise their passion or the hands-on skills that they've acquired during the competition. To address this, we want to develop an incubation centre for Baja participants, allowing them to pursue their passions and turn their ideas into reality by nurturing their start-ups.

With extensive hands-on experience, Baja creates industry-ready engineers over its year-long exercise that involves design, analysis, fabrication, testing, and validation of the offroad vehicle — thereby exposing students to the complete vehicle engineering lifecycle within a short period of 12 months. The industry finds this talent very attractive, and with the rapid transformation of the automotive ecosystem, Baja too must keep pace with the technological evolution. The final day of Baja sees a lot of action in terms of recruitment, with companies like Renault Nissan, ARAI, and several others being some of the prominent names to have conducted their recruitment drives at the 2024 edition of Baja. 

Therefore, Baja plays a key role in not just shaping talent, but also shaping the industry's leadership. We want budding talent to emerge as future leaders of the automotive industry in the country, and the competition can certainly facilitate that by providing an entire ecosystem.

How has the participation structure of Baja evolved, and is there a growing interest from female students?
Several renowned mechanical engineering colleges continue to take part in Baja every year, with around 50-60 teams participating in the 2024 edition at NATRAX. With the advent of various other similar competitions — Supra, Effi-Cycle, among others — students are also considering other avenues. However, despite the changing dynamics, Baja continues to play a pivotal role and sees participation from several key institutions like NITs and IITs, besides various engineering colleges. 

We've observed a significant increase in women's participation in recent years. Female students are now handling key aspects within Baja teams, which not only showcases their caliber and potential but also bodes well for the entire Indian automotive ecosystem. 

Modern automotive factories with their smart, IoT-enabled infrastructure are increasingly being led by women, and there are several examples they are managing entire production lines. This clearly indicates a huge opportunity for women's employment in the automotive industry, from technician-level to top management roles. Modern factories, with their hygienic and safe environments, are well-equipped to employ a women-centric workforce, empowering them to demonstrate their abilities and rise within the organisation. 

How is the industry leveraging NATRAX’s facilities and competencies? What is your vision for the establishment?
While NATRAX was initially conceptualised as a proving ground, over the years, we have also ventured into several laboratories; for instance, the EV lab which tests, validates, and certifies electric two- and threewheeler products. We have attracted several e-mobility start-ups, with more than 50 start-ups already leveraging NATRAX facilities for EV testing.

Similarly, battery testing, ADAS testing, powertrain and emissions testing, and a CAE lab are some of the other competencies that we intend to start offering soon. We will also be targeting several established OEMs for vehicular testing and certification at NATRAX. Eventually, we would like to expand our laboratories, and cater to a much larger ecosystem. While most OEMs have been using NATRAX facilities for track testing, we now want to establish a bigger footprint in lab testing. 

We have drawn up plans to set up an ADAS lab as well as virtual testing such as hardware-in-the-loop testing, and laboratories for tyre testing and certification. These are the immediate plans that NATRAX has for the near future, and we aim to achieve these targets in the next 12-24 months, based on clearance of funds from the government. Having said that, we have also outlined plans to make investments from our end, and are looking for partners from within the industry to support our plans. 

Therefore, NATRAX will have a lot more to offer in the coming years, be it to the industry or to the academia, in terms of letting them leverage the track- and lab-testing infrastructure available at the facility. We plan to evolve into a world-class provingground-cum-testing agency.

The Ministry of Heavy Industries, which is the driving force behind vehicular electrification in India, has also been supporting our growth plans. It sees immense potential in centres like NATRAX going forward, and that augurs well not just for government policies, but also for the entire automotive ecosystem in India. We are already getting significant requests for testing and certification, and NATRAX has tripled its revenues in the last year. Therefore, the possibilities are immense, and we are confident in our future growth potential.

This feature was first published in Autocar Professional's July 1, 2024 issue.

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