A true-blue engineer who could not fulfil his dream of completing his PhD in one of the engineering domains from the US, R Velusamy has come a long way from the early days of being part of Mahindra & Mahindra's hugely successful Scorpio project.
“I had a dream of doing my PhD after my two-year stint as a GET (graduate engineer trainee) at Mahindra & Mahindra (M&M), but I got inducted into the Scorpio project and couldn’t get out for the next five years!” remarked Velusamy. He has rightfully earned the role of being the Chief of Global Product Development (Automotive) at M&M, having scores of breakthrough models and engines including Mahindra’s highly revered ‘mHawk’ diesel family under his belt.
In an online freewheeling conversation with Renuka Kirpalani, executive editor, Video, Autocar India, Velusamy shared his knowledge and guidance for students and young engineering undergraduates wanting to make their career in the automotive industry.
Taking cognisance of the fast-paced world and the rate of change of technology, Velusamy said, “Not just change but ‘accelerating change’ is a constant in today’s world, driving work for people in R&D.”
He added that in the present day, innovation is all about the interplay of various engineering disciplines and not just one form of education. “We are moving from intra-disciplinary innovation to inter-disciplinary innovation.”
“While the concepts of physics, material science and mathematics will continue to form the core of one’s knowledge, some additional qualifications also need to be undertaken in the present scenario,” said Velusamy .
“Hybrid and electric vehicle technology is also an amalgamation of mechanical, digital and electronics and these are the new forms of understanding that one must acquire.”
“Today, there is a blur and fusion in various engineering disciplines. Also, one needs to follow their passion and work in teams to produce innovation,” he said.
However, Velusamy added that more than the technical skills, it is cognitive and social skills that are important in an engineering environment and are the prerequisites that are stressed upon for graduates applying to work at M&M.
“Integrity, honesty and the ability to work within teams are some of the qualities we look for in a candidate seeking a role at M&M. One’s social skills are more useful in motivating a team and to deliver products. More than IQ, it is the EQ that is much more powerful in a team play,” pointed out Velusamy.
He guided students by suggesting them to seek a role in R&D if they are more passionate about applying fundamentals of science to solve customer problems and delivering required products, while those having a passion for marketing and sales, should plan on doing an MBA after engineering and choose a leadership role and focus on that area.
“Inspired employees deliver 2.25 times than the satisfied employees.”
“One needs to have excellent relationships. If a person enjoys excellent relationships among teams, then the final product can be improved. People, cognitive and imaginative skills will be the enablers to one’s success in the industry,” he said.
EVs the way forward
With the world of automotive bringing in a whole new element of applied electronics into the field mostly considered a mechanical engineer’s domain, Velusamy said that, “Machine learning and deep learning will be the differentiating technologies of the future, while the core of mechanical and material science will always form the foundation.”
“Rapidly increasing cognitive and logical power of chips will redefine automobiles and turn them into intelligent devices, those which will be able to talk to their users in real time,” he added.
However, with the coronavirus pandemic, Velusamy believes that the speed of arrivals of EVs would be dampened by a bit. “EVs will certainly come, but how fast, is still questionable,” he said.
While vehicles designed to function as pure EVs will be first adopted in the fleet for their better utilisation and RoI, platforms supporting multiple powertrains including EVs and ICE will be used in cases where up to 85 percent of the vehicle’s volumes are expected to still come from ICE.
“The born-electric platforms will first arrive in the fleet. Having said that, we would only go ahead and develop a modular platform supporting multiple powertrains when the bulk of the ICE volumes can offset the development cost of an electric module powering it,” he said.
With the coronavirus crisis giving a major setback to the automotive industry which works in a highly intertwined fashion of multi-geography supply chain, Velusamy said that going forward the localisation efforts will double or triple.
“We have seen the effects of the shutdown leading in to cascading impacts on supply chains and development of various new programmes. It is a chain of events that starts with one place and end at another. Companies will try and restrict their critical activities that determine the flow of work to the local geography for where the product is meant for,” said M&M's Chief of Global Product Development.
As regards India rising up to seize the opportunity to be able to develop new technologies and be self-reliant in domains such as vehicle electronics, Velusamy said, “The tipping point in India has arrived in terms of connected car technology with many start-ups in Bangalore and Pune already having developed a lot of these modern-day systems. IIT Delhi, for instance, has developed new connected car systems.”
“We have talent who are willing to be entrepreneurs. We now just need to pick up the scale.”
BS VI an accomplished challenge
With the Indian automotive industry being tasked to do the unthinkable, the engineer fraternity is the one to be lauded for their diligent efforts over the last three years. On April 1 this year, India switched over to cleaner BS VI emission norms in betterment of the environment, and powertrain engineers, especially, had a tough task at hand to leapfrog an entire generation from BS IV in a record three-year timeframe.
While many OEMs including India’s largest carmaker Maruti Suzuki have so far pulled out from the diesel engine segment as the cost to upgrade diesels to BS VI is understood to be a costly affair, M&M, on the other hand, which has a fairly elaborative diesel engine portfolio, has stuck to offer what its customers demand.
“We have migrated to BS VI which is a very clean technology with RDE being regulated by the government. People stick to diesel to conserve the energy and get more fuel efficiency. Diesel engines are already 25 percent more efficient than gasoline. If we are able to provide affordable diesel technology to customers, we will continue to do that,” said Velusamy.
“It was the biggest challenge. The powertrain team at M&M didn’t have weekends or family events for the last two years. We had to shift 11 powertrains to BS VI and the government inspired us to move into the direction of sustainability. The Indian automotive industry responded to the government’s call and we really did make it happen.”
Now, as the entire world struggles to find semblance to resume life in a post-Covid scenario, engineering, product development and manufacturing inside automobile companies is going to see a massive change as well.
“Post-Covid is going to change everything and it will be like a shift from silicon-based computing to quantum-based computing. It will be an unparalleled change,” signed off Velusamy.