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Indian industries need ‘Science-enabled-technology’ solutions for global competitiveness

We are honored to present a short interview with Prof. Ramesh Singh, one of our eminent professors in the Mechanical Engineering Department of IIT Bombay. He was awarded the Swarnajayanti Fellowship in Engineering Sciences, DST, 2014-15, and is an Associate Editor of IISE Transactions and a member of the Editorial Board of Nature Scientific Reports, JMST Advances, and International Journal of Precision Technology. His research interests include High-speed micromachining, Flexible reconfigurable fiber laser-based materials processing, Novel finishing techniques and functional characterization of precision finished surfaces, and Finite Element modeling.

Your research ranges from high-speed micromachining, fiber laser-based materials processing, and novel finishing techniques to finite element modeling. Can you tell us a bit more on these topics, and briefly describe your work?

My main research areas are micromachining, flexible reconfigurable fiber laser manufacturing, and systems integration and product development.

Micro/meso scale machining is one of my core areas of research. The main challenge that is continued to be faced by the manufacturing community is scaling down the conventional processes and evolving newer ones. The existing micromachining technologies, such as lithography, are primarily used for silicon and have inherent limitations in creating complex features in different engineering materials.

Commercial High-speed Micromachining Centers developed at IIT Bombay, mold for microneedles and textured surface

In comparison, macroscale machining processes can create free-form features in a wide range of materials. However, scaling down the macro-processes to microscale is not trivial and poses significant challenges due to the limited flexural stiffness of microtools which can be overcome by high spindle speeds. The very first high-speed micromachining center in India has been scientifically designed and developed in my lab. The micromachining technologies have been commercialized via the start-up, Micromach Innovations, co-founded by my PhD students and me, and are being used by institutions/organizations.

My other area of active research is flexible reconfigurable fiber laser-based manufacturing. The critical aerospace, engine, and manufacturing components subjected to cyclic thermo-mechanical loading undergo localized damage and wear. These components are extremely expensive, and there is no suitable method for restoration. My lab has done pioneering work in developing sustainable "science-enabled technology" for laser additive restoration of high-value components. Robotic and multi-axes restoration systems with autonomous damage detection mechanism have been developed indigenously by the bright graduate students working in my lab. This technology is being transferred to Bharat Forge and Aditya Birla Science and Technology (ABSTCL).

Robotic Restoration System for Molds

My students are developing cutting-edge flexible reconfigurable fiber laser-based platforms for directed energy deposition (DED), welding, cutting, and deep hole microdrilling via switching the fibers and processing heads. We are developing spinnerets via laser microdrilling for fiber extrusion in the textile industry for ABSTCL.

Our lab also has a very strong program in systems integration and product development to meet the needs of the Indian industry. A huge technology gap exists between Indian industry and their international counterparts, and one of the key activities of my lab is to engage with the Indian industries to bridge this gap by fostering industry-academia collaboration to strengthen the manufacturing ecosystem in India for Atmanirbhar Bharat. Some notable examples are nanosecond fiber laser-based autonomous vent cleaning system which has been deployed at CEAT's Halol plant to replace the traditional micro-drilling; indigenous development of spinnerets for Aditya Birla via deep-hole QCW laser micro-drilling; hydrodynamic nanopolishing for BARC; centering system for CEAT; micromachined optical codes for T-Rish Gems; and CPAP helmet-patient interface for COVID with Thermax.

Therefore, you can see we work in various emerging manufacturing technologies and systems development. The key distinguishing feature of our work is an emphasis on the translational aspect so that the scientific research carried out in the lab gets deployed in real-world applications.

You were awarded the Swarnajayanti Fellowship in Engineering Sciences, congratulations on that. How did you feel being awarded the accolade and did it boost your further research in any way?

Thank you! The Swarnajayanti fellowship was awarded for building a world-class research program in sustainable additive and subtractive micromanufacturing. Other than recognition, this award provides substantial and sustained funding for building a research program. The support for equipment and manpower has enabled me to develop state-of-art flexible reconfigurable fiber laser manufacturing facilities and support some extraordinary students who worked on different projects. The students worked on the scientific aspects of dynamic stability in high-speed micromachining and residual stress generation in additive manufacturing that got published in the leading journals in the field.

This support not only boosted the scientific and technological output of the project but will also enable us to have spin-off technologies, such as precision positioning stages and a high-speed motor, which are currently not available readily in the country but find widespread applications in various fields.

Were you always interested in mechanical engineering from your school days? What inspired you to build your career in this field?

Yes. My father is also a Mechanical Engineer. My father worked in a Power House, and all the neighbours were either Mechanical or Electrical Engineers. Growing up, all the discussions of my father and his colleagues that I overheard were about boilers, draft fans, bowl mills, turbines, and electrical ancillaries. This caught my fascination, and eventually, I ended up being a Mechanical Engineer.

What are you working on currently? Is there any dream project that you wish to do in the future?

One of the exciting things I am currently working on is the development of a fully automated robotic restoration system for repairing high-value dies/molds and aerospace components. This is a fascinating concept wherein a defective component will be placed in the machine, and a fully restored product will be obtained, ideally, without any human intervention. This system comprises autonomous damage detection via a laser scanner, material deposition, finishing, and inspection. There will be four different docking stations, and the robotic arm will sequentially retrieve the heads and carry out the necessary process. At present, we have installed damage detection hardware on the robot and developed the algorithms for damage scanning and detection of defect geometry. We also have the deposition head on a 6-axis robot to create complex 3-D features. The other modules are in the works. Other than restoration, this system could also function as a metallic 3-D printer which in theory can replicate any existing physical part automatically.

Robotic laser scanner

Going forward, we would like to collaborate extensively with industries. We want to provide "science-enabled-technology" solutions for various challenging applications to enhance the global competitiveness of the Indian Industry. We hope to usher in a new paradigm that we have termed "Lab-to-Shopfloor" for developing industry-ready technology solutions (both special purpose machines and processes) based on the knowledge obtained from research in the lab. These technologies will be either licensed or commercialized via our start-up Micromach Innovations.

Would you like to share any challenging moments in your research journey and how you overcame them? Did the recent covid lockdown also adversely affect your work?

Yes, there are indeed challenging moments in any researcher's journey.  I have been blessed to work with some wonderful graduate students at IIT Bombay, and the technical challenges were not that difficult to surmount. However, developing world-class research facilities was challenging, as some of the high-end machines and equipment are under strict export controls. On one occasion, we did not receive a high-power laser for over ten months even after issuing the purchase order, as the German Export Agency did not give the vendor export clearance to sell it to IIT Bombay. I had to contact the head of their global operations in the US, explaining the situation, and transfer the order to their US operations. Thanks to the unflinching support of IIT Bombay, we were able to get that laser in our lab. This experience taught me that we need focused efforts in our country to work on systems integration and product development to develop these high-end equipment and machines indigenously.

The COVID lockdown did slow the pace of our usual research work, but we worked on the development continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) helmet patient interface for treating COVID-induced hypoxia. This entire work was done in collaboration with Thermax, and since everything was closed, we had to accomplish this project with minimal resources. This gave me an opportunity to learn things from scratch and work with my hands, as I did when I was a fresh graduate student. I worked with some of my colleagues and a few students who were on campus, and it was a very fulfilling experience.

From your Ph.D. at Georgia Tech to your M.S. at Tufts and B.E. at BITS, you would have had the opportunity to work with great professors. Is there anyone you consider your mentor and who has influenced you as a person and a professor?

The teachers are the biggest influence on students. I have been fortunate to be taught by some great teachers right from my undergraduate to my Ph.D. I would like to put on record my appreciation for my Master's advisor at Tufts, Prof. Anil Saigal, who introduced me to the freedom a graduate student enjoys to explore the research project assigned to him/her. His words "go figure out" have been my guiding principle. Finally, when I joined the Ph. D. program at Georgia Tech, I was exposed to a very rigorous program. My Ph.D. advisor Prof. Shreyes Melkote gave me the irrefutable mantra of "academic rigor." Our meetings would last for hours discussing things in their minutest details. His meetings started with the words "convince me" and my every assumption, formulation, and solution were subjected to strict scrutiny. This instilled in me the value of rigor and attention to detail. Some of the course projects I did were as challenging as the graduate thesis work. In one of the projects, I remember that Professor Green told me, "The solution technique which you have used is over 25 years old; what's new in it?" So, I learned that creating new knowledge is not limited to a dissertation or thesis but can come out of course projects, design projects, and independent studies. Based on these learnings, as a teacher, I motivate the students that even in a small course project, there has to be an attempt to create new knowledge by pushing the limits of your thinking and analysis.

In addition to the teachers and mentors, there was a lot of peer learning, especially in my Ph.D. program. I was surrounded by some of the smartest folks I have ever met, and any problem we discussed invariably brought out some great suggestions.

What are the new upcoming research areas in the field of high speed micromachining and/or Novel finishing techniques and functional characterization of precision of finished surfaces?

One of the new things that will revolutionize manufacturing will be the introduction of Smart Machines which will employ sensors and be part of a network. The decisions will be taken real-time based on sensor data using Artificial Intelligence. A machine will be a cyber-physical system. They can be monitored and controlled remotely and can relay the data of real-time operations being carried out. In micromachining specifically, one of the key challenges is avoiding vibration or chatter. The future machines which we plan will have sensors mounted on the machine to measure the tool displacements. The tool displacement data will be used to predict chatter onset, and the controller will change the process parameter to avoid chatter. This is expected to be accomplished in real-time without any operator intervention. In a nutshell, the future machines will incorporate a controller response based on the data processed from the sensors using AI/ML algorithms.

You have a large number of publications and have written plenty of research papers. Do you have memories of when your first research work was published, and how did you feel then? In addition to this, being in quite a few editorial boards, do you have any advice for students who are writing a research paper, to avoid some common mistakes?

The first journal paper was a good learning experience, but I have very fond memories of my first conference paper presentation. My Masters Advisor funded my trip to rural Italy, in a small town called Cesena, to present a paper. I met many folks, interacted with them, and the best food of my life.

Paper writing usually comes with experience, but I always feel that even before one starts to write the paper, she/he should have an outline ready as to how the information would flow. Often, the students have great results, but they do not highlight the key findings prominently, or the information is very cluttered. In addition to good data, models, and findings, it is essential to tell the right story and highlight the key findings very prominently. The students can let their peers, who may not be experts in that area, read the first draft of the paper to provide critical feedback.

Many students in the mechanical engineering field tend to pursue other non core activities instead, and this is the case even at IIT. Do you have any advice for students that may motivate them to take up fundamental research in the mechanical core domain?

Many students indeed pursue non-core activities that are primarily attributed to higher pay packages in non-core. I know for sure that many of our bright students still go to the core field, albeit not in India. Quite a few of our students are working in Tesla when they could probably have higher-paying jobs in finance, consulting, or software.

My opinion is that higher financial incentives in core companies will help a bit, but that alone may not be sufficient. We need to create technology-centric companies that foster students' passion by providing them an opportunity and freedom to explore cutting-edge research. Some of the core companies in India are doing great things, and I feel that they will be able to attract and sustain this talent in the time to come.

A Lot of students generally prefer foreign institutions over those in our country; any comments on that? Since you have studied in India and abroad, what stark differences did you feel in both countries?

This is a fact that given a choice, the students will choose a foreign institution. The main reasons I feel are perception and rankings, in that order. Our global rankings are improving, but usually, the US institutions dominate the rankings.

We also need to change the perception of our academic standing among our own students. In the past, there was a considerable gap in the research infrastructure in Indian and foreign institutions. However, over the past decade, we have invested heavily in building excellent research infrastructure, and we are as good, if not better than many foreign universities. I can say with pride that the manufacturing research facilities at IIT Bombay are genuinely world-class, but we need to communicate this to our students better to attract them.

The graduate schools in the US and other countries have a lot more academic flexibility and a very diverse intake in their programs. Folks from sciences routinely come to engineering departments. The students can petition for their minors by taking courses in an area of their choice. We are working towards it, and there has been significant improvement. I feel that in the next few years, we will see more changes happening.