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Harsh Sheth is a 2nd year Undergraduate pursuing a B.Tech in Mechanical Engineering.
When I first joined Mech, an year after my association with IIT Bombay began, it was mainly because my CPI allowed me to move out of Civil to this branch, I had little to no interest in the field. My interest had mostly always lied in computers and all my clumsy hands were ever good for, was typing. My first sem after moving to this branch only made me resent Mech more. But somehow, a year after having been a part of this department, having spent day and night and class after class learning Mech courses, it was difficult not to develop some degree of interest in the core Mechanical fields. It still wasn’t enough to make me want to try for a university intern though, or even pursue a project under a professor. But after having no success in finding interns that matched with my interests (and not qualifying the interviews for the two interns that I did find somewhat interesting), I had more or less convinced myself I would be better off on my own, perhaps do a couple of online courses.
But then in came Professor Asim Tewari, arguably the most flamboyant professor in the Mechanical Engineering department. He had asked interested students looking to work under him for the summer to stay back after our Manufacturing Processes (his course) end-semester exam. I expected it to involve research in optimizing manufacturing processes or something along those lines, things I expected myself to suck at, so I wasn’t very enthusiastic about it myself, but I had friends who were interested, so I stayed back with them. Two things in his talk stood out for me though; first, he said it wasn’t going to be like one of the typical 9-5 interns, and second, he said it required coding skills.
So, turns out when Prof. Tewari wasn’t teaching us Manufacturing Processes, he also acted as the Professor-In-Charge of the National Centre for Aerospace Innovation and Research, or NCAIR, as most people would conveniently prefer to call it. NCAIR, according to websites, is an Industry-Academia-Government(of India) collaborative consortium, with an aim of providing technological support to its members with a vision to create a world class aerospace manufacturing ecosystem in India. Unknown to many, this centre has been in existence for three years or so now, with 5 labs inside the institute. The place employs dozens of people working as Project Assistants, Research Assistants, Group Managers and even has its own Administration staff. Most of these people report to the main office everyday, which is in the same building as the much-hated ED Drawing hall, a floor above it. The main office, as I was surprised to find, was a real office. Furnished with cabins for important people, a reception desk, a meeting room, and a pantry too, is this tiny space with a slightly corporate feel to it, that probably stands out in the middle of an institute otherwise filled with chaddi-clad, unruly Undergrads. Probably fascinatingly for some, NCAIR’s labs have some very cool state-of-the-art technology that they have managed to amass thanks to their associations and collaborations with big names in the manufacturing industries. Their biggest bragging point is the DMC 125 FD duoBLOCK 5 – axis Milling/Turning machine, the largest single machine in the institute, that resides in the Advanced Machining Excellence Cell (AMEC), located just behind the IDC building.
What Brought Me Here
So Prof Tewari’s talk had peaked my interest, I thought it could give me a chance to explore my interests in core Mech while allowing me to code side by side. When I checked the topics he put up for the available projects, the ones that involved working with Excel immediately caught my eye. Excel (or LibreOffice Calc ever since I came to insti) was a tool I had played around with a lot before and always enjoyed working with(I like numbers and stats, and spreadsheets help). So I applied for the IAF that opened, and one telephonic interview later (telephonic because the interview was scheduled for the day when I was supposed to be on my way to Ahmedabad from Mt. Abu, so I actually gave the interview outside a small highway restaurant en route), I was in. The interview largely involved Prof. Tewari enquiring about the different softwares and systems that I had worked with, and quite dishearteningly I hadn’t worked with most of the systems he mentioned, even so, thankfully he took me in. He later admitted he pretty much took everyone who applied, he didn’t want to break hearts.
The project, the work environment, and just all of it
Finally, what this blog really is all about. First, a few clarifications. Was this a project? Yes. But was it your typical everyday summer project? No. Unlike many projects, this one expected you to come to office on a daily basis, had timings (although flexible), and was paid, to my very pleasant surprise. Our first day at work started off with an introductory talk by the administration staff, who quickly briefed us about the centre, and the rules we were expected to follow, followed by a talk from our esteemed Prof. Tewari himself, and then an introduction to our respective managers. The first week’s plan had been chalked out scrupulously by the professor himself. It turns out all projects somehow involved working with Excel and VBA (Visual Basic Application), and we spent the first three days developing small applications to get well versed with the language and other tools involved. The deadlines for this activity were particularly imposing, and I thoroughly enjoyed taking on the challenge. After this, we were expected to read up on relevant texts and papers to get well acquainted with our respective topics. My topic, ballistic impact modeling of composite materials, is a fairly recent and upcoming topic, so my sources were usually recent research papers, largely from a recently retired Aerospace professor from the institute itself. Given that my manager himself was very new to the topic, our discussions often involved me explaining the papers to him instead of the other way round, which was pretty funny. Prof. Tewari, though, had a very crisp and clear idea of the deliverables that he expected from my work, and one talk with him would normally clear your head up and you will know what you have to do for the coming few weeks. It was an absolute pleasure to watch him work tirelessly through the day, week after week.
I may have mentioned reporting everyday and timings before, but for the interns, the rules were pretty lax. Coming in late or working from your rooms was not considered to be a problem. In general, the offices and labs opened up early in the morning (I wouldn’t know how early because I never made it there before 11), would stay open until late in the night, so you could drop in or leave any time of the day. For the especially enthusiastic people, they would also be open on weekends. The only rule was wherever you’re working from, it was expected that you should be available to your manager between 11 am – 5 pm on weekdays. People were free to wear whatever they found comfortable, which is a major plus point in the scorching summer heat, and also the whole place is air-conditioned, so it would be a great idea to not leave the office at all in May.
In conclusion, I would like to outline the takeaways that this summer endeavour has bestowed me with. First, this is the closest I have come to experiencing an office environment. It was a so-so experience in that respect, there wasn’t a lot of mixing between the interns and the other people in the office, but being part of a work culture (and the amusing monthly birthday celebrations) was fun nonetheless. Second, I got an exposure to research and academia. I learnt how to read research papers right! I have been terrified by research papers ever since I first stepped into insti, but having gone through so many now, I no longer find them as daunting as I used to before. My personal favourite, a 1958 paper part of a 5 paper series by this person Smith on stress wave velocities, unravelling the meanings and importances behind the blurry equations in those scanned pages was an absolute delight, as I found out over a well spent afternoon sitting together with my manager, munching on biscuits (often a replacement for lunch, they had an unlimited supply). Also, Prof. Tewari’s 4-point plan on how to read a research paper gives some real good insights on how this art is meant to be practiced. I learnt about how research projects work around here in the institute, something every student should maybe experience at least once before they leave, get that ‘engineering feel’. And third, I learnt more about my field. How much learning about stress waves or the various energy dissipation mechanisms involved when a projectile collides with a target material will help me in the future is a question left for time to answer, but this experience is definitely going to help me make a more informed decision about what I want to do with my future.