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Pursuing a Manufacturing Career and Managing Transition

Pursuing a Manufacturing Career and Managing Transition

Ritesh LakhkarWe got the opportunity to catch up with Ritesh Lakhkar, Senior Development Engineer, Corning Incorporated (Corning, NY) at the ASME International Mechanical Engineering Congress Exposition this past November working with the Committee on Early Career Development.   Our conversation revealed some elements about his career in manufacturing and how he coped with continuous change in his life; moving to the Americas from India; pursing an advanced education and his diverse background working in two different manufacturing environments.  

ASME: Tell us about Corning and the resources dedicated to engineering and science. RL: Corning Incorporated is the world leader in specialty glass and ceramics. Drawing on 160 years of materials science and process engineering knowledge, Corning creates and makes keystone components that enable high-technology systems for consumer electronics, mobile emissions control, telecommunications and life sciences. Our products include glass substrates for LCD televisions, computer monitors and laptops; ceramic substrates and filters for mobile emission control systems; optical fiber, cable, hardware & equipment for telecommunications networks; optical biosensors for drug discovery; and other advanced optics and specialty glass solutions for a number of industries including semiconductor, aerospace, defense, astronomy and metrology.

Corning is also one of the leading research companies in the world. Innovation has always been core to Corning’s DNA. For over 160 years, Corning has been a pioneer in taking glass to the next frontier. The list of innovations at Corning is quite long, from developing and manufacturing the glass envelopes for Edison’s light bulbs to making the mirrors for the Hubble Telescope and window glass for the Space Shuttle!

Corning’s research and development facilities are powerhouses of innovation where hundreds of highly talented scientists and engineers take on endeavors to invent the next big technologies. Scientists and engineers at Corning specialize in a variety of areas such as chemistry, physics, biology, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, and manufacturing process development.

At Corning you can find people from diverse educational, cultural and ethnic backgrounds. This diversity of its people is a real strength of the company. Working with project teams is a very fulfilling experience at Corning. Corning is a very people-focused company that values its employees and their talents and provides them diverse opportunities for personal and professional development.

ASME: Prior to Corning – you worked a great number of years for Caterpillar ---would you share some insights about the company and your role? RL: I was a manufacturing research and development engineer for almost five years at Caterpillar, Inc. For Caterpillar, the name says it all – it is the world’s largest manufacturer of heavy earth-moving equipment. Some of the main products that Caterpillar manufactures are track-type tractors, mining trucks, hydraulic excavators, building construction products, natural gas turbines, drag lines, locomotives, large and marine engines and industrial power generators.

Caterpillar presented me a very rich learning experience. The biggest benefit was the diversity of projects I worked on. I am not sure if there is any other company in the world where a person is able to work on everything from a small-building construction skid-steer loader to the largest mining truck; from fuel systems to engines and even locomotives. During my career at Caterpillar, I had several excellent opportunities to work in the areas of welding, sheet-metal cutting, deburring, edge finishing, machining, robotics, process simulations, laser-based and specialized manufacturing processes, quality auditing and, to a certain extent, paint technologies and logistics.

With Caterpillar I also got to see the world. My projects took me to Caterpillar’s various manufacturing facilities in Asia, Europe and the Americas. Working with people from various cultural backgrounds was a rich experience for personal growth.

Caterpillar, Inc. is a great company that offers excellent career opportunities. It has the potential to provide a very fulfilling manufacturing-related experience to any mechanical engineer who aspires to work in the manufacturing sector.

ASME: What led you down your selected career path? RL: I did most of my schooling at various places in India. The Indian education system allows one to learn physics, chemistry, math and biology continuously for five years and sets a perfect stage for a student to choose a career in engineering or medical sciences or a combination of those. After securing a rank among the top 20 students in the Higher Secondary Certificate (HSC) Maharashtra State (India) Public exam, I had an opportunity to choose between one of the best engineering colleges and the best medical schools in the state of Maharashtra. I had always known that I would do well in either field, but I was more inclined to learn more about machinery, airplanes, cell phones and computers and, hence, decided to choose engineering as my career. Although at the beginning I struggled with the lack of precision nomenclature for objects and features in engineering that exists in the fields of biology and medicine, it has been a great experience that has allowed me to gain multiple skills and learn about exciting technologies. I have come to an understanding that there is “engineering” behind everything including medical sciences. 

I completed a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Government College of Engineering, Pune (CoEP). Established in 1854, CoEP provides a great learning experience to its students by bringing old and modern engineering together. The inside-out tour to understand how a Babcock Wilcox Boiler, built during the British Empire days of India, functions was noteworthy. Even though some applied chemistry experiments resulted in disasters, they were well compensated by nicely chiseled artifacts from production engineering workshops, which reinforced my choice of mechanical engineering for a career.

ASME: After earning your mechanical engineering BS degree in India; how did you end up deciding to come to the U.S. to purse a graduate degree and work for Caterpillar? RL: During my co-op time at Tata Motors, Ltd., and final year of bachelor’s studies in mechanical engineering, I started thinking about the next steps. I was interested in pursuing higher education. I explored various avenues of higher education in countries like Australia, Canada, the UK, Germany and the United States. I was specifically looking for programs that would allow me to gain industry experience through internships. With limited resources to gather information at that time, I was able to narrow my choices to a few U.S. universities. I applied to those schools for a master’s program in the area of manufacturing. My effort paid off and I was accepted into the School of Mechanical Engineering at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana.

ASME: How did you cope with transitioning from one culture to another, one company to another? RL: Coming to the U.S. from India came with cultural changes. Purdue’s Indian Students Association, my friends and co-workers made my transition to the American culture easy. The book, “Inscrutable Americans” by Anurag Mathur helped me understand and imagine how it would be in the U.S. before I came to here. In addition, CNN and BBC were always there as two best friends feeding me information from all around the world with their unique English accents.

At Purdue, I studied in the area of laser-based manufacturing, specifically the hardening of steel.  My advisor, Dr. Y. C. Shin, helped me build a strong foundation in engineering. I am thankful to him for his guidance during and beyond my time at Purdue. My work at Purdue landed me an internship and eventually a full-time job at Caterpillar, Inc.’s Technical Center in Mossville, Illinois.

To fund my higher education, I had to look for opportunities on the Purdue campus. Thanks to one of my friends who had told me about a service organization at Purdue called Tactile Access to Visually Impaired Students (TAEVIS), I was able to secure a graduate assistantship position. It was a challenging job where I had to learn North American Braille to transcribe engineering and foreign language textbooks into Braille for visually-impaired students at Purdue. Very soon I was also asked to participate in tactile graphics illustration assignments. It was certainly a diversion from a traditional engineering path, but my desire to learn something new, attention to detail and knowledge of foreign languages helped me excel in this position, which paid for my advanced degree.

Since my childhood, change has been an integral part of my life. Because of my father’s profession, we moved every couple of years. It would always be a new beginning in a new place.

So, whether it was a change like moving from India to the U.S., or changing jobs transcribing Braille at Purdue to the world of metals manufacturing at Caterpillar, Inc., or research and development in glass manufacturing at Corning, I have learned to handle change because I grew up with it. Another thing to remember is that when a change occurs, the person is still the same person. He or she still has a certain set of skills that can be carried over. What matters is how you embrace that change and adapt yourself to the new surroundings.

ASME: What does your role entail at Corning? RL: I am working as senior development engineer in display glass development at Corning. Most of my projects are related to development work for display glass such as LCD glass. Learning about glass manufacturing has brought a remarkable change in my understanding of glass. Common objects made of glass, which we almost take for granted, have a long history of innovation behind them. My opinion about glass totally changed when I learned that there are different types of glasses (chemical composition-wise) and how the strength and quality of each glass can be modified by changing the chemical composition. It was like a door had been opened to a new world of possibilities.

When I started my job at Corning, the challenging part was to learn about glass manufacturing. I talked with my co-workers from my immediate group as well as other supporting groups to understand the manufacturing process. Corning helped me a lot by providing all the required resources and training to complete my on-boarding process and build my understanding of glass manufacturing. If I did not understand something or had questions about any process, I was encouraged to ask my co-workers for answers. My ability to learn new skills and apply them quickly certainly helped me to start working on multiple projects at Corning.

During undergraduate years, I used to read Mechanical Engineering magazine published by ASME. The magazine talked about exciting technologies in various areas, power generation, MEMS, nanotechnology, 3D printing, manufacturing processes, robotics, information technology, and many other subjects. Through ME magazine, I learned that mechanical engineering is a very broad field and it touches many branches of engineering. My expectation from the field of mechanical engineering was that it should provide me opportunities to work in various sectors and help me to embrace the diversity of this field. Fortunately, I can say that this expectation has been fulfilled by all the organizations I have worked for.

After stepping into industry, I also learned that in order to accomplish goals, focus is needed not only on technology but also on the people and teams. Engineering projects turn into a reality by teamwork and encouragement. People make the engineering progress possible.

ASME: What has been the most interesting thing you have learned about manufacturing and one achievement that you are most proud of? RL: Manufacturing touches every aspect of humanity. Whether it is medical devices, spaceships, food, oil, diapers or pharmaceuticals, manufacturing is an integral part of both the development and mass production stages. Each engineering project that I have worked on has been linked to a human factor in one way or the other; whether it was transcribing Braille at Purdue, working on tractors that build a nation’s highways or making glass for TVs.

Although I could mention a number of accomplishments, I am most proud of my work in Braille transcription at Purdue-- it helped blind students read their textbooks, research work in laser hardening and it has become a foundation for generations of graduate students.

ASME: You’ve worked in two different manufacturing environments – one focused on Design and Welding and the other focused on Fundamental Research --- Can you talk about the differences between the two environments and philosophies?  RL: Every company has its unique attributes. I consider myself privileged to have had opportunities to work for a manufacturing/design focused organization and a fundamental research based organization.

At Caterpillar, my work was focused on helping Caterpillar’s manufacturing facilities with their manufacturing processes. It meant working with engineering and manufacturing personnel as well as shop floor workers. Work was more geared to getting quality products out of the door as fast as possible. Sometimes I wore the hat of a quality auditor to see if all the processes were done correctly at the facilities. I also determined best practices, wrote standards and pushed for newer technologies that would help manufacturing in the production facilities. Caterpillar’s 6 Sigma methodology and tools helped me a lot in working on my projects.

At Corning, the focus is on the fundamental understanding of any given process whether it is a development or improvement project. Corning’s very structured approach for innovation and project management makes it easier to deal with the complexities of development activities or fundamental research. As a part of the development organization, it is imperative to dig down to the basics of science to make an idea work. Corning has suitable tools to help its employees to follow this path. To switch from a production- oriented organization to a fundamental-development based organization, one certainly needs patience to understand basics and, at times, to re-visit college textbooks.

ASME: When it comes to sustainable environmental/ energy-saving concepts what’s trending in your industry? trending RL: Today’s manufacturing sector is moving to greener manufacturing; making processes more efficient, and sustainable. Universities and companies have collaborated on several occasions to develop sustainable energy-saving manufacturing processes.

I have had opportunities to work on several projects such as: using environmental-friendly coolants for metal machining; saving compressed air in plants; using alternate energy resources for machining; recycling waste products from the manufacturing processes; using environmental-friendly paint technologies and washing systems.

ASME: What are some hidden expectations that engineering students should expect when going into manufacturing and/or engineering profession? RL: Adaptability and a quick response to the changing demands of the profession are important. Based on my personal experience, eagerness to learn, patience, awareness of trends and appreciation of co-workers will go miles to help your career.

Companies expect early-career engineers to have certain basic engineering skills and some organizations provide training in people skills and project management.  The first few years after college are learning years to understand how industry functions. Early-career engineers should grab all the opportunities that are presented to them, ask questions to solve problems, develop ideas, and interact with co-workers. Building a strong technical foundation and understanding of one’s profession in the early years is absolutely essential to chart a career path.

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