In Data We Trust

5 min read

“Are you a postman or an engineer?” asked my Japanese manager back in 2012 when I joined Nissan as a trainee engineer. I wondered what he meant by that and went back to ask my seniors. “D-A-T-A”, they replied. Data is the new oil.

When I was involved with the Formula Student project in 2012, we were in ‘build and compete’ mode. Today, things have changed and I can see it grow with more and more students getting involved. With my experience of more than ten events as a technical inspector and design judge in Austria and India, I have seen a vast difference in the approach of Indian and European students to problem statements. Apparently, the approach is quite similar in the professional world of Indian, European and Japanese engineers.

In Formula Student, I have observed that Indian engineers are unable to produce proper data when designing parts and components and that reflects in their design report. It comes as no surprise that we see many Indian teams struggle in European events in spite of making a good car. The rank of the car in dynamics events is not reflected to their rank in static events. European events seem difficult because we fail at showing what the judges want to see i.e. our engineering logic, calculations and validation through testing. After all, Formula student is an engineering design competition.

Last year, I was approached by a top Indian FS team from Pune to guide them in their first overseas competition in Europe. I could clearly see what they lacked to do well in Europe. The reports were somehow managed and we did a mock design judging in the campus. The mock test was a disaster and with just two weeks to departure, their confidence had gone down. Moving to a damage control mode was not advisable as it would create chaos in the team and would further spoil their design reports. They were instead encouraged to do well with what they had and learn from their first experience. There is always a next year or a next event. We participate in events not to compete with others but to upgrade ourselves. In the professional world too we have a similar design development phase. Built-Test-Upgrade-Repeat.

Design judging in Europe is very exciting, not just because the teams participating are the best in the game but more so because of the deep pockets of knowledge the young engineers of these teams carry. It’s more of a technical discussion with them rather than a technical interview process. They would provide data for the smallest of components to the most complex parts. The complete car is reflected in their reports and backup material. The 45 minutes time slot actually isn’t enough for the design judging. It’s more of Connect- Convey- Convince method of interaction which gives you a good score.

When coming to the professional world, the same culture is seen with the European and Japanese engineers. Projects and task are designed and completed as an engineer would do. Calculations and data for the most basic type of job are taken very seriously. I can recall some of the problem statements that my Japanese manager once asked me:

  1. Calculate the length of MIG weld between 2 sheet metal (2 + 2.15 mm) parts if 5 spot welds were to be removed. Time: 30 minutes
  2. Calculate the number of spot welds necessary for a sheet metal part of 1.5mm to sustain the dynamic load of a grab handle. (Time: 30 minutes).
  3. Design the spot weld pattern with the same number of spot welds for a Factor of safety of 1.2. (Time: 4 Hours).

This made work hours more exciting and would led to less iterations of designing of parts and components. In due course of time, I was involved in “hand calculation” of section strengths of components for crash structures. I routinely worked on moment of inertia, bending moments, yield strengths, force, displacement, etc. This gave me the base to understand the energy-timedisplacement graphs that were derived out of simulation results to prove that our initial calculations are true. It became very easy to convince and get my designs approved by my engineering head and engineering manager in project review meetings. Had I approached these methods, I could have done far better in my FS project.

Well, design judges in FS events are from professional background who are very much data driven for solutions to problems because laws of physics does not lie (most of the time). I would always remember the words of my manager- “Computer Aided Engineering (CAE) is just a tool to validate your calculations. The day the simulation teams provides a solution for your problem, you have become a P-O-S-T-M-A-N.” The CAE will show us “where” and “what” has happened. The design engineers should come up with solutions to solve the “why” and “how” part of the problem statement.

Now, I do not say that Indian engineers are second to their European or Japanese counterparts. We are very good in finding quick solutions to problems (read: JUGAAD, aka: Temporary solution). But the bigger question we need to ask ourselves is, as engineers, are we doing justice to our jobs? Can we rely on temporary solutions to work in the long term? The system works in panic mode to come out of the current situation but there is no guarantee that it will work in the next.

Why do many foreign companies come to India? Cost is not a factor here, but our value is. We can find the smartest of solutions in a short period of time for these companies who would naturally own them. Then they optimize it for efficiency and reliability with proved engineering principles.

One take away from the movie (The Man Who Knew Infinity), based on the great mathematician from India, Mr. Srinivasa Ramanujan, was that, he too had the natural ability of finding direct solutions to problems but stumbled when it came to deriving them through mathematical principles so that the world can understand. He was later helped by Professor G.H. Hardy to prove what Mr. Ramanujan knew. Same is the story with many Indian students in FS and professional life. We know it works, but don’t know how it is working and cannot answer if it will work in the future. Proving is what is missing here.

For many teams in India, FS event is a once in a year event. A team surviving with a temporary solution has high chances of encountering the same problem in the next year. This in turn impedes their chances of participating in dynamic events. In many cases, this leads to the students breaking down emotionally and psychologically. As senior students leave after their study period gets over, the junior students start all over again to solve the problem. This results in slow progress or no progress at all.

So what is the solution? Design our cars as professional engineers would do. Yes, we have the pressure to score well in our academics, but the sole purpose of Formula Student is to learn the application of engineering principles to be professionally ready for industries. Based on my experiences, the approaches of “need to know why” and “design through principles” are very fruitful to grow professionally. The sooner you learn it the better leap start you can have in your career.

Data is the new oil and everyone understands it.

–Neelam Dihingia