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Geared up to go

They are the people behind the showroom speedsters. Sanchita Guha reports on the world of an automobile engineer.

education Updated: Nov 04, 2009 14:31 IST
Sanchita Guha

The most striking thing about automobile engineering is that there is really no one entity called “an automobile engineer”. Though a few institutes in the country do offer BE/BTech courses in automobile engineering, the biggest bulk of the engineers hired by top carmakers in India tend to be mechanical engineers. Electrical and electronics engineers and metallurgists are the others who contribute significantly to a car company.

All of these people may be classified as “engineers in the automobile industry” with sub-sections of specialistion within that broad swathe — material treatment, electronics (for control units), designing (CAD), logistics, supply management etc.

Graduate engineers undergo training — one year for companies like Maruti and Honda — during which time they will observe all the processes of carmaking, handling small tasks under supervision. A year later, the firm decides where to assign them.

“A college teaches theory, but each organisation has to make the new hires compatible to the business,” says Praveen Paranjape, operations head (manufacturing) at Honda Siel Cars Ltd. “They must understand the making of the car, marketing, supply chain, finance, R&D.”

An engineer thus develops the skills of a technician, planner and administrator. The roles are symbiotic, e.g. a quality review will mean going to the shop floor and looking at the cars, not just getting through a lot of files.

Observing the process on the plant floor is very important, even if an engineer later spends much of his/her time sitting at a table, designing a car with software. “During its making, a car passes through several stations, and the person manning a station has, say, 68 seconds in which to work on a car. Every second is accounted for,” says Zakir Ahmed, an assistant manager at Hyundai in charge of assembly improvement, with a mechanical engineering degree from Adhiyaman Engineering College, Bangalore. Someone creating the car on the drawing board needs to know the process of assembly and streamline the design for optimal result with minimal effort.

“Every new car needs engineers from various disciplines to bring it from drawing board to the factory,” says Piyush Agarwal, a mechanical engineer from Government Engineering College, Jabalpur, who has been with Maruti Suzuki for 12 years.

Afterwards, “research and customer feedback would keep the engineers involved”.

As of now, an engineer in the Indian car industry depends on the employer for a chance to really bite into the subject, because what is taught in the institutes is not tailored to industry demands. “Hyundai is my third job, and I could face the interviewers confidently only because of my work experience,” says Ahmed. “The theories taught in college were decades behind their time.”

Compare this, he says, to an engineer in Germany, who gets to drive the best cars in the world as part of the study programme. “The lack of exposure and the old syllabi are the two big hurdles.”

However, with training, it is possible to acquire cutting-edge expertise. Agarwal, who specialises in engine design and development, has been to Japan many times to work with Suzuki engineers. The scope for such an engineer is not limited to India.

One’s career growth may be faster if the basic degree is from an IIT. “Our undergraduate programme in mechanical engineering covers internal combustion engines, which can lead to a job with a major carmaker,” says Dr Anjan Ray, IIT Delhi faculty member for mechanical engineering. “In the Master’s programme in thermal engineering, some courses are related to engines.”

Employment is not restricted to OEMs (original equipment manufacturers, i.e. the carmakers). “An engineer can work in companies that supply suspension or steering systems to carmakers,” says Paranjape.

As for professional growth, the sky is pretty much the limit in the right company. “We send people abroad for training and to work as expat employees,” Paranjape says.

“There is a lot of knowhow exchange. Somebody who needs to work with robots gets specialised training.”

Robots, cars and futuristic designs — can a job get much more exciting than that?

What's it About?
An automobile engineer works in the vehicle manufacturing industry, not only with a major company like Maruti or Tata Motors, but also with smaller companies supplying specific components like suspension systems or steering systems to carmakers.

Graduate engineers hired by a top company go through a year’s training, observing every process in the making of a car — from supply chain and assembly to management and marketing.

After the training, they are slotted in the areas they are best suited to. Making a vehicle means cross-border collaboration. “An entire car may not be designed in India. A design engineer can work on the panel, while the main car may be designed in Japan or the US,” says Praveen Paranjape, operations head (manufacturing) at Honda Siel Cars Ltd. While the biggest percentage of automobile engineers still come with a mechanical engineering degree, the growing trend of using electronic components means electronics engineers will increasingly be in demand. “A graduate engineer trainee would typically move from engineering ranks to a managerial position and may even end up heading the company,” says Piyush Agarwal, a senior engineer at Maruti Suzuki.
If an engineer has an entrepreneurial bent of mind, s/he can set up a car component manufacturing company with an investment of Rs 20 lakh to Rs 1 crore

Clock Work
An average day’s work routine varies greatly, depending on where an engineer is working — assembly line, design, administration or any other area. For a team leader at the assembly line, it could be this:

9 am: Reach the plant, look at the day’s production plan and get to the plant floor
1 pm: Lunch break
2 pm: Back to the plant floor
4 pm: Quality review
6 pm: End work

The Payoff
A graduate engineer at a major OEM (original equipment manufacturer, i.e. carmaker) gets a stipend of Rs 28,000-Rs 30,000 per month for the first year of training. This goes up to Rs 40,000 once s/he is confirmed. A line leader/assistant manager will have 1-5 years’ experience, function as a team superviser and earn Rs 40,000-Rs 80,000 a month, depending on the years put in. A division head with about 17-18 years’ experience can make Rs 25 lakh-Rs 30 lakh per annum

A passion for cars
. Aptitude for mathematics
. Fast learning curve
. Good reflexes

How do i get there?
“Engineers specialised in various fields like mechanical, electrical, electronics or metallurgy would play an important role in creating a car,” says Piyush Agarwal of Maruti Suzuki. To hire engineers, companies would first look at the IITs and the NITs (National Institutes of Technology). The Madras Institute of Technology in Chennai stands out among the many institutes in the south. A number of smaller institutions offer BE/BTech degrees in automobile engineering. An aspirant needs to use some filters to decide which one to go for.

Dr Anjan Ray, IIT Delhi faculty member for mechanical engineering, has some advice: “A student should look up the institute website — if it doesn’t have one, that’s a bad sign — and see if it’s a good site. Does it list the faculty members and their qualifications, does the college have publications, projects, collaborative projects, funding from the government? Cross-check the reputation of college, find out how the alumni are doing. Do some research before taking admission”

Institutes & urls
. Indian Institutes of Technology and National Institutes of Technology
All across the country various websites
. Jadavpur University, Kolkata
. Madras Institute of Technology
. MITS Gwalior

Pros & Cons
Cutting-edge technology
. International exposure
. Great pay package
. Outdated syllabi
. Constant improvement expected
. Recession impact on overseas job prospects

The industry is revving up again

An automobile industry veteran talks about job prospects and the need for a syllabus overhaul

In a car manufacturing company, where does the automobile engineer stand in the scheme of things?
Generally, the automobile industry employs engineers from several disciplines like mechanical engineering, electrical/electronics engineering and automobile engineering. Engineers from specialised disciplines like mechanical and process automation, metallurgy, tool and die development also work in specific domains.

All these engineers, after initial training, become part of the total development team that works on any new model. Being a part of the team for a new model/product refreshment development team, their suggestions are taken into consideration in different phases of development.

What jobs can an engineer do in an automobile company?
Engineers are involved not only in product design and engineering, but also in various other functions — be it production, project engineering, supply chain, quality assurance, product engineering (R&D), marketing and service functions.

Talking specifically about engineers from an ‘automobile engineering’ background, there are not many institutes in India that offer these courses. However, they can also work in these functions.

With regard to the scope for employment in other sectors, people from automobile engineering can join auto component companies, design houses, research institutes and also software.

What quality of training can an automobile engineer expect in this country?
Training is specific for each manufacturer — it depends on the extent of engineering activities being done in the company, the company philosophy, infrastructure and the support system.

At Maruti Suzuki, a fresh engineer is exposed to all functions of the organisation to give him/her good insight into the various aspects of automobiles before s/he is made to focus on a specific function and then a specific area.

Car industries across nations have been hit by the recession. What is an automobile engineer’s future in this scenario?
Recession did hit automobile industries the world over, but in India, the industry had a short spell of ‘slowdown’, not ‘recession’, and has shown signs of positive growth in the past six months.

We at Maruti Suzuki plan to make Maruti R&D the design hub of Suzuki for compact car design and development. We have not only continued the recruitment of fresh and experienced engineers within India, but have also gone overseas to hire talent.

Looking at the projected growth of the automobile industry in India and the expanding scope of activities, I feel there would be a shortage of qualified (employable) engineers. Institutes need to review their course content and match it with the requirements of the industry.

Does the current level of training equip one to make green cars?
A fresh graduate has basic knowledge of various engineering subjects. But s/he requires a lot of domain knowledge and experience to work/contribute in any field. A green car is one step beyond a normal car, so it needs a good deal of experience. It’s only after working on such green projects that people can gain expertise and contribute in future.

IV Rao, managing executive officer (engineering), Maruti Suzuki India Limited Interviewed by Sanchita Guha