Six months ago, Manikandan Balasubramanian came across an opportunity to carry out a graduation project in material science at Tata Steel through a professor. Being thoroughly interested in research about steels and automobiles, he was only too glad to accept and move to IJmuiden. “I relish the opportunity to work alongside some of the best minds in the field”, he says. Now, halfway into his assignment, he sits down to share his experiences on working in a professional environment and doing what he loves for his thesis.
Text by Vishal Onkhar, MSc Mechanical Engineering
“Investigation of acid etching as a surface pre-treatment for physical vapor deposition zinc coatings of advanced high strength steels to improve coating adhesion”, he says without skipping a beat. I sit up in my chair as if to hear him better. Here I am, interviewing Manikandan Balasubramanian, a fellow master’s student of mine, about his graduation project at Tata Steel in IJmuiden, when he recites the tongue-twister that is his thesis topic. Manikandan works with cutting-edge technology to further the boundaries of knowledge in material science in the pursuit of better safety for automobiles.
On asking further about his thesis, Manikandan says we must start at the beginning. Cold rolling, he tells me, is a common metalworking technique to process steel before manufacturing. However, cold rolling causes the steel to become hard and brittle, and so a technique known as annealing is required to restore its tensile strength. Annealing has the unwanted side effect of forming localized oxide spots on the surface of the steel. This creates a problem when the steel has to be coated with zinc to make it corrosion resistant. The coating only holds when applied directly on the metal surface and not on an oxide layer. Thus, an additional step such as acid etching to remove the oxides is needed.
This is where Manikandan’s thesis comes in. It’s about optimizing the acid etching process parameters like acid concentration, bath temperature, immersion time and compatibility with the physical vapor deposition (PVD) technique of applying the zinc coating. “All this fuss because the industry is moving towards PVD”, he explains. According to Manikandan, the traditional methods of applying the zinc coating causes undesirable changes in the steel microstructure. Hence, manufacturers are making the transition towards PVD because it doesn’t face this problem. This way, advanced high strength steels used in automotive body panels are stronger and less prone to rust.
Having spent most of his life in the southern Indian city of Chennai, Manikandan was inspired to take up and excel at mechanical engineering by his car enthusiast grandfather, and steered towards the chemical aspects of materials by his high school chemistry teacher, a fact which clearly shows in his research even to this day. Despite receiving admits from other prestigious universities like Arizona State University and TU Eindhoven, Manikandan said his heart always lay in TU Delft due to the excellent quality of the materials research here and the university’s connection to Jan Burgers, the discoverer of the Burgers vector for crystal lattice dislocations.
“I have learned that it is important to deconstruct problems into individual blocks and deal with them in the order of their importance”
I ask about his biggest challenges on the job. “I have learned that it is important to deconstruct problems into individual blocks and deal with them in the order of their importance”, he says while highlighting the teamwork and collaboration involved between different departments and people of various backgrounds. Despite being a student, he says he is treated as an equal colleague and spoken to in a friendly and informal manner. He notes that other employees are quick to offer valuable advice and guidance on how to conduct his professional duties and thesis, for which Manikandan is very glad. He especially enjoys social events like the Christmas lunch but sometimes feels left out during group conversations when everyone speaks in Dutch.
“It’s the little things that make work in the Netherlands so special”, he says, “like football discussions during coffee breaks, cycle and ferry rides to work and the excellent gym facilities offered to employees”. On probing further, he reveals that there are also some things he doesn’t like. “I wish it wasn’t mostly a desk job”, he laments and admits that he sometimes feels lonely living in IJmuiden when most of his friends are in Delft.
“It’s great that the Netherlands offers a very international experience and the ability to easily travel around Europe.”
At this point, noticing that a couple of hours have flown by, I bring the interview to a close by asking for his final thoughts on life in the Netherlands compared to his hometown of Chennai, and about his favorite pastimes and pursuits. “I really miss the hustle and bustle of India, and the delicious South Indian food!” he exclaims on hearing my question, “Although I think it’s great that the Netherlands offers a very international experience and the ability to easily travel around Europe”. The advent of Skype and WhatsApp he says makes the distance between him and his family back home more tolerable because he calls them every week. However, he wishes he could go back and see them soon because it has been over a year since his last visit. “Not until my thesis is done, I suppose”, he adds with a wry smile. Until then, he would make do with singing songs from home and sightseeing in France, Belgium and Switzerland.
As I walk away from that interview, I can’t help but feel that Manikandan encapsulates the feelings of an international student and prospective immigrant very well. I too can relate on many levels to what he is going through, with its myriad ups and downs, and am sure others in our position would too. His is the story of a bright and hopeful young man far away from home, trying to make his way in the world, and to me that is a story worth telling.