Prof. Ramesh Singh Masters the Balancing Act of Pushing Boundaries and Empowering Students

Prof. Ramesh Singh, Department of Mechanical Engineering, IIT Bombay, is also the Associate Dean (IPS)-II at the Institute. Prof. Singh balances the pursuit of groundbreaking research with an unwavering dedication to his students' growth. As an empathetic mentor, he fosters an academic environment that educates and illuminates the minds of his extremely fortunate students.

The Dean ACR newsletter is honoured to speak to him for the September 2023 edition.

Prof. Singh, thank you for speaking to us today. Can you tell us a little bit about why you opted to be a part of academia? Did you ever consider working an industry job?

I have worked in the industry prior to graduate school. I worked for Engineers India Limited, an engineering consultancy working in the area of oil and gas. It was a great learning experience, but I wanted the independence and freedom to explore, which eventually led to a career in academia. The industry typically has a very strict hierarchy and there is no latitude. By and large, you are confined by a specific project and I wanted to take more ownership of what I did. But academia, especially at IIT Bombay which is a flat organization with minimal bureaucracy, gave me the freedom to explore. I have the freedom to teach courses and follow my research passions. I can apply for funding as I need or collaborate with the industry on projects.

Can you tell us more about your research pursuits and explain your research in layman's terms?

I have four research verticals:

  • The first one involves scaling down the macroscale machining process to the microscale. We can use tools that are much smaller than human hair to create features in hard metals and alloys. These find applications in biomedical devices, space, defence, and electronics.
  • The second area is flexible reconfigurable fibre laser manufacturing. We use fibre lasers for additive manufacturing, deep hole drilling, and cutting by using different process heads with the same laser source. One of the focus areas in this vertical is the repair of high-value moulds using laser-directed energy deposition.
  • The third vertical involves process modelling to understand the physical phenomena underlying the process, which can help us improve and optimize the process.
  • The fourth vertical involves the systems integration of special-purpose machines. There is a huge technology gap in the area of special-purpose machines between the Indian industry and their global counterparts. This vertical is focused on increasing the global competitiveness of the Indian Industry by bridging this technology deficit.
How important is your research in today’s world? Can you take us through some of the more practical applications of your research that can help humanity and mankind? Can you give some examples?

Our research has a lot of practical applications that have a societal impact. Micromachining can be used for fabricating microneedle arrays for painless drug delivery, microfluidic devices for diagnostics, and micro-moulds for lenses. These can be immensely helpful in improving the quality of patient care. The repair and restoration of moulds is another area where there is a huge environmental impact. By extending the life cycle of the mould we are marching towards sustainable manufacturing. The energy and resources associated with the manufacture of a new product are saved which aids in reducing the overall carbon footprint.

Can you tell us more about microneedle arrays for painless drug delivery? How can needles be painless?

Basically, these needles are on a patch. There are a whole bunch of micron size protrusions – typically a couple of 100-micron protrusions with a 30-micron tip and 60-micron bottom. When you put them on a patient, it gets into their bodies and delivers the drug without them feeling any pain. It’s like a painless injection. So we can use it to vaccinate people, especially children.

I see that you have been awarded three patents and filed three of them. You’ve also been awarded one patent from the US and you’ve filed one in America as well. Can you take us through the patent process? How successful have they been?

Now all 6 are awarded. 2 US and 4 Indian patents. Unfortunately, getting an Indian patent is usually a long-drawn exercise. We have to draft a statement of novelty and non-obviousness. The patent could be a complete system or a process. IIT Bombay provides very good support in terms of patent attorneys and has a fairly streamlined process for invention disclosure and filing of the patent. It is also important that the patents are backed by the industry. Both our US patents have been filed with industry partners.

Can you give us an example of a patent of yours that has seen movement in the industry?

Sure. One of my patents is with CEAT Tyres. We created a robotic machine, which will clean the vents of a tire mould. Basically, when you mould the tire over thousands of times the vents get clogged and the tire quality deteriorates. So, we fire a nanosecond pulsed laser beam to clean the clogged vent by vaporizing the rubber and the blow away the debris with a high-speed air jet. This robotic machine has an automated vision system to identify the vents. CEAT has the technology now and when they commercialize it, they will pay us a royalty.

The idea behind patenting is that the products should eventually be commercialized and made available in the marketplace. That is the end game. But this is not an easy task and transmission of ideas to a product does not always happen as you plan. So the struggle is to patent ideas that have genuine market potential and that it’s backed by industry. My students also have a start-up to commercialize the products that have come out of the research in the lab.

Is there any advice you would like to give our students in terms of patenting?

While patenting is not a very difficult task by itself, my suggestion is that the student should have an endgame in mind. There should be either an industrial partner or they should be open to becoming an entrepreneur to bring the product to market. My opinion is that keeping a patent to just a level of an idea does not serve the purpose. IP creation should lead to a new product in the market.

Shifting gears - you’re now the Associate Dean of Infrastructure Planning and Support. I’m guessing it’s more of an administrative position. What made you take on this responsibility?

The Institute has been extremely supportive of my academic research activities. The functionaries are always ready to support their colleagues in need. Without this enabling support, the faculty may not be able to deliver the goods. I have been extremely fortunate to have received support from the Institute functionaries and felt that it was my duty to serve the Institute and support my colleagues in the same way I had been supported despite the fact that one has to cut back on her/his research.

Can you tell us a little bit about IIT Bombay’s ecosystem – in terms of how it’s helped you and/or how it takes care of its students?

IIT Bombay’s ecosystem is very responsive. We have an amazingly flat organizational structure that provides both faculty and students unprecedented access to the Institute’s functionaries. You can raise any issue you face at the Departmental or Institute level, and rest assured that some action will be taken. The Department and IRCC routinely support any fund shortage for your research. In my experience, the ME department has been extremely supportive regarding funds and resources. We have a fairly robust system for the students comprising the faculty, the Dean (SA), and the Student Wellness Centre, who are always ready to help them through any academic or personal issue. In addition, we have excellent gymkhana facilities for recreational activities to beat the stress, which are open to students and faculty alike.

Shifting gears – can you tell us about your interests and hobbies? What do you do when you’re not teaching or researching?

I like running and traveling. I am blessed to stay on such a beautiful campus. I enjoy the green and serene environment, especially during my early morning long-distance runs.

Finally, what does the future hold for you, Prof. Singh?

I look forward to mentoring many more generations of students who are equipped to be stakeholders in our country’s progress. For me – my output is not research papers but my students. My students are an example of HR creation. My focus is not just on writing academic papers, and patenting products but it’s more on creating quality manpower. I want to focus my attention on creating the next generation of scientists, researchers, thought leaders, and entrepreneurs who will then go on to create solutions that plague mankind. I want my students to make a mark in the world and then pay it forward. That’s how progress happens in any country.

What an incredible goal Prof. Singh has! As he seamlessly blends his own groundbreaking research with an unparalleled commitment to his students’ growth, he has already left an indelible mark on the landscape of IIT Bombay. His relentless pursuit of knowledge and unwavering belief in the power of education has transformed the lives of his students. We eagerly look forward to many more accolades and successes that are sure to come his way in the future.

We really appreciate and thank Prof. Singh for speaking to the Dean ACR Newsletter.