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Tribology Program Fills Skills Gap

Michelle Segrest | February 19, 2018

Samford Hall is an iconic building on the expansive Auburn campus. All images by Michelle Segrest

A one-of-a-kind program at Auburn is helping develop manufacturing engineers with hands-on experience that translates directly to real-world jobs.

Whether it’s an airport runway, a manufacturing robot, fluid couplings, power transmission, a tile floor, human-joint replacement, hard-drive technology, or biomedical equipment, surfaces are in constant contact with each other in the mechanical world. The result is friction and wear. In fact, one fourth of the world’s manmade energy is lost to friction. Tribology is used to maintain, control, monitor, and positively manipulate friction, and studying it has the potential to make innovative contributions to industry, society, and environmental conservation.

“Friction is very complicated,” said Robert L. Jackson, Ph.D., professor and director of the Auburn Univ. Tribology Program, Auburn, AL (auburn.edu). “We teach our students to not oversimplify. Friction changes with elements like temperature, humidity, and the geometries of the surfaces. Everything affects it, and it’s difficult to predict. Part of what we teach is to know where to look. In engineering, we are teaching specifics, but we are also teaching the students where to look for solutions and how to solve problems.”

Tribology is the multidisciplinary study of surface contact, friction, wear, and lubrication. While most accredited engineering programs offer an elective on the subject, Auburn is the only school in the United States that offers a minor in Tribology and Lubrication Science for its engineering students. For the students and the mechanical-engineering world, the program is making a difference.

“If companies need an intern or to hire someone with experience right out of college, they come to us,” Jackson explained. “This program is unique. People from industry approached us and said no other universities were teaching tribology with any kind of depth. There is a real need in manufacturing for these skills. One student got a job with a company that makes baby carriages. They said the tribology knowledge this student gained in our program was a key in her hiring. Any facility that has moving parts needs to worry about friction. Every mechanism in a manufacturing plant needs proper lubrication.”

Professor Robert Jackson teaches Collin Phillips how to use the Bruker Dektak 150 profilometer to measure surface roughness.

Professor Robert Jackson teaches Collin Phillips how to use the Bruker Dektak 150 profilometer to measure surface roughness.

Tribology drives modern technology and is critical to improving energy efficiency and reducing environmental waste by extending the life of consumer products and industrial equipment. Industry demand is high for graduates with a background in tribology, Jackson said. “Students who participate in Auburn’s unique minor gain a multidisciplinary appreciation and broad understanding of the field of tribology—especially in the subjects of engineering, chemistry, and business,” he said. “It provides a pipeline for well-prepared graduates to meet industry needs.”

In addition to the required courses—Friction, Wear, and Lubrication; Rheology; and Organic Chemistry—the Tribology and Lubrication Science minor involves a diverse laboratory in which students participate in actual studies for major companies, as well as projects they invent themselves. The program also offers a full-service Design and Manufacturing Lab in which students will become nationally certified apprentice machinists in one semester.

Minors include electives in Corrosion, Boundary, and Full-Film Lubrication; Metalworking and Manufacturing Tribology; Macroscale Assembly and Applications of Nanomaterials; and Multiscale Contact Mechanics. In the lab, the students gain practical experience that manufacturing employers consider to be the equivalent of real-world experience.

“We create all kinds of projects for the lab,” Jackson said. “Sometimes there is a new technology we want to research. Sometimes problems come from the industry. Sometimes students come up with ideas. One wanted to measure the surface roughness of Legos. Another group measured the wear on their cell-phone screen. One student was a trombone player, and he did a report on the lubricants used for the instrument’s sliding mechanism. We are truly producing professionals who have extensive expertise in the field of tribology.”

“We have potential employers who ask for five to ten years of experience on their job applications,” Jackson continued. “When they learn about our program, they waive this requirement because they can see that the practical experience is being earned through this minor.”

Among the students who have benefited from the program are Collin Phillips, Zoe Tucker, and Kaylee Wynn. Each has excelled in a variety of ways, and each has chosen a different career path.

Mechanical engineering student Kaylee Wynn is developing skills in the Design and Manufacturing Lab.

Mechanical engineering student Kaylee Wynn is developing skills in the Design and Manufacturing Lab.

Mechanical-Contact Engineer

In May 2018, Collin Phillips will earn his Mechanical Engineering degree with a minor in Tribology and Lubrication Science. After summer internships with Chevron (chevron.com), he landed a job with ExxonMobil (exxonmobil.com) in its Baytown, TX, location as a fixed-equipment mechanical-contact engineer.

“I can say with absolute confidence that my tribology experience at Auburn helped me get this job and the internships,” Phillips reported. “ExxonMobil specifically recruited me because of my three summers working in the tribology lab at Chevron (Pascagoula, MS). ExxonMobil works closely with our [university] program to recruit people with tribology experience. They are always looking to recruit people who understand lubrication, and especially tribology. Even the marketing people at companies like this need to have at least a basic understanding of lubrication and engineering.”

Phillips’ physics team activities at McGill-Toolen High School in Mobile, AL, and spare-time hobby tinkering with cars, fostered an interest in engine longevity and fuel efficiency. When he arrived at Auburn in the fall of 2014, he learned about the tribology program during Engineering Orientation and knew it would be a fit for him.

“I am terrible at math, but I enjoy solving problems,” Phillips said. “I like the classical mechanical physics, but when I came to Auburn, I didn’t even know that tribology existed. I learned quickly that anywhere you have two surfaces contacting in motion is where tribology comes in. You don’t have to have lubricants. You can just study surfaces. If two surfaces don’t wear away over time, then maybe there is not a problem… but this doesn’t exist too often. Friction is complicated. We’ve gotten a good mix of knowledge about how to analyze wear and friction and learn where it comes from.”

At Chevron, Phillips focused on testing and analyzing lubricant additives for new motor oils. “We are specifically looking at boundary lubrication,” he said. “One key thing I used at Chevron in the tribology lab in Richmond, CA, was through researching Stribeck curves, which define how friction is related to several variables like speed and load. They use the Stribeck curve to understand where an engine’s performance is coming from.”

A common theme when studying lubrication is understanding what kind of film you are dealing with and trying to predict the life of the equipment, Phillips added. “In the lab, we take whatever the problem is in real life and try to mimic it in a controlled environment,” he explained. “We use the same geometries, load, speed, to make it as close as possible. We receive real-world, hands-on application experience, in addition to classroom instruction, scholarship support, internships, upper-level technical lab experience, and research experience—all in one bundle.”

The Design and Manufacturing Lab offers students an opportunity to learn how to use major manufacturing equipment, and also teaches them how to design equipment for the facilities of the future.

The Design and Manufacturing Lab offers students an opportunity to learn how to use major manufacturing equipment, and also teaches them how to design equipment for the facilities of the future.

Research-Lab Technician

Zoe Tucker grew up in Huntsville, AL, in a family of engineers. “My entire family is in engineering,” she said. “Growing up, I didn’t even know there was an option to be anything but an engineer. It was only a question of which type of engineering. I’m the black sheep of the family because I got into mechanical engineering instead of electrical.”

Tucker is a fifth-year senior at Auburn in mechanical engineering and plans to pursue a doctorate in materials engineering. Her passion is research, and advanced academia is her path. “I first heard about the tribology program during my first-semester chemistry class,” she said. “I thought it was interesting and later became an officer in the TLSS (Tribology and Lubrication Sciences Society). I’ve been conducting research with Dr. Jackson for several years.”

During a past summer, Tucker worked an internship with RSC Chemical Solutions, makers of Liquid Wrench, in Charlotte, NC (rscbrands.com). “The lab had people who had been studying tribology for 25 years and I felt very comfortable discussing tribology issues with them because this program prepared me so well,” she said. “I was still learning, but was comfortable and confident with my knowledge level. We are getting useful skills, education, and training to prepare us for the real world.” Tucker’s ambition is to work at a research lab, perhaps with the U.S. Department of Energy.

She received an Auburn undergraduate research fellowship and the Society of Tribology and Lubrication Sciences Boozer fellowship to support her research, in which she compared transparent and opaque nanoparticle-enhanced lubricants.

“For this project, we used one lubricant that is dark and has nanoparticles that darken the lubricant,” she explained. “You can teach the user that this is normal, but to some extent it’s important to look at it and ensure that it’s how you expect it to look. The consumer may look at it and say, ‘This isn’t what I’m used to seeing.’

We wanted to use a clear nanoparticle to see if it had the same effects as the darker particle, but without any change to the lubricant performance. A grad student in chemical engineering put together the chemistry of the lubricants and then I tested them. In the end, it was determined it didn’t make a difference. But it was interesting to see that there are some nanoparticles that won’t change the way [the lubricant] looks. We hope we can continue to do this kind of research so we can get some that won’t change the appearance but still do the work it needs to do.”

Tucker has worked with the tribology program for four years. “It’s given me many opportunities I would not have gotten elsewhere,” she said. “One thing is we go to the Society of Tribologists and Lubrication Scientists (STLE) conference every year. After attending three times, I began to know people at the conference, and this gave me confidence to pursue a doctorate.”

Zoe Tucker operates the software controlling the Bruker UMT friction and wear test machine.

Zoe Tucker operates the software controlling the Bruker UMT friction and wear test machine.

Manufacturing-Design Engineer

Growing up in Ocilla, GA, Kaylee Wynn had an early interest in engineering.

“My dad went to school for civil engineering and owns a construction business with his brother, so growing up on a farm and on the construction site, I was always around machinery,” she said. “As a kid, I was always curious about how things worked, and I was also good at problem solving and building anything I could get my hands on. All these things pushed me to go into the engineering field.”

Wynn is now a second-year graduate student in Mechanical Engineering and has been doing research on orthogonal metal cutting infused with additive manufacturing with, Dr. Lewis N. Payton, Ph.D., director of the Design and Manufacturing Lab.

“This program has really helped me to understand more than just what you read in books and in classes,” she explained. “Being here in the lab with Dr. Payton has taught me more hands-on skills and especially how to be more creative and how to solve problems. I’d love to find a job somewhere in manufacturing and work my way up with the company. I want to be involved in the designing of equipment. In this lab, the students are taught how to use the machines, but we take it a step further. We are taught how to design machines in a way that someone else can use them. The idea is to make designs that are not impossible, but realistic.”

Wynn learned about wear and lubrication through the tribology courses.

“For instance, in the Design and Manufacturing Lab we create parts by using several different tools,” she said. “The class taught me about the wear of those tools and how lubrication can help to not only preserve tool life, but also give a much better surface finish to the part being made. This knowledge can be used in future jobs, especially if I go into a manufacturing field.”

“The lab has given me more hands-on experience in manufacturing engineering than anything else I have done,” she continued. “Working in it has taught me how to apply what I’ve learned in my classes. For me, I can try to learn everything you can think of in a class, but until I do it myself and apply it to a real-world situation, I won’t truly learn it. This lab has taught me how to apply what I’ve learned so that when I graduate, I have a much better understanding of what I was taught in my classes.”

A view of the multi-scale tribology laboratory at Auburn.

A view of the multi-scale tribology laboratory at Auburn.

Filling the Skills Gap

The number-one concern of the future of manufacturing is filling the skills gaps, Professor Jackson stated. “Industry is full of people getting ready to retire. Auburn is positioning graduates to be able to fill these positions.”

Jackson is a graduate of Georgia Tech, Atlanta, which had a strong tribology research program. “I took an elective and wondered why no one was talking about this,” he said. “I couldn’t believe I had to take an elective to learn about this. I asked one of the professors if I could do some summer research. He gave me a project and it grew from there.” Those experiences later inspired him to spearhead the program at Auburn.

“Students come into the lab and get their hands dirty, helping with experiments, making measurements, and then analyzing the data,” Jackson said. “This is very valuable experience, even if they are not going to do research after school. It’s very applicable to an environment where they may need to evaluate the wear and friction and lubrication of a certain application. Some companies have similar machines to what we have here. These machines are actually used in manufacturing facilities.”

The students also learn from some nontraditional studies. For example, Jackson is collaborating with Auburn’s Veterinary School to study the cartilage of a horse’s leg.

“We theorize that the cartilage on the different joints is also different,” he said. “This is different than other engineering materials. For instance, if we can make better artificial joints, perhaps we can make better industrial bearings.” 

Another nontraditional research area is electrical contacts. “In tribology, the chemistry, fluid, thermal effects, etc., are all considered but then you add electricity into the problem and it makes things more complicated,” Jackson explained. “We do a lot of research on the reliability of electrical connectors. Tribology is very diverse. We always get new things to work on. Anytime you have interactions between surfaces, tribology is very important.”

Dr. Payton agreed that this kind of experience helps to fill industry’s skills gap. “In the Design and Manufacturing Lab it is not our goal to make machinists,” he said. “It is our goal to make designers who understand what their technicians can and cannot do. We have 1,400 qualified users of this lab. They build things for research, personal, and class projects. Once they finish the basic course, they are very skilled on these machines. They learn in one semester everything about operating these machines that students learn at a two-year community college.”

There is a misconception in industry that someone coming out of a two-year college is ready to do real machinist work on a production line, Payton said. “They are capable of doing basic things like setting up a CNC machine,” he explained, “but they are not qualified to optimize the machines to achieve maximum throughput. They can’t design tooling.

“Some major four-year universities also are not offering this education and training,” Payton noted. “It’s difficult to imagine who will build the next generation of machines when the colleges don’t have several generations of old machines to teach with, and the students are not actually using the machines.” EP

Michelle Segrest is president of Navigate Content Inc. and specializes in creating content for the processing industries. If your facility has an interesting efficiency, maintenance, and/or reliability story to tell, please contact her at michelle@navigatecontent.com.

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Michelle Segrest

Michelle Segrest

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