Real mechanical engineering is all about getting your hands dirty with machines and industrial equipment, in order to develop the next generation of lubricants and coatings.

Shubrajit Bhaumik, our next pathbreaker, Tribologist at Wagner High Quality Lubricants, addresses the lubrication problems of industries by providing sustainable engineering solutions to reduce wear and tear and enhance energy efficiency.

Shubrajit talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about always being an academic at heart, but wanting to apply his scientific knowledge as a researcher in the real world of industrial tribology.

For students, it is a myth that a PhD is meant only for teaching. A PhD, on the other hand, gives you the transferrable skills to take on multi-faceted roles in academics as well as the industry !

Shubrajit, can you tell us about Your background?

I was born in Agartala, Tripura, a city in the North East, with joy and harmony. I studied in Holy Cross School, Agartala and Hindi H.S School, Agartala. My father, Late Biresh Bhaumik, was a government servant (Govt. of Tripura). He retired as Deputy Secretary to the state government. He was a simple man with high principles, and from him I learned the lessons of simplicity, punctuality and honesty. My mother, Smt. Sheli Bhaumik, is a housewife. To be honest, I can never repay back anything to them for the pain they took to make me successful.

Like any other teen, I wanted to do many things: becoming a scientist to an army officer, from becoming a doctor to a professor, a pilot and a cricketer and the list goes on 😉. I used to read everything, no matter what the subject was. However, as I grew older, I was getting interested in Physics, Mathematics and Biology. I was really scared of Chemistry, particularly Organic Chemistry. Gradually, I started gaining interest in Engineering seeing different machines. As my father was also a Civil Engineer, I was also dreaming of becoming an engineer and following his steps. Like any other Indian teenager, I was fond of playing cricket and football. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I graduated as a Mechanical Engineer, did a Masters in Computer Aided Design (Mechanical Engineering) and PhD in Tribology from SRM Institute of Science & Technology. During graduation, I was like any other teen. I was regular with my assignments and never failed any deadline, but I remember I used to start studying seriously just 30 days before  my final semester exams, but those 30 days used to be like the 200 days of the semester. I used to have a good habit of studying from the textbooks and making my own notes regularly, which nowadays is missing as young minds are more oriented towards gadgets, which is also good if they know how to take advantage of technology. During post-graduation, I was more serious and clearer about my career path. But I must admit that I enjoyed canteens, movies, and even bunking my classes (on a lighter note). I believe one should enjoy all the phases in order to be a good human being.

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?

A career in Mechanical Engineering was always close to my heart and I was very clear from the beginning that I will be working in Mechanical Engineering. I was also lucky to have a lot of good mentors in my career, starting with my father and my mother whose sacrifices can never be forgotten. After I completed my graduation, I joined the field of Specialized Welding Technology in Diffusion Engineers Ltd, Nagpur where I met my first mentor Mr. S.S. Mani, the AGM and my boss. I was young and a fresh graduate and was new in the field, but he taught me how to apply real engineering on the field. After working in Diffusion Engineers, I moved on to work with the Eutectic Division of Larsen and Toubro, where I met Mr. Uday Mukherjee, who was my trainer. We used to call him “Uday Boss”. Uday boss was such a person that you would never be frightened to share your failures with him. Every fresher makes mistakes. Uday boss used to make us very comfortable and taught us the qualities to be a leader. Both Mr. S.S Mani and Mr.Uday Mukherji played a major role in shaping me in the initial days of my career. From there I started my journey into the world of tribology- the hardfacing technologies that resist wear. After working for nearly three years, I decided to move ahead with my Post Graduation. I completed my PG with distinction. I started working in the area of specialty lubricants in Kluber Lubrication, a German based company. I was really fascinated by lubricant technologies and made up my mind to go deeper into the field  of additive lubrication and hence, enrolled for my doctoral degree. There I met my supervisors and my mentor, Prof. S.D. Pathak (retd. Prof. IIT Madras) and Prof. Shubhabrata Datta (SRM IST). Prof. Pathak was more than a mentor to me and till date I discuss my problems with him. It is quite certain that during doctoral days, a research scholar will always be under high stress, but under the guidance of both professors, my life was relatively easy and I defended my thesis with flying colors. I also received international awards. Prof. Pathak has been a key person in my life. I also met Prof. M.Kamaraj, Professor at IIT Madras, during my doctoral days. He taught me to be humble and to be helpful to all. Prof. Kamaraj also played a major role in shaping my career as he introduced me to the highly experienced and knowledgeable executive members of ASM International. Also, as I was gradually progressing in my career, I came across Mr. Walter Wagner, Managing Director, Wagner High Quality Lubricants, and I must say I am learning the real meaning of being a perfectionist from him.

I was introduced to the field of tribology (friction, wear and lubrication) from my first job itself. Apart from my corporate life, I was also a teacher and a researcher in tribology. I was able to set up a tribology research laboratory in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, SRM Institute of Science and Technology, where I practiced tribology for 8 years. I, along with my students, published several scientific research articles in reputed journals of tribology. I used to tell my engineering students that real mechanical engineering can be learned only when you get your hands dirty. Gradually, I started my work towards industrial lubrication which led me to be a tribologist in my present organization.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

Everyone has their own taste. To be honest I never had a plan like most of the teens today, but I was clear enough that I will not go for any software job during my undergraduate studies. I was really bad at programming and hence, I knew my weakness. On the other hand, I was relatively good in mechanical engineering, especially the core subjects, and hence, never gave any interview for any of the software companies which came for campus placement, both during my undergraduation and postgraduation. But I always read about the developments in those fields , out of my own curiosity. Even today, I prefer working on real applications, though I use software as a tool to analyse problems; Thanks to the software giants for developing such wonderful software applications. Because I was interested in core mechanical engineering, during both my undergraduate and postgraduate studies, I used to attend every interview (luckily I was shortlisted in all), and by God’s grace I never failed in any. However, I was very selective and chose only core engineering. From the beginning of my career I was involved in analysing friction and wear patterns in industrial applications, and this is where my interests grew stronger. I always preferred a job which made me aware of several problems faced by different industries. And hence, my life was never monotonous on a single problem statement. I always worked on providing solutions to my esteemed customers. Each and every problem in the industry is different from the other and hence, the solutions too need to be different and without errors. Someone has rightly said that we must work out of our comfort zone and thus, I came out of my comfort zone. During my days at Kluber Lubrication, I was working closely with my team members which increased my interest in lubrication technology. This helped me to complete my PhD in Nano lubricants. In fact, my interest and dedication towards my work helped me in shaping my PhD problem statement based on industry requirements. A PhD is an important degree. It teaches you how to handle pressure and makes you more efficient in understanding and analyzing a problem statement. I always work with the intention of providing solutions to my clients. This is what makes me a technical solution provider. I planned my degrees by following the “work experience-study-work experience-study” format, which I named the “WSWS” format, which helped me in my postgraduation and PhD. During that time I could easily relate to classroom teachings with real world applications on my own. Also, I was mature enough to take decisions on the academic side. In fact, during my lectures to my students, I always used to show them the applications and explain the theories. In my career, I had the opportunity to handle several industrial problems from reputed industries and each project was different from the other. For solving those, I used to study several articles and was successful in delivering all the industrial problems with 100% success rate. In 2018, I was awarded a fellowship from Science and Engineering Research Board, Govt. of India to work closely on a research project on nano-lubricants with IIT Madras with my mentor Prof. M. Kamaraj. The project was highly appreciated as we completed the project before the deadline with very high-end publications in very reputed journals. Apart from the best presentation award in a tribology conference by Malaysian Tribology Society, I was also awarded a Gold medal for my research activities in tribology during my tenure in SRM Institute of Science and Technology, Main Campus.

My PhD was focused on clear objectives to develop a new generation of environmentally friendly and cost effective lubricants containing nano-additives. It is actually an important aspect in today’s industrial scenario where industries are looking towards economical & environmentally friendly lubricants. The usage of such kind of lubricants would not only significantly reduce friction and wear of equipment but will also enhance the life of industrial equipment and automobiles, reducing the downtime and hence, saving a lot of money which is wasted in controlling friction. My work has been published and is available online in reputed journals of tribology.

All my work in the area of lubrication gradually helped me to learn more about the lubricants. It was then that I decided to start developing products and understanding their performance in real applications in challenging environments and hence, I joined Wagner High Quality Lubricants as a tribologist.

I am happy to work with my present organization, Wagner High Quality Lubricants, as a Tribologist where I work on product development, quality assurance and provide technical solutions to several industries with the intention of reducing their energy consumption and wear to have a positive impact on Return on Investment. And this is where I am satisfied as I am working both as a researcher and as a product developer, keeping the market demand in mind. 

How did you get your first break?

My first break was from a walk-in interview in my final year of engineering. Though I had also cleared my campus interviews, I can easily remember that day. It was a normal day when I was going to my college to submit my assignment. I stopped at a tea shop on the roadside to have my breakfast. There I noticed a few people who were discussing an interview. They were older than me and seemed to be experienced. I asked them about the company and found that it was of core mechanical engineering. I asked them the address. Since I did not have any two-wheeler, one of them was kind enough to give me a lift in his car. When I reached the premises, I found that the recruitment was for experienced people and not for freshers, however I gathered the courage and met the HR who allowed me to get interviewed. After my technical interview, I was asked to wait. I can still remember the panel members who came out and congratulated me for clearing the interview and asked me if I can join them as a Graduate Engineering Trainee. I could not believe them as I had given my interview with no preparation, not even in a formal dress. I was not even carrying my certificates, but It was very clear to the HR that I could produce all of them if I got selected. I still remember one of the very senior panel members asking me if he could see my assignment copy which I was carrying with me. I was so shy to show that to him as I had not solved one of the questions. He correctly pointed that out, and I told him that I could not solve that and needed time to refer to a few textbooks. He was really impressed to see my honesty and advised me to remain the same throughout my career. A piece of advice to my young friends is never to be frightened of failure because every failure teaches us a lesson.

My role in Wagner High Quality lubricants as a tribologist is quite exciting and interesting. I can say my PhD work in tribology has helped me in getting such a role. I always wanted to apply the knowledge of tribology outside the four walls of the classroom and hence, I was also working on several industrial projects. I must say that though I am always an academician at heart, I always wanted to combine both the situations together. I want to be the coin with both sides. One side epitomizes the hunger to learn and dig deeper into any problem with scientific explanations (like an academician) while the other side epitomizes developing economic solutions supported by scientific reason (like an industry expert). I admit that a PhD helps in several ways, a person who has done his doctoral degree with passion will always be true at heart. He will always try to find the root cause of any equipment failure and will deliver scientific solutions for the failure. Life is short and we must not settle with what we get. We must take chances as we know we will be successful. I always remember what my father advised me: “work honestly and study honestly. It is the knowledge which will be with us always till we die and no one can harm a person who works honestly”.

In Wagner High Quality Lubricants, we work towards developing next generation lubricants, and hence, I had the opportunity to work in one of their projects earlier when I was an academic. I used to have a lot of technical discussions with them during the project phase and I understood that Mr. Wagner is always eager to develop new lubrication solutions. I believe my vision matched with the vision of Wagner High Quality Lubricants and hence, I am now a member of the Wagner family. I must also thank Mr. Arupanjan Mukherji, from Wagner High Quality Lubricants, for getting all of the Wagner team connected. 

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: Life was not easy. I lost my father due to renal failure when I was 21. As a fresh graduate from college, I didn’t know what to do even though I had a job in my hand. During the entire duration of my engineering studies, my father was being treated far away in hospital while I was studying. There were several occasions when he used to be in a critical stage in the ICU, battling between life and death, and I was writing my semester examination. My mother never used to tell me any of those situations as I might leave my studies and come to them. When everything used to be normal my father used to call me, but they never talked about any of the critical situations they were facing. There was a slight financial crisis also during that time, so I used to visit them once in six months. I still remember the night when I lost my mess fees and hostel fees. During that phase I made several mistakes, however, I learned from each mistake and was determined to be a successful engineer and started working honestly and with full dedication, giving 100% to my job. Till date I am honest with my work which helps me in solving any critical situation easily. I always follow my father’s advice “Give 100% to the organization which arranges bread for you”.

Challenge 2: Life as a research scholar. When I was pursuing my PhD , I was having a family: my mother, my wife and my angel daughter. So, life was busy and there were several occasions when experiments used to fail. I had to repeat experiments several times, and hence ended up reaching home very late at night. I was also working as an assistant professor during that time, so I had to prepare for my lectures, making class presentations and evaluating answer scripts. So, there were nights when I could hardly sleep, because I had to prepare well for the session with young students the next day and subsequently, complete my doctoral studies. In such situations, my mentor Dr. S.D. Pathak and my family stood beside me, and with their support and my strong determination I defended my doctoral thesis easily with flying colors and was never late for my students as well. I hope I have done justice to the noble profession as a teacher as till date, I keep getting calls from my former students when they get stuck in their professional challenges.

In a nutshell, we must have faith in ourselves and always hope for the best to happen.

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

Presently, I am working as a Tribologist in Wagner High Quality Lubricants, Germany. 

We solve the lubrication problems of industries. In the present scenario, sustainability is the key parameter. Hence, I work very closely with several industries to provide them a solution which is in line with enhancing energy efficiency and reducing friction, wear & tear. Let us take an example: We all have experienced riding on a two-wheeler or a four-wheeler. With increasing fuel prices in India and gradual development of the EV (Electric Vehicle), which will take some time, we all are concerned about our expenses on fuel. So, we need to adapt to technologies which can enhance our mileage. Wagner High Quality Lubricants developed the Micro Ceramic Glide compounds which can enhance the mileage and give a savings of over 18% on fuel consumption. Also, when we talk about heavy gear boxes, spinning mills and compressors in industries, they are prone to high wear and power consumption, so we work closely with the industries to significantly reduce the wear and power consumption by almost 25%. So, everyday we work towards sustainable engineering by providing energy efficient solutions to all industries which is the need of the hour.

What skills are needed for your role? How did you acquire the skills?

In order to provide the exact solution to problems related to machinery, we need to be very observant as well as be a good listener. We need to analyse each factor and correctly advise the end user. So, we must be very clear in our thoughts. Very few universities will teach the subject of tribology, though I was lucky to learn this in my institute as well as teach this subject to my students. But every equipment is different and so is its lubrication problem. So, as a tribologist, we learn as we diagnose the lubrication problem, like what a physician does, but in our case, the patient cannot talk, it can only make noise and if not detected it will be dead. To be honest, only a handful of us practice tribology, i.e, controlling friction to reduce the wear and power/fuel consumption. The field of tribology is very exciting as it is a vast domain and covers everything from medical sciences to engineering. So, regular practice makes us more efficient. 

Whats a typical day like?

Very difficult to answer this. Every day is absolutely different from the other day as each problem of lubrication is entirely different from the other.

What is it you love about this job? 

Loving a job depends on if we are enjoying it. I enjoy my role as a tribologist – managing quality and product development as well as meeting the market demand in my present organization. The working environment in Wagner High Quality Lubricants is highly professional and they take care of their employees. They know the strength of their employees. We get several enquiries regarding lubrication problems faced by industries and end users, and we successfully solve each problem. I enjoy reading various articles which not only help me in delivering solutions for critical problems but also keep me updated.

How does your work benefit society?

Well!, the knowledge of friction, wear and lubrication are important for our daily life. Imagine there is no friction between our feet and ground, will we be able to walk? Similarly, if we have a lot of friction between our shoes and the ground, we will be generating more heat, which will damage our shoes, and we will end up buying a new pair of shoes frequently. The same thing happens in all our machineries, automobiles, space shuttles etc. If we do not control friction, there will be high heat generation and excessive wear, leading to catastrophic failure and in several incidents, we have seen loss of precious human lives. So, solving such friction related problems will not only help industries but also the GDP of our country as low friction means less wear and hence, longer service times between breakdown intervals. 

You will be surprised to know that with the usage of Wagner’s solution, we have achieved 9%-10% reduction in instant power consumption, 7%-8% reduction in bearing temperature, about 20% reduction in wear in several industrial applications. In a recent case study done by me, I had reported a significant increase of 18% in mileage in a 15-year-old automobile, significant reduction in engine noise, and about 70% reduction in emissions. I had shown the end user that a minimum of Rs. 2 to Rs. 3 per kilometer would be saved henceforth. This will be a great savings not only to them but also for everyone, as you know the fuel prices have increased in India. But all these were only achieved when I worked closely with my customer and they trusted me with the solution I provided to them.

My career as Tribologist is really enjoyable. All industries look forward to a Tribologist who can deliver solutions which are scientific. Commercial solutions lasts only for a short period while scientific solutions enable us to gain the confidence of the end user and everyone looks up to you as an expert. So, the knowledge of tribology and making a career in it will enable you to help your country to enhance its GDP.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

The most memorable work I did was a series of experimental studies on adhesive wear phenomenon which I had the opportunity to present in an international conference of tribology in Malaysia during my doctoral days as a research scholar. I remembered repeating the experiment at least 11 times before presenting it. My supervisor Dr. Pathak was really impressed with the experimental results and we decided to present it in an International Conference on Tribology in Malaysia where I was awarded the best research paper award. Further, this work was extended and we planned to go for a patent in the area of nano-lubricants.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Every student is unique. Everyone need not be the topper of the class, but you must focus on your passion. Additionally, be humble, honest and be a good listener. Remember your target dates (though missing one or two is okay as a student, with a valid reason). Do not run after scores, but aim for decent scores. Above all, do not get stressed. Life is full of surprises, enjoy each phase of life and never give up. Always remember, with each failure you will gain the knowledge to become successful.

To students, I would like to advise that it is not wrong to have a lot of options in the beginning, however you must gradually try to understand where your interests are. Also, you must be ready to accept the changes as I have mentioned above. I have worked in academics as well as in the industry. I can tell you that both the experiences have been helping me in providing solutions to my customers.

I would also advise them to learn the subject of friction, wear and lubrication and apply the knowledge in their daily life. This knowledge can be learned by anyone. From the wear of our teeth to the wear of gear flanks, everything is tribology. So, practising good tribological approaches will help in building a great future for any country.

Also, on a special note to research scholars, do not get stressed during your doctoral phase. It is a journey and you must enjoy it. There will be a lot of work, but it will help you to understand your strengths. Also, there is a myth that a PhD is meant only for teaching which is not correct. A PhD is the top most degree in academics and it is not easy to get it. A noble PhD holder will never support any unscientific measures, so a statement from a PhD is always respected by everyone. I have experienced the same in my career several times. 

Congratulations to all my research scholar friends. You are already many steps ahead of several others. Just don’t give up.

Future Plans?

With the present technical knowledge I believe there will be a time to lead my team of tribologists in developing new next generation lubricants and coatings.