In May 2018, Collin Phillips earned his Mechanical Engineering degree from Auburn University (Auburn, Alabama, USA) with a minor in Tribology and Lubrication Science. After summer internships with Chevron, he landed a job with ExxonMobil in its Baytown, Texas, location as a fixed-equipment mechanical-contact engineer. Lessons learned from a young age, along with a unique education focus, have helped to propel his career forward at a record pace.

“My first exposure to basic engineering principles began my freshman year of high school,” Phillips said. “I went to a school that practiced ‘Physics First,’ so I took a general physics class that covered mechanics, magnetism, electricity, and theoretical physics. It was during that class that I discovered my love for solving problems and applying logic to new situations to find a solution.”

Phillips’ physics team activities at McGill-Toolen High School in Mobile, Alabama, 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.

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. 

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.

“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 did not even know that tribology existed. I learned quickly that anywhere you have two surfaces contacting in motion is where tribology comes in. You do not have to have lubricants. You can just study surfaces. If two surfaces do not wear away over time, then maybe there is not a problem. But this does not exist too often. Friction is complicated. We have gotten a good mix of knowledge about how to analyze wear and friction and learn where it comes from.”

Phillips gained valuable knowledge and experience working in the highly-regarded Tribology program at Auburn University. 

“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, Mississippi). ExxonMobil works closely with Auburn’s 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.” 

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At Chevron, Phillips focused on testing and analyzing lubricant additives for new motor oils. “We were specifically looking at boundary lubrication,” he said. “One key thing I used at Chevron in the tribology lab in Richmond, California, 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 would take whatever the problem was 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 received 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.”

Today, Phillips uses this experience as a fixed equipment engineer working directly with piping, valves, and pressure vessels for ExxonMobil.

“Most of my projects consist of applying engineered solutions to mitigate either financial or safety risk,” Phillips explained. “These solutions come in the form of clamps, piping replacements, online valve restorations, hot taps, stopples, rerates, etc. Once my repair recommendation is made, complete with calculations, our mechanical organization executes the work.” 

Collins said that most of his engineered solutions start with a field finding or a predicted risk. 

“Once this risk is identified, I spend the majority of my time verifying boundary conditions such as metallurgy, process fluid conditions (material, pressure, temperature), geometry, previous repairs, and energy isolation,” he explained. “Once I understand what variables I can manipulate, I develop repair plans that reference engineering design/repair codes or standards (ASME Section VIII Div. 1, B31.3, PCC-1, PCC-2, and API 510, 570, 579, and other applicable). Finally, I develop a business case for each repair and execute the most suitable repair with our available resources.”

With only a few years of field experience, Phillips said he continues to learn every day as he develops his particular areas of expertise.

“I am most certainly still a novice in the projects that I work on a daily basis,” he said. “However, I have spent a lot of time and effort improving the reliability of our Delayed Coker unit. This unit has very unique equipment compared to many other process units. I have taken a particular interest in the unit’s equipment such as its metal seated ball valves, drum unheading systems, and coke handling cranes. This equipment can be very complicated, but it has been a blast learning more about it and improving reliability one project at a time.”

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Solving Valve-Related Problems

Finding and solving equipment problems is an everyday task for Phillips. 

“In my experience, our valves typically have the following issues: leak-by, packing leaks, bonnet leaks, bent stems, and broken bushings,” Phillips said. “Most of these issues can be solved by understanding the exact process conditions that your valve will experience while in service and avoiding operation outside of its design envelope. Operation includes operating the valve. For example, there is no reason to use a 3/4″x2′ breaker bar to turn an old 1/2″ valve. Furthermore, prevention of issues such as leak-by from the factory can be avoided by subjecting the valve to API 598 high pressure closure tests.”

Phillips stresses keeping safety in mind when maintaining valves.

“The best safety advice I can give for valves is that the engineer or operator who is interacting or repairing that valve needs to know the valve internals and pressure boundaries intimately,” he said. “When I first started, I did not understand the purpose of all the components. Without the help of lead engineers, I could have made inadequate repair recommendations and caused a lot more trouble than just having a faulty valve.”

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Advice for Young End Users

Working in the field can offer many challenges. But sometimes they are not related to equipment issues and teamwork and communication become vital. 

“I wish I could say that my most challenging projects have been due to the engineering portion of my job,” Phillips said. “In reality, the most challenging projects are the ones where the team communicated poorly. At ExxonMobil, everyone has their own discipline, so it can be tempting to silo ourselves and not communicate with the team. However, the top priority on complicated projects is to listen and over-communicate. Teamwork and communication are the keys to making even the most complicated projects become simple.”

Phillips highly recommends listing to your peers, project leads, and repair crews to avoid critical issues. 

“The first thing I learned after graduation is that I knew how to solve a paper problem, but I had no idea how to execute a repair feasibly,” he said. “Be humble enough to take advice and criticism from everyone, and make sure that requested repairs pass the ‘funny look’ test. If you are asked to do something that seems wrong, it may be wrong. When in doubt, consult a more experienced engineer before continuing. I have had the best education by learning from lead engineers who were in my shoes when they started their careers.”

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