Continued growth of major trends such as electrification and digitalization are bringing new technology and developmental needs to a range of industries, including tribology and lubrication.
Hong Liang, Ph.D., Oscar S. Wyatt Jr. Professor in the J. Mike Walker ’66 Department of Mechanical Engineering at Texas A&M University, said these trends and the development challenges they bring are helping to make it an exciting time to be working in the field.
Liang has spent her career in the field, and currently focuses her research on tribology’s fundamental and application aspects. In May 2023, she was appointed president of the Society of Tribologists and Lubrication Engineers (STLE) for a 1-year term. In this role she will work together with the 2023-2024 executive committee to implement STLE’s strategic plan, part of which is focused on further promoting the role tribology plays in a range of applications.
Power & Motion spoke with Liang to learn more about what she’d like to accomplish during her tenure as president of STLE as well as trends she sees impacting the tribology and lubrication industry.
*Editor’s Note: Questions and responses have been edited for clarity.
Power & Motion (P&M): What are you looking forward to working on and helping STLE achieve during your tenure as president?
Hong Liang (HL): I have been on the [STLE] executive committee for a few years, and before that I was serving on the board. We have developed a strategic plan for the next few years; every few years we update it [based] on the [industry] situation, and the timing and world events. We also have a trend report [which] we just finished. I'm going to be part of a big team [which works together on these things].
I see there are several things I can do [during my] 12-month tenure…but the main goal is to enhance our strategic plan and work together with the team [to do so]. The first thing we are doing is putting a virtual symposium together [about digital advancements in tribology]. Members want to learn about digital [solutions and how they will impact tribology].
There are many other topical areas, and associated technical challenges, [members want to learn more about such as] sustainability. Also, getting more people involved with membership [is a priority].
There's a long list of things I would like to do, but I'm going to prioritize [those things] with the executive committee because we work as a team [to accomplish the society’s goals].
P&M: It was mentioned in the press release announcing your tenure as STLE president that you want to help expand education about and promote tribology and lubrication. What are some ways you and the STLE team will go about this? What needs are there in the industry for education and promotion of tribology and lubrication?
HL: That's a very good question because we've faced quite a lot of changes in the last few years, the pandemic being the main one. Also, there are new technology areas because of the electric vehicle market and sustainability [efforts]. We're facing the [question of] how we're going to go about [meeting the requirements of these new technology areas] with tribology and lubrication engineering. We need to start to do something today and the first thing we need to understand is what is going on [in the industry] and how [electrification] is going to happen. For example, we're learning OEMs leading this [electric vehicle design] effort will continue [to do so] but then we also have the lubrication engineers trying to understand what is required [from a lubrication standpoint] for the electric vehicles.
So, we have held a symposium on electrical vehicles for 2 years now. We will continue this effort [to help educate members on the subject].
Other areas like machine learning and artificial intelligence, we're actually combining these together using digital methods to help us experimentally to learn and understand how things are going. The virtual digital tribology conference [helps with] the objective to learn about digital barriers and how we can use data science to help us solve tribological issues and study, experiment and manufacture [lubricants]. They're all integrated together. And we're doing a lot of things together to move as fast as we can [technologically].
Another big issue that’s come out is sustainability. There's a lot of issues regarding what [are called] forever chemicals and their environmental impact. We have to learn what those chemicals are and why they're bad [for the environment]. We are going to have some education courses [on this topic] and there's a committee discussing the best way to go about [replacing these chemicals].
P&M: You’ve touched on it a bit already, but what are some of the major trends you are currently seeing either in or impacting the tribology and lubrication industry? Could you provide some insight into how exactly the trends of sustainability, artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning (ML) are impacting tribology and lubrication?
HL: I see the short-term impact, right now, is with supply chain issues. There's suddenly not enough raw material for us to work with to make products, or if we have the product it has to be shipped to the customers [which can present cost and other challenges]. And that is considered the immediate impact we have to deal with. So, the industry has a lot of different ways [to address these impacts] such as finding ways to collaborate and localize some production. Companies use what local resources they have… [which could lead] to finding a new, local customer or supplier, helping to solve supply chain issues, as well as not having to ship product too far to customers. Another part of it [is the potential] to find ways to run more efficiently and use less energy to be more sustainable.
Now you see a lot of electric vehicles coming out; almost all the car manufacturers have some kind of electric vehicle…to meet the demand. I think [for electric vehicles] we probably need better and more lubricants – one for the car, one for the electrical system and one for the mechanical system. Everybody is competing [to create] the best fluid to make electric vehicles run better. [These lubricants need to provide] better thermal management to protect electronics. This is one major area I have seen companies trying to get into [the electric vehicle space]. It has to be done [lubricant development] quickly, maybe using an entirely new approach to get [product in the market]. I see the industry moving pretty fast, that’s a very good sign.
The other area [impacting tribology and lubrication] is sustainability – new chemicals replacing the forever chemicals and reducing the carbon footprint of manufacturing products. The digital revolution for manufacturing, Industry 4.0 and now getting [into] 5.0 and 6.0…the computation, robotics and data science are all coming into play. So, there's a lot of things going on, we are [working] in the areas that are actually quite exciting.
P&M: What are some of the challenges the industry is facing currently, and how might these be overcome, either through work STLE is doing or the industry in general is doing?
HL: We're definitely facing a lot of challenges, even more than before. Still using electrical vehicles as an example…there are certain types of challenges we don’t anticipate. Because electric vehicles have not been running on the roads for too long, we don’t really know the lifespan for the fluids [and other components]. I think the challenge may just be the lack of knowledge of that. STLE is a good place you can come to learn [about this topic]. The more we learn, the more we can [understand about fluid lifespan in electric vehicles].
There are so many different, more challenging requirements from electric vehicles for the fluid – you have to have a certain type of electrical insulation or connectivity and also you have to have enough thermal [management] to extract all the heat buildup in the drivetrain. And also, you still have to have corrosion protection and friction reduction. Meanwhile, you also have to do [all this] in a low-cost fashion. We have never had that kind of requirement in one product, so that is certainly technically challenging and also exciting. Who is going to solve [this development] problem? Probably not one company, the entire field needs to contribute.
People that are from [different] companies, they don't talk to each other, but if they go to a conference and listen to a presentation about a product or progress made by [others in the industry], it can give some ideas of how to solve certain [product development challenges].
This type of technical challenge [lubricants for electric vehicles] is very specific and very complicated. Being part of STLE and going to conferences or talking to people in the same field can generate more ideas [and overcome industry challenges]. Overall, I think STLE is in a better position to help solve this problem.
Watch our video interview with Hong Liang for more of her thoughts on trends impacting the tribology and lubrication industry.
P&M: What are some of your favorite aspects of working in the tribology and lubrication industry, and how do you possibly see the industry further evolving in the coming years?
HL: I have been in this field for a long time…and my research has always been in this area under the big umbrella of tribology related to lubrication, wear and things like that. And suddenly I realized that there are so many things I don't know. I think my colleagues and all our members probably have the same feeling that suddenly there are some new things coming out with more requirements and [which have to be in the market] quickly. That is pretty scary but exciting. Those kind of situations don’t happen often and that’s why it is my favorite aspect because it gets me excited about doing things.
Working in the tribological area, the challenge is when you try to test something, you won’t be able to see it; for example between bearings running you cannot see [the tribological effects]. You can detect certain signal behavior but it’s still a pretty limited focus for certain things. The mystery part of it is also a challenging part, but it’s also a very interesting part because you’ll never be bored or in lack of a problem to solve because you always have a problem to solve, you always have a question to answer. That is the best part of being in the field, we have a lot of things to do.
Nowadays, because there is a market demand and challenges related to human health, efficiency, machine learning, the environment and sustainability, it makes us feel like right now what we are doing every day is important to a bigger community. That is also very rewarding when you have a problem to solve or see your lubricant running in your car, you feel pretty proud of that. That is another favorite aspect of being in the field.
There’s so many of them. In particular, now is a really good time [to be in the field] because we have so many things to do, new challenges [to solve]. Being a professor, I like to tell students if they want to get into the field, right now is a good time to do it.
STLE [is good about involving people] starting from school so immediately they have this connection with industry people and professionalism which does not happen often in other fields.
P&M: That’s really great. Do you find that helps keep people in the industry as they’re coming out of school because they have that industry connection right away?
HL: Yes, our connections are very close I think compared to other societies. We have this special community and they [students] get involved very well and closely [with others]. I’m happy about that.