September 2018

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Reliability: How application engineers add value

Making the vendor-manufacturer your technology provider has been our consistent advice to the user industries; we have recommended this highly effective approach for many decades.

Bloch, Heinz P., Hydrocarbon Processing Staff

Making the vendor-manufacturer your technology provider has been our consistent advice to the user industries; we have recommended this highly effective approach for many decades. Since leading technology providers tend to employ application engineers,1 we were not surprised when a vendor’s representative at a Society of Tribologists and Lubrication Engineers (STLE) meeting asked what was needed to call oneself an “application engineer.” In fact, a major supplier of superior lubricants published application engineering summaries years ago in an eye-catching, yet comprehensive format (Fig. 1). For now, however, we wanted to share our answer to this vendor’s representative with you.

Fig. 1. Spider diagram illustrating a superior product. This type of diagram is used by experienced application engineers. Source: ExxonMobil.
Fig. 1. Spider diagram illustrating a superior product. This type of diagram is used by experienced application engineers. Source: ExxonMobil.

The designation application engineer presumably originated decades ago in manufacturing companies producing rolling element bearings, mechanical seals and similar products. These entities and their respective outlets deliver critically important “buy-out components” to both equipment makers and end users. In fact, application engineers working for lubricant providers are often known as cross-trained, multi-skilled subject matter experts (SMEs) with above-average knowledge of the machines for which they sell products. They know where and how the lubricant is optimally dispensed, how clean it should be under ideal operating conditions, if (and how) these ideal conditions are realistically obtained and maintained in machines, how oil can be kept clean, and when a charge of lubricating oil should be replaced.

Understanding the machines that require lubrication means knowing what makes them perform over extended periods of time without excessive maintenance requirements. For application engineers, the knowledge ingredients in their work activities include fluid machinery maintenance details and potential upgrade opportunities. Experienced application engineers can guide and track how well the client is doing. Among other contributions, they can often compare a client-user with the client-user’s competitors by assessing “us” vs. “them.”

As a second example, think of an application engineer in an automobile tire situation. Chances are we would expect this individual to understand the pros and cons of symmetrical vs. asymmetrical treads, summer treads, all-weather treads, winter treads, run-flats, and the merits or shortcomings of different available tire aspect ratios. We could expand on these attributes and state that application engineers teach reliability improvement, increased safety and higher bottom-line profitability, among many other items.

A compressor application engineer comes to mind in our third example. It involves the contributions of a man whom the author first met in 1965. He was employed by a noted manufacturer of positive displacement and dynamic process gas machines and carried that descriptive job title on his business cards. After years as an installation technician and designer’s assistant, he transferred to his company’s sales division. Whenever he visited the engineering offices of a multinational refining corporation to deliver a compressor proposal, he combined his sealed-bid handover with a tutorial on compressor application matters. He brought along transparencies that gave details on application parameters of greatest interest to his target audiences. Young engineers and other recent hires at the engineering offices signed up to attend these tutorial meetings. Word spread, and more attendees were eager to sign up for the next opportunity to attend his application-focused tutorials.

This compressor manufacturer thrived in the 1960s. However, when the compressor application engineer’s new managers decided to discontinue this perceived “free education” of the future “movers and shakers” at the multinational engineering company, the compressor manufacturer soon lost its competitive edge and became a company that no longer set itself apart from the competition. As it shifted to compete on price alone, its quality of design and manufacturing began to suffer. Little did the company’s managers know that one above-average application engineer had made major contributions to the company’s image and success. Although difficult to quantify, his disseminating application know-how had greatly added to profitability.

Thoughtful employers would likely spend money and effort on grooming and advancing their application engineers. Alternatively, the employer might consider hiring someone with at least a decade of experience in the business of fluid machinery or whatever other machine categories use the manufacturer’s products and would benefit from this engineer’s knowledge. We would, of course, encourage a teachable individual (a potential application engineer) to give up some of their recreational time. Such an individual would read and learn to become an application engineer—meaning an above-average value-adder.

We advise an application engineer’s employer to pay this key employee a salary commensurate with the person’s acquired and demonstrated application experience. To the extent that application engineers advance to join the ranks of SMEs, the employer would advertise the prowess of its SMEs and why the seller’s markup for a gallon of oil will probably exceed that of the (often clueless) competition. The purely cost-focused competition caters to those who purchase from the lowest bidder, whereas the provider with application engineers and/or SMEs seeks out customers that aim for value. Buyers that put their trust in low-cost products often act on opinions, guesses and out-of-context factoids. Factoids are true, but they apply to isolated and narrow cases, at best.

“I’m selling you an oil with a higher viscosity” is a factoid. Expect a good application engineer to tell potential customers what benefits derive from using this high-viscosity oil and when, where or why one would aim to avoid such oils. With this kind of authoritative input, the factoid becomes a value-adding fact. Application engineers emphasize adding value over simply selling product. Mere salesmen tend to prefer selling product and making money over adding value.

Our STLE participant was a certified lubrication specialist (CLS) and had passed a test to be certified as such. He is to be commended for his achievements. However, before this STLE meeting attendee adds “application engineer” to his business card, he should ascertain the legality of using the designation “engineer” in his home state of Texas. In many US states, one needs a degree from an accredited college or university to do so. In all 50 states, we must acquire a state license to call ourselves Professional Engineers.

Meanwhile, we might console ourselves with the traditional belief that, today, not even Ludwig van Beethoven would be allowed to teach music in most US states because he lacked a teaching certificate. Nevertheless, for many reasons, we should consider certification an important step in the right direction. Studying for, and then passing, a rigorous test certainly shows initiative and the desire to gain knowledge, although certification is not necessarily indicative of wisdom having been granted to the certificate holder. HP

Literature cited

  1. Bloch, H. P., Petrochemical Machinery Insights, 1st Ed., Elsevier Publishing, Oxford, UK and Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2016.

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