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Alberto PORRAS VÁZQUEZ, Sr. Engineer IAT chez Shell Global Solutions (Deutschland) GmbH

Merci beaucoup d'avoir accepté l'interview.

Version actualisée au 2/09/2023 (Version 1: 23/07/2022)

Could you give us an overview of your academic background and motivation that led you to do a PhD thesis?

I enrolled in a double Engineering degree program conducted between UJI, in Spain, and INSA Lyon, in France, which resulted in a master’s degree in both Industrial Engineering and Mechanical Engineering. During this time, I embarked on several projects with the goal of expanding my mindset beyond the content studied in class. Among other things, I was able to explore firsthand the reliability of industrial machinery used in an oil refinery through a half-year internship at BP, which I later complemented by coding an interactive tool to design safety systems in machines from the point of view of the automation system. During the last stage of my master’s studies, I decided to join the Gear Transmissions Research Team at UJI, where I stayed for almost a year. It was here where I became attracted to the idea of generating and spreading scientific knowledge to a wide audience and developed a special interest in the interaction of mechanical transmissions and their immediate environment. Despite not knowing at that moment whether I would develop my career within the academic or private sector, I was sure that I wanted to pursue my work in this field and was eager to dive deeper into the topic. Thus, I decided to look for a PhD thesis.

I carried out an industrial CIFRE thesis at the Laboratoire de Mécanique des Contacts et des Structures (LaMCoS) at INSA Lyon, in collaboration with its industrial partner SKF. I was tasked with evaluating the effect of oil starvation in the spinning contact formed at the interface between the roller-end and the ring flange of large-size roller bearings, a phenomenon that had been hardly studied at the time. I performed my research from a numerical and experimental standpoint.

Could you explain how your PhD thesis has helped you in your current position?

Short after successfully defending my thesis, I joined ZF Wind Power, in Belgium, as a Bearing Technology Engineer, being responsible for managing the experimental activities of the Bearing Team and expanding its internal knowledge concerning fatigue-based failure mechanisms in bearings used in wind turbines. Then, after two years, I decided to join Shell Global Solutions (Deutschland) GmbH, in Hamburg (Germany), as a Sr. Engineer within the Component Testing Department, where I currently work. My job consists in leading, managing, and supporting both internal and external projects for the development of new lubricants (i.e., oils and greases) for a wide range of industrial applications, through dedicated test rigs that can replicate field-like operating conditions. In addition to this, I also focus on improving the performance of existing lubricants already in use. This includes, for example, studying the robustness increase to common field failures of components (e.g., bearings and gears) interacting with these lubricants.

There is an evident relationship between the technical competencies acquired during the span of the thesis and the ones demanded by these positions: the technical knowledge about lubricants and bearings, or the scientific method on how an experiment should be carried out from start to finish. Nevertheless, there are other “less-technical” qualities that are equally important: the rigorous and perfectionist mindset to deliver top-quality work, the ability to think out-of-the-box, or the skill to filter the noise among the data to distinguish the relevant information. The discipline to drive your work in such a manner can hardly be accomplished in any other way or in such short of a period. On a personal level, you learn to define boundaries, to prioritize and organize your life, and to endure hardship, which you are expected to encounter and confront throughout your thesis several times. It is also worth mentioning the network you build along the way, including both friends and colleagues, and how you learn to open your mind to new ideas and ways of doing things. All these traits are crucial, regardless of where you decide to go in life.

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about starting a PhD thesis?

Doing a PhD represents a commitment to dedicate your time and effort into solving a unique problem (for which you do not know if there is even an answer) in a given and limited timeframe. Anyone seeking to follow this road should first ask himself the reasons behind his decision to do a thesis, what he desires to accomplish with it, if his envisioned career path requires him to hold a PhD title or not, if it has any value to hold one, or if it is the right moment to even start such a long-term project. Regardless of these questions, there are a few basic pieces of advice I can give:

First and foremost, you should choose a topic you feel passionate about. It is, after all, a project which you will work on for several years and with which you will eventually struggle with. Do something that makes you happy, and work hard so that you can be proud of the results.

Secondly, even though you might not be able to choose your supervisor, communication is always key. Ask for advice and support whenever you need it; your supervisor is there to help you, not to further hinder you, and he only wants your best interest.

Thirdly, organize your time efficiently. The workload distribution will not be the same throughout the duration of the thesis. It is particularly at the end of the project where most of the tasks will accumulate and the time to perform them properly will be scarce. To avoid this, plan your actions in advance to the best possible extent and set yourself short-term goals that can be easily accomplished. This will not only define a pace to follow but will also keep you motivated and focused on a target.

And finally, stay positive and take care of yourself. Health stands above anything and should take priority.

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