30 Minutes with Dr. John K. Duchowski

1. In your 32 years of experience, you have undoubtedly witnessed significant advancements. What technological change or innovation has had the most profound impact on the industry as a whole? How did you adapt to this change in your work?

I think possibly the biggest thing that has happened is the realization that filtration is not a non-interacting process. By this I mean that up until around the year 2000, the predominant picture was that there was no chemical interaction among the three “bodies” involved, meaning the filter media, the fluid, and the contaminant. So sort of an ideal gas representation was generally employed where the fluid was a carrier for a suspension of non-interacting rocks and the filter media was essentially likewise an inert sieve not interacting with the other two. Then the phenomena of electrostatic charging and discharging were discovered and that has pretty much changed everything.

2. Can you walk us through an example of a time you utilized root cause analysis to identify and address a problem in machinery development?

Well, certainly ESD would qualify here and it took us close to 20 years to really understand it in terms of the fundamental principles of physics involved. This was because we literally had to start from scratch, figure out which properties are important for its characterization (oil conductivity, for example), and how to measure it even to the extent of being able to observe and record its signal. Since virtually no equipment was commercially available for that purpose, we literally had to invent and build everything from scratch.

3. How do you stay up-to-date on the latest advancements and trends in filtration technology?

I think the on-site customer visits are the key! 20 years ago it looked like we would see a convergence of oil and additive types and properties but exactly the opposite has happened! We now have API Group II, Group III, and even Group III+ such as the Gas-To-Liquid (GTL) base stocks and a host of very different additive packages, both of which result in many great and often highly varied formulations. So observations and measurements of various properties and behaviors directly in the field on any given application is probably the best way to stay sharp! The second would be participation in various governing bodies, such as the STLE, DIN, ISO, and so on. And finally, the reading of scientific literature published on various topics. We tend to think that we can explain some new and strange behaviour in terms of some new chemistry but that is not really the case. There is a surprising amount of cross-over amongst various scientific disciplines, so reading the latest technical articles can certainly be very helpful.

4. Describe a complex product development project led by you from its research and development to a successful launch. What were the challenges that you encountered and how did you overcome them?

This would, without a doubt be the series of filter elements aimed at alleviating the already mentioned electrostatic charging and discharging effects in hydraulic and lubricating systems. This was a step-wise process that took literally 20 years to be perfect with each iteration getting better and better as our understanding of the fundamental physics and chemistry governing these processes improved. As I said, when we started, we were literally grasping at straws, even to the point of “discovering” that various oil formulations exhibited sometimes vastly differing oil conductivities. We then arranged all this in a more logical fashion in terms of base stocks and the additive packages then the picture started to become more clear.

5. In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by the machinery industry in terms of fluid analysis and treatment today?

I think there’s a big drive towards the employment of on-line sensor technology to achieve a more rapid response; however, the problem is that the output the sensors provide has either very little or virtually no correspondence to the values derived from the conventional laboratory analytical techniques. Also, this is quite unfortunate, there seems to be a shortage of new talent entering, what admittedly is quite an exciting field of activity. I am reminded of this every time, I attend one of the bigger meetings such as the Annual STLE Meeting. Many of us are getting grey, although in recent years I have seen an influx of new and impressive young talent so there is hope!

6. Do you think sustainable measures have a negative impact on the lubrication industry?

I think this is still a bit early to tell. It may result in the formulation of new fluids, for example, bio-derived base stocks so we have yet to see where this journey takes us.

7. What do you think the future holds for Research and Development in the machinery industry? What emerging technologies are you most excited about?

Well, if this is okay with you, I would prefer to remain focused on filtration. The R&D activities of the entire machinery industry are indeed a very broad topic, starting with the development of new materials, and going through their property enhancements (surface finish, etc.) such that it really is not possible to answer this in a few paragraphs.

If we look at filtration again, it certainly looks like we have reached the end when it comes to filter media prepared by depositing a mixture of glass fibres on some substrate. There is only so much you can do with mixing fibres of different diameters and adjusting the density of the deposited fibre matrix. The triangle with filtration ratio, differential pressure, and the dirt holding capacity at its apexes has been stretched to its limits and we have now reached the point of diminishing returns. Sadly, we are now faced with being completely cost-driven or with instilling filter media and filter elements with some additional functionalities that bring particular advantages to the application and the operator.

The first proposition of cost reduction requires the employment of alternative materials with lower initial costs but without sacrificing the (rather outstanding) performance characteristics of the glass fibres. The second proposition of imparting additional functionalities to the filter media is far more interesting as it hinges on what is really quite fundamental materials science. Of course, other materials, i.e., those intended to replace the glass fibre, can also lend themselves to these modifications, i.e., the changes in the intrinsic natural characteristics of the raw material, for example making an intrinsically hydrophobic material such as polypropylene hydrophilic. Basically, what is required is a fundamentally new approach to filtration and separation processes where we must think beyond our current model that treats our working fluids as an inert substance noninteracting with the filter media and containing a suspension of finely divided rocks that likewise do not interact with the fluid, the filter media or themselves – or basically a Boltzmann gas model approach to filtration. This has now really become a materials science in the truest sense of the word. We finally have to realize that our world is not just that simple. And the possibilities here are literally endless!

8. Looking back at your extensive career journey, what are the key lessons you’ve gained about leading and managing successful R&D teams, particularly when dealing with complex technical challenges or navigating unforeseen hurdles?

I think perhaps the main aspect is that this is an experimental endeavour. This means you cannot invent something just by thinking about it. This can be quite a trap because it can lead you to believe that by tweaking this or that parameter in this or that direction you will immediately develop a new and successful product. When I started in 1992, we spent more time sloshing around in the lab or at the customer sites than at the computer. Now the reverse is true. Sure, a lot can be gained by perusing technical literature but unless you play around with mixing some ingredients to see what comes out, you’re not going to make it. Quite a bit of what I have seen begins with empirical observations at first and if the results are promising, you’re going in the right direction. This is even without understanding the exact underlying principles at first. Of course, as the work progresses, you should try and figure out why you’re going in this direction or that because it allows you to tweak the process further in the right direction. It is definitely an iterative experimental endeavor pretty much like all science is.

About Dr. John K. Duchowski

Dr. Duchowski graduated with a B.Sc. in chemistry from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver and obtained his doctorate at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. From 1992 to 2004 he held the positions of a Principal Scientist in the Scientific and Laboratory Services Department and the VP of Technology in the Machinery & Equipment Division at Pall Corporation. In 2005 he moved to HYDAC FluidCareCenter GmbH where he is the Corporate Director - R&D Filtration. He addresses the effects of physical and chemical contaminants on the performance of hydraulic and lubricating systems and the fluids employed therein. He is a fellow of the STLE and holds CLS, OMA I and II certificates. He is a recipient of the Wilbur Deutsch and Edmond E. Bisson Memorial Awards for papers published in Tribology Transactions of the STLE.

In conversation with the Maintonia Magazine, Dr. John Duchowski reflects on the evolution of filtration technology, emphasizing the crucial role of empirical experimentation and interdisciplinary collaboration in driving innovation forward.

Dr. John K. Duchowski
Corporate Director - R&D Filtration at HYDAC FluidCareCenter GmbH