Education and collaboration for overcoming challenges in a complex manufacturing environment: An interview with Patrick Wasserman - Piping Engineer, Materials, Vessels, and Piping Technology (MVPT) and Stephen Henson - Mechanical Engineer, Materials, Vess

Eastman is a leading producer of specialty materials which are used in the manufacture products that we use every day, from baby bottles to passenger jets. The company is committed to advancing innovation through design and education, working collaboratively within teams and with customers to deliver innovative products and services in end-markets such as transportation, building and construction, and consumables. By Sarah Bradley

A not-so-typical day

It is hard to say what constitutes a “typical day” for anyone on the Piping Technology team in Kingsport, not least of all because they serve the company’s global piping needs. They are responsible for all things ‘pipes’, including working with metallurgists to determine the best material for any one of many applications in the nine hundred-acre complex. When the piping team is called in, it is to take care of problems outside of the realm of standard engineering: the more difficult applications, one-offs, and specialties. 

If everything goes as planned, they might spend a day working on pipe design, performing pipe stress, and flexibility analysis, writing codes and standards and providing expert support and guidance to the plant’s many engineers and support operators. However, it only takes one phone call to unsettle a carefully planned day, week, month, or even year. As on-site experts, it is up to piping engineers like Henson and Wasserman to determine the who, what, when, where, and why when something isn’t working properly at the complex and to do so at lightning speed.

“We chase problems,” Wasserman tells Stainless Steel World Americas. “It might be a problem that is time-dependent or there is a risk that somebody could lose money on a product, so we have to get on it. We try to get the best information we can and then we chase it until it is done. Everything else goes on the backburner.”
Material engineers play a huge role in helping the piping team to prevent and correct stress corrosion cracking and avoid potential issues associated with inferior metals.

They love a challenge – engineering in a legacy plant

The breadth of knowledge required to be able to respond to potential breaches in a manufacturing plant is formidable. In a multi-generational plant, it can be downright intimidating. Challenges as simple as limited floor space can make installing an engineered part seem impossible.

“Our buildings are numbered sequentially,” explains Henson. “I am working in Building 10 right now and it is older than my dad. It is tight – when the piping is over 500 degrees with only inches of clearance on either side, the project can be very difficult. I enjoy the challenge, but it can be very frustrating at the same time. All I want to do is put in the best design, but implementation is not always straight forward.”

As with many plants built over the course of decades, the team is also dealing with a lot of timeworn parts; pieces that are no longer available or no longer being manufactured. “We might come across a gasket that has been in a heat exchanger for 30 years,” says Wasserman. “There are products installed out here with the serial numbers one and two… and those are the only serial numbers that exist here or in the world!”

To eliminate the costly problem of obsolescence, the team has access to an inhouse digital reproduction group to recreate and rebuild these one-offs. With the FaroArm, a portable coordinate measuring machine (CMM), they can perform a dimensional analysis on the part, see what it looked like, what size it was and get its geometry. Once they have that information, technicians reverse engineer the part and create a solid model using SolidWorks, a computer-aided design (CAD) and computer- aided engineering (CAE) program. Now that they have a model, they can recreate the part onsite in the metal fabricating shop (‘the big shop’) and test it onsite.

“We have some great internal resources,” says Wasserman. “Eastman does an excellent job of investing and making sure that we have the right tools. A lot of people do not know that we team up with metallurgists on almost every project. We have a selection of metallurgists and metallurgical technicians onsite for materials specifications and testing.” By picking the brains of the metallurgists, the piping team has been able to learn more about the materials they are working with, what metal grades are out there and their individual properties. They tell us that it is important to know more than just what the metal is, but to know all the different properties of those metals and the differences between them. “Two metals could look the same,” explains Wasserman. “They could both be nickel alloys and be the same in every other way but one. One difference, for example thermal growth, can make a world of difference in an application. When you understand the properties of the metals and how they work, you can decide which one will be the best fit for a specific application.”

For reasons of longevity and corrosion- avoidance, carbon steel is increasingly being replaced by stainless steels. At Kingsport, there are processes that even degrade stainless steels, and those are the cases where the team has to start moving up to higher metal grades, the 304s, 316s and duplex stainless steels. “You start with your base,” explains Henson. “You decide if readily available material is appropriate for the application. If the answer is no, then you work your way up.”

It will come as no surprise to anyone in the engineering world that one of the biggest challenges our experts face is dealing with change in the industry, especially in a multigenerational workforce. Many of the operators working in the Kingsport facility have been working there since graduation and some are even second or third generation Eastman. It can be tough to convince these seasoned veterans to break away from the way it has been traditionally done.

“Getting people to embrace change is a challenge,” says Wasserman. “You really have to provide the science and the logic behind making a change, otherwise it might not take. It is much easier to give up and stick with what you are comfortable with.” For this and other reasons, the piping team at Eastman employs a simple yet effective philosophy when it comes to design: keep it simple. “The simpler the better,” says Henson. “Use standard parts, standard pieces. It is not about flexing our engineering muscles; it is about using those parts and pieces in an innovative way to make things safer and easier for the operators out in the field.”

Collaborating and coaching for personal growth

Eastman, as part of its corporate philosophy, believes that people are at the heart of its success. It is not only what is achieved but how it is achieved that is the measure of true success. For this reason, they are committed to achieving results through collaboration and bringing out the personal best in their people through coaching and mentorship. It was clear from speaking to our piping experts that this is not just empty corporate jargon. The Kingsport site runs smoothly on the principles of knowledge sharing, mentorship, continuous learning and community. This is no small feat in an industry that is beginning to experience a high number of retirees.
“I think some people see it as a threat to transfer some of the knowledge that they have earned over the years,” says Wasserman. “They want to keep their jobs; they want job security. But people do not feel threatened in our group, because we know how important it is to share knowledge, especially in a legacy plant when you really need to know the history of the place. If you can get someone to realize that you are not after their job, that you just want to help, it is not that hard.” 

When Henson wanted to learn more about piping, he found a mentor in Wasserman. Even now, though they work side by side, he tells us that Wasserman continues to be someone that he can look up to and learn from. The difference is experience; by sharing the knowledge that they earn with each other; they are able to do far more. That is the beauty of the job, according to Wasserman.

“While I may be considered a company expert on certain things, I am still learning. There is still a lot that I have not seen. I share what I learn with Stephen, and what he learns he shares with me. If the day comes that I am not learning anymore, it will stop being fun.” Luckily, on a site the size of Kingsport, that day will likely never come. We asked our piping experts what they see for the future of the industry and what role they, and Eastman, will play within it.

Innovation and community for long-term success

Maintaining success in the industry, in Henson’s opinion, comes down to diversity of product offerings and investing in innovation to move forward with new products and find innovative ways to use existing products. With its hand in so many different markets and continuing to expand into new and niche markets, Eastman is making smart choices for long-term term success as a specialty materials company.

Creating communities is something the company excels at. Henson is part of the Eastman Professional Development Club (EPDC), an in-house development association comprised of everyone from new hires to vice presidents. They host programs, dinners and social events for the whole of the Eastman community, and it goes a long way to attracting and retaining the best talent.

“The mentorship is about more than just engineering,” says Henson. “It is a community. I moved here from six hours away and through the (EPDC) I was able to come in and feel like I was at home from day one.” Wasserman, a father of four, also appreciates that the company encourages work life balance and strong ties to the community. “Nobody wants you to work one hundred hours of overtime,” he says. “They want you to have a family and a life. It is a beautiful place to raise a family and an excellent job; I would not trade it for anything in the world.”


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