Just Another Day, Scattering Neutrons: Timken Researchers Advance Ground-Breaking Work

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Just Another Day, Scattering Neutrons: Timken Researchers Advance Ground-Breaking Work

The quality of a company’s products and services is directly related to the quality of its people, and it takes time and commitment to develop a top-notch labor force. That’s why Timken leaders place an emphasis not only on identifying smart, hardworking associates—but also on encouraging them to make significant advancements in their fields.

Vikram Bedekar and Rohit Voothaluru offer great examples. Both appear to lead fairly low-key lives as engineers at Timken’s Canton, Ohio, facility. Get to know them a bit, however, and you start hearing about the opportunities their careers have afforded them: Traveling the world to present cutting-edge work, rubbing elbows with Nobel Laureates, winning international awards, and conducting experiments in the same laboratory where researchers are making advancements in quantum computing and nuclear medicine.

Pioneering research at a state-of-the-art facility

Bedekar and Voothaluru are co-authors of a 2018 paper published as a result of research they conducted at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee. ORNL was established in 1943 and is one of only a few facilities in the world to offer neutron scattering equipment. To create neutrons, you have to be able to do nuclear fission, which is not something many materials science labs are authorized to do, much less capable of attempting.

The genesis of the Timken team’s neutron research occurred in 2015. A team of technologists developing advanced heat treat technologies for the company’s new plant in Prahova, Romania, needed to analyze the effects of the stresses generated during the new manufacturing process. Back in the Timken R&D lab, Bedekar and Voothaluru could use x-rays to identify part distortions, but x-rays reach only 200 microns below the surface.

X-ray analysis couldn’t help the team understand and adjust stressors in the thickest parts of a bearing without cutting the bearing ring—a step that destroyed the surface radiance. “There was a technical gap in the bearing industry,” says Voothaluru. “No one had solved it.”

The team applied and was accepted for research on the topic at Oak Ridge’s High Flux Isotope Reactor (HFIR), which offers the fastest neutron capability in the world. The faster a neutron travels, the higher the penetration, Bedekar explains. Neutrons don’t carry an electrical charge, a quality which allows them to pass through material without affecting it or being affected by it. In that process, they reveal information about the material’s structure and properties.

Using the HFIR’s Neutron Residual Stress Mapping Facility, Bedekar and Voothaluru developed models for quantitatively estimating the distortions resulting from manufacturing stresses. “Now, we have a baseline we can use to predict manufacturing stress distortions for any product produced in a subtractive machining process.” says Voothaluru. “We were the first to do that.”

The career benefits of working for an industry trailblazer

Timken stands out for its support of such research, and for its commitment to ongoing, advanced product innovation. Before Bedekar participated in the neutron study, he was involved in another ORNL study, analyzing how atoms move near the surface of machine parts. “Nobody had done that before, either,” he says.

That kind of opportunity is huge for young engineers looking to make a mark at their first job out of college. “It’s exciting to think about building a career on Timken’s wealth of experience,” says Voothaluru. “Timken is a global leader in bearing technology, and there’s a continual opportunity to contribute toward helping the company stay at the forefront.”

While the work itself is exciting, Bedekar and Voothaluru also enjoy the travel and recognition that come with publishing and sharing the results. Both participate actively in engineering organizations, such as the Paris-based International Academy for Production Engineering (CIRP) and ASM International.

Left to right: Rohit Voothaluru, product development specialist and Vikram Bedekar, materials specialist.

Presenting published papers to peers in those organizations is always a career highlight. “You often have one or two hundred students and professors in the room, from top universities around the world,” says Bedekar. “The students ask questions, and discussions can get quite animated. It’s great affirmation of your work.”

At industry conferences, the two associates often find themselves brushing elbows with luminaries in the field. “I’ve met a couple of Nobel Laureates,” says Voothaluru. “Being involved in these international organizations gives us prominence in the scientific community and access to the latest academic research.”

Both have also won awards as a result of their work. In 2014, Bedekar received CIRP’s F.W. Taylor Medal for research he had completed as part of his PhD at Ohio State University. The award, recognizing outstanding research by scientists younger than 35, had been presented to only eight Americans in 65 years.

Last year, Voothaluru was inducted into Heat Treat Today’s “40 Under 40” Class of 2018, for his contributions in the heat treat market. Two other Timken engineers, Wei Guo and Lee M. Rothleutner, received that honor, as well.

Recently, Bedekar was tapped as a liaison for an ORNL user group and tasked with promoting industry involvement with ORNL. “I’ve seen only four or five companies running studies there,” he says. “Timken is special because not only do we do research there, but we also follow through and publish our work.”

Mentoring students around the world

Timken’s involvement with international organizations and academic institutions pays off in another important way: It makes it easier to identify smart graduate students doing work that could prove valuable to the company. Both Bedekar and Voothaluru mentor students at institutions around the world.

“When we go to conferences, we meet people doing similar work,” says Bedekar. “We always have a problem we’re trying to solve, and sometimes those problems require fundamental work that would make a good doctoral dissertation.” Timken sponsors students doing significant work in fields that could prove valuable to the company, collaborating with universities and the professors who oversee the research.

Bedekar and Voothaluru appreciate Timken’s student sponsorship program because that’s how they started out at the company. They both came to U.S. universities from India in their early 20s to be snapped up by Timken researchers while pursuing their PhDs.

Both appreciate the fact that Timken offers stimulating problems to solve and significant opportunities to advance their careers. They also appreciate the company’s culture of diversity. “It’s not just a matter of geographical diversity, although that certainly is another benefit,” says Voothaluru. “We tend to also have diversity in the way we think, which promotes a wonderful, collaborative dynamic.”

In an era when it’s rare for employees to stay with a company for more than a few years, it’s not uncommon for Timken associates to spend the bulk of their careers with the company.

“We continually push the limits of science and understanding—uncovering knowledge that hasn’t been explored before,” says Bedekar. “To do that, we use the most state-of-the-art facilities available in the entire world. That makes every day exciting.”