Alumni Profiles Series: Richard Hollenbach

 February 14, 2024

Dr. Richard Hollenbach received his B.S. in mechanical engineering from the University of Pittsburgh. At Duke, he received both his M.S. and Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and materials science, conducting research in the Duke Aeroelasticity Group under Dr. Robert Kielb. He completed certificates in Aerospace Engineering, Innovation & Entrepreneurship, and College Teaching. His thesis work revolved around investigating the “lock-in” phenomenon that occurs when external flow frequency, such as vortex shedding, nears the natural frequency of a structure, such as a turbine blade. He spent time working with the aeromechanics group at Rolls-Royce as an intern, and upon graduation he began work as an engineering consultant at Exponent Consulting in the thermal sciences group. While at Duke, Ricky served as co-president of the APD Consulting Club (now known as Duke Advanced-degree Consulting Club) and was a frequent contributor to this blog. He was recognized with the Forever Duke Student Leadership Award.

Tell me about your role as an engineering consultant.

Compared to regular engineering positions, we have a lot of flexibility in what we do, and we jump around a lot. Depending on what projects we are working on at the time, I may spend an entire week doing intensive engineering calculation to support a steam turbine analysis, or I might have a week where I spend 30 minutes to a few hours on 10-15 different projects. In addition, if something breaks or catches on fire, we can travel a lot to incident sites to do in-person investigations.

Aside from the official engineering work, though, there is a lot of professional development that I do during downtimes: people development, recruiting, business and marketing trainings, and especially keeping up to date with the technical cutting edge and learning new things, which I really enjoy. For example, we started a project involving liquified natural gas, which I knew nothing about coming from an aerospace background. But during the project, I was handed a textbook and told, “Hey, this is a good reference. We use this a lot in our reports, so go ahead and just dive in and start reading it,” which is a great way to build up a new knowledge base. That way if a project like this ever comes up again, I will be able to utilize the expertise I built up during this one.

How would you say the role of a consultant differs from that of a more traditional engineer?

The biggest difference is the type of work that we take on—most engineering design roles are “proactive” in nature, where you might be, say, designing a new turbine or car. For consulting at my firm, 90% of the time instead I am doing “reactive” work. Exponent is frequently hired by attorneys after there’s an accident or explosion, or for less dramatic things like contract disputes. For example, a company may have had a contract to receive a solar power plant that could produce X gigawatts of power, but it does not produce the amount specified. The owners sue based on the contract, and we come in and look at the evidence and write a technical report on it. We then have people who are really established in the field, like principal engineers and principal scientists, who go to court and get questioned by lawyers and give their professional opinion.

That is not to say that we do not do “proactive” work as well—we can still be hired directly by companies to support the development of new products or to address manufacturing or reliability issues. Most of the time though, those kinds of companies will already have internal engineers, and Exponent’s support may not be necessary if a company already has the expertise in-house. The one exception are startups, which sometimes do not have the kind of engineering expertise in-house yet, which is where we can be very useful. Additionally, we can be an objective third party to conduct work on someone’s behalf, or if they want a fresh set of eyes to work on a complex problem.


Why did you choose consulting over other roles?

I had a lot of different experiences while I was at Duke for my graduate degree. I was able to intern at Rolls-Royce, and I actually applied to G.E. Aviation as well post-graduation, but I also was able to work with the Duke APD Consulting Club doing a lot of pro-bono consulting work ranging from a financial startup to data mining work. That gave me the experience of people coming in and hiring you for your expertise in solving a particular problem, which I really loved. As much as designing the next cool aerospace thing is fun, I learned from four years of working on one project that I didn’t want to stay on only one project for too long, and consulting gives me that ability to wear a bunch of different hats—doing experimental lab work one day and working out in the field measuring things and taking photos the next. I also did the Certificate in College Teaching at Duke, which was also useful in figuring out that while I liked some pieces of teaching, it wasn’t something I wanted to do full-time, at least not right out of school.

Overall, I really think that trying a lot of different things during your Ph.D. is important, and I am especially thankful that my advisor pushed me to do an internship the summer of my first year. That really gave me insight into what a graduate student in industry looks like, distinct from what an undergraduate might be doing in their day-to-day work, which helped inform my post-graduation goals and plans.

What kind of work does Exponent take on?

Exponent is organized into practices, which is somewhat analogous to an academic department at a university. I am in the Thermal Sciences practice group, which is a mix of mechanical engineers that are focused on fluid dynamics/heat transfer, as well as a group of chemical engineers, fire protection engineers, naval engineers, etc. I focus on turbomachinery, but my practice also conducts work on projects involving, for example, heat transfer equipment, car fires, explosions, and boilers. That said, Exponent has over 600 Ph.D.-level engineers and scientists specializing in over 90 technical disciplines. Our expertise spans across all disciplines of Engineering as well as Human Factors, Construction, Health & Environmental Sciences, and Chemical Regulation & Food Safety, to name a few. The work we do is very interdisciplinary, however, and we often leverage consultants with diverse expertise across a wide range of practice groups to solve complex problems for clients that are at the intersection of multiple technical areas.

To quote my online profile a bit, I have worked on “large-scale aerospace related arbitrations,” “performed domestic and international inspections” and even “utilize[d] computational fluid dynamics software to study thermal and fluid systems, including pressurized hydraulic brake cables for vehicle applications.” A list of our capabilities, initiatives, and projects can be found all over our recently renovated website.

What were the best things you did while at Duke that you would recommend?

I worked in the Foundry while I was doing my Ph.D. and that was a fun stress relief to put aside all my research work and build something or mentor students. Even the cleaning and organizing was a good break for when research got intense. I think it is a real hidden gem on campus and more people should use it, not just freshmen that are assigned a class in it. Aside from that, I think everyone should go to a basketball game too—I attended one Duke-UNC game and we won, so I was very happy with that. Graduate students should especially attend [through GPSG Campout], because tenting is much easier and it’s just one weekend in September or October, so it’s much warmer [than the cold undergraduate tenting experience].


Vincent Wang headshot
Vincent Wang

Ph.D. student, Mechanical Engineering

Vincent Wang is a first-year Ph.D. student in the Thomas Lord Department of Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science, currently working with Dr. Leila Bridgeman in designing autonomous ultrasound systems for breast cancer screening and diagnosis. He received his undergraduate degree in engineering from Duke and has spent time working with Dr. Robert Kielb and the Duke Aeroelasticity group in designing a linear cascade setup for investigating the effects of flutter in a wind tunnel.