21 Tips for Graduate Chemical Engineers

When you leave university and get a job most engineering graduates are thrown in the deep end, expected to be competent in the work place and in a new industry. This can be very daunting and is a time full of unknowns. Below are some tips to try to make sense of the exciting new position that graduate chemical engineers find themselves in.

1. Learn the value of networking

Networking both inside and outside your profession and industry is extremely important. It is much easier to get a job through the recommendation of a colleague than through a blind resume. Networking also opens the opportunity for business deals, and career progression, and can be done in any social event.

2. Build your reputation

“It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.”

Benjamin Franklin

Having a good reputation goes a long way to achieving success both in terms of everyday work activities and long-term career progression.

3. Set career goals

What do you want to get out of your current job? High pay, development opportunities, ability to travel, experience? Think about what you are trying to achieve and you may see things in a different perspective. Look forward 2, 5, and 10 years and set clear, achievable goals. This will give you direction and purpose in your work and your career.

4. Get a mentor

Learning from an experienced engineer can significantly reduce the amount of time wasted at a new job. Find out who the shot callers are, the history of the plant, previous successful projects, and potential career opportunities.

5. Get to know the people on the coal face

The people actually doing the work, operating the process, and maintaining the equipment see the problems and potential solutions everyday. Get to know them and hear their ideas and you will save yourself a huge amount of time. For a graduate engineer there are a lot of practical systems that are critical to process improvement that you will not know without operating the equipment. Get your hands dirty and it will help you in the long run.

6. Take time to develop yourself

Your own development as an engineer is something that you should work on throughout your entire career. Professional associations, conferences, and networking opportunities are all ways to progress your skill and career. Technical experience and improving your soft skills take time, but are worth it in the long run.

7. Never stop learning

University teaches the general overview in terms of theoretical fundamentals. As you delve into individual piece of equipment, processing plant strategies, and synergy between equipment you will discover that there is a huge amount that you do not know. Go through journal articles, textbooks, and old site documentation and you will go a long way to remove this knowledge gap.

8. Don’t chase the dollar

Chemical engineers are generally very well paid. Early in your career it can be very difficult to refuse a high paying job to focus on gaining experience and exposure to different industries. Think long-term about your development as an engineer and what your current decisions will have on your future career aspirations.

9. Work in the field

What is actually happening in the plant cannot be seen from a computer screen. Studying the process trends is important, but there are many changes that can only be seen visually in the field. Blown pump glands, filter cloth holes, steam leaks, and water ingress can all have a major impact on a processing plant’s performance, and are difficult to identify through instrumentation. Try to spend as much time outside as you can and think of every trip as a learning opportunity.

10. Expose yourself to other people’s expertise

Every project no matter how small will involve dozens of different disciplines, whether it is the process, instrumentation, mechanical standards, site standards, operability or ease of maintenance. Exposing yourself to all these different areas will mean that you can consider their impact in much greater detail and reduce the number of revisions that are required to make everybody happy.

11. Learn how to manage time

In any professional environment there are a lot of urgent matters which will take your attention away from the work that really matters. Learning how to manage your own time as well as prioritize the work that will make a long term difference is important to seeing real process gains.

12. Learn how to manage projects

Project management is an extremely valuable skill to have. Hundreds of books have been written on the subject because the difference between a good project manager and a poor one can result in months of delays and millions of dollars in additional costs. Learn early about how to manage small projects and you will have much greater success in future, larger projects.

13. Improve your technical writing skills

Remember that a lot of processing plants will be running long after you have left and consider the problems that you have successfully and unsuccessfully solved. Imagine a new engineer taking your role and the amount of time that could be saved if they do not have to repeat your mistakes. Documentation is extremely important, and the technical writing ability to show the full story is critical. Technical writing also allows you to justify capital expenditure, change operating practices and improve general plant performance.

14. Change your presentation style

Universities provide opportunities for students to practice presenting to a group of their peers, but in the real world you will be presenting to very different groups of people – business leaders, management, technical experts, operations, maintenance, and every group in between. The ability to persuade and effectively present your point of view can be the difference between project success and cancellation. Find out who you are presenting to, what you want to gain out of the presentation, and how you are going to achieve this long before you actually present and you will go a long way to achieving success.

15. Study the P&IDs

Learning how your process works is more than just looking at the flow diagrams. Studying the P&IDs will teach you were important instrumentation is, line sizes, drain lines, possible line-ups and dozens of other useful and practical tools. Going out into the plant and following the lines with an accurate P&ID should be one of the first activities any graduate does.

16. Never trust the P&IDs

Particularly with older processing plants – never trust the P&IDs! After various ‘quick fix’ solutions, maintenance changes, and equipment age it is inevitable that some P&IDs do not accurately represent the actual plant. Make sure you verify all information before making any important decisions. A small amount of time checking could save you a lot of errors and embarrassment down the track.

17. Spend as much time on site as possible

You can work in an office when you are old and grey. No amount of design is as important as how the equipment is actually used. Take every opportunity to see different unit operations in production and you will gain a lot of insight into problems and potential improvements.

18. Think about the big picture

As much as it feels like your project is the only thing that matters, it can often be a small piece in a much larger puzzle. Take a step back and look at the big picture. This will often give you more insight into the real purpose of your project. Are you looking at energy efficiency gains for production increase, cost reduction, or environmental reasons?

19. Teach as much as you are taught

Although it often feels like you are a complete beginner, remember that you have years of education that others do not. Passing this knowledge on to processing plant operations is a great way to improving the decisions they make. Everything that you learn is something that other people may not know. Take the opportunity to train the crews and they will reward you in operational excellence.

20. Don’t re-invent the wheel

Unless the processing plant that you are working at is already operating at near full capacity and theoretical fuel efficiency there is no need to re-invent the wheel. Tried methods for improvement are simple and effective, and usually do not require brand new technology. Look for the ‘low hanging fruit’ and work on projects that are simple and provide the biggest returns on your time/investment. Once you have got some more experience then start looking for the major industry breakthrough.

21. Experience, Experience, Experience

Try to experience as many different pieces of equipment, analytical methods, control strategies, projects, and processes as you can. This gives you a major advantage over other engineers, and allows you to draw solutions from many different systems. The ability to pick the best from a wide range of situations is key to success.

 

Graduating from university as a chemical engineer is just the first step. If you have any advice of your own to share please comment below.

How to Increase Chemical Plant Profitability – Part 5 – Consumables Reduction

One of the most common methods for reducing a processing plant’s expense costs and increase profitability is through consumable reduction.

This could include anything from:

  • Mill balls
  • Specialty chemicals
  • Filter cloths
  • Cleaning supplies, eg. acid
  • Anodes

Consumable reduction

Understand the mechanism

Understanding the mechanism of the consumable is the first step. Whether it is understanding that mill ball wear rates are a function of surface area, or that acid washing consumption is based on equipment online time or impurity concentrations.

This process can often take a lot of reading through journal articles or textbooks to understand the fundamentals, and then conducting a series of experiments and data analysis to justify your own process and decision making.

Improve instrumentation and process control

One of the best ways I have found to reduce chemical dosing consumption is to improve the instrumentation and process control. Often simple chemical dosing system will just dose at a fixed flow or pump output.

In reality the optimum dose is generally as a volumetric ratio to the main flow. If this flow is variable, then there will be a large portion of the time when the specialty chemical is either over or underdosing. Improving the flow metering and implementing a flow ratio controller will both improve the performance and reduce consumption.

Trial new technology

Technology is always advancing, and there are companies who’s sole purpose is to reduce consumable use. For example, if you are looking at reducing the use of filter clothes there are dozens of filter cloth manufacturers who spend a lot more time looking at this and have dozens of different products all for different industries and purposes.

Trialing new technologies is a great way to find more effective and more resistant materials. It also helps you to understand what different components or fundamentals play the biggest part in providing robustness and reducing cost.

Consumable reduction is a great place to start in improving processing plant profitability, and can often be a simple and straight forward practice to reducing operating costs.

6 Tips to Improve Engineering Spreadsheets

As a chemical engineer you are guaranteed to spend hundreds of hours in excel creating spreadsheets, pouring through data, performing analysis, and filtering outliers. One of the hardest tasks is to take another person’s poorly structured spreadsheet and true to understand their logic. These 5 tips give a way to help improve engineering spreadsheets and avoid spending time deciphering poorly structured calculations.

improve engineering spreadsheets

  1. Colour co-ordinate cells

I am a big fan of using different colour codes on different cells types. You can set one colour for input cells, one colour for calculations, one colour for constants and coefficients, and another for outputs.

This makes it very clear which cells should be modified, and which ones can be left alone.

  1. Use conditional formatting

Conditional formatting will automatically change the colour and style of a cell based on any number of equations. For example if you are performing a series of economic analysis looking at different options you could set that negative economic outcomes where presented in red and positive outcomes are green.

You can also set data bars and colour scales to highlight a range of cells from large to small. This makes it very easy to find outliers when looking through a large data sheet full of numbers.

  1. Document calculation logic and data sources

If you pull out a spreadsheet from several months ago it should be structured in such a way that it is as easy to understand now as it was the day it was created. A great way of doing this is to document the calculation logic in a step-by-step manner.

It is also important to put in the sources for important data so that it can be checked or updated if conditions have changed.

  1. Use Macros to replace tedious tasks

For some spreadsheets that are updated frequently it can be a chore to constantly change or move data around. It can also cause errors to appear if a mistake is made.

Macros can be an easy solution, that while take some time to set up initially, can reduce wasted time in the future. This is particularly useful if a set of maneuvers can be automated with a single button click.

  1. Use Auto Sort & Filter

For data analysis the automatic sort & filter tool is a time saver. By eliminating irrelevant data sets it can make the solution clear or at least provide more representative data quickly and easily.

Applying this tool to a large data set is very useful at reducing thousands upon thousands of data sets to the few key pieces of information you are hunting for.

  1. Freeze headings

For very large spreadsheets a simple way to improve the ability to understand is to freeze the headings. This means that it does not matter how far down or across you scroll, the headings will come with you.

I spend the majority of my working week using excel, and I still set up my spreadsheets with a poor structure, but it is an important skill to practice. And over time it will make your whole team’s efficiency increase just to improve engineering spreadsheets.

 

Increase Chemical Plant Profitability – Part 3 – Production

This is Part 3 of the How to Increase Chemical Plant Profitability series.

One of the most popular methods to increase plant profitability is to increase the production capacity of the site without using any additional equipment. This method is most common amongst production of commodities where the sale of the product is almost guaranteed.

This works in two ways:

  1. Direct increase in profit from increased quantity of sales
  2. Efficiency increase through dilution of fixed losses

The first part is fairly self explanatory, so I won’t dwell on that but part two only works without replicating existing production lines.

Focusing on energy efficiency fixed losses are based on temperature (which is generally controlled) and surface area of the vessels (which are fixed). So by increasing flow through the circuit the heat losses remain the same. This means that profitability can be increased by improving energy efficiency through increased flow/production.

production_dilutes_fixed_losses(1)

 

But heat losses are only one of the expenses that can be diluted out through increased production. If the increased production can be done without needing to hire additional people then the total site labour costs can also be diluted out. Anything from energy, to labour, and maintenance costs can be reduced per tonne is this manner.

The actual method of how to increase production is incredibly subjective and cannot be explored in any detail in this general article, but the theory is to identify and eliminate any bottlenecks. This can include anything including:

  • Pumping capacity
  • Storage capacity
  • Customer requirements
  • Ability to hit control setpoints
  • Any equipment capability
  • Labour requirements
  • Maintenance speed
  • Breakdown frequency

The idea behind this method of improving site profitability is fairly easy to grasp so it doesn’t need much detail but the actual execution can be very difficult and time consuming.