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Project Engineering

Responsibility is the name of the game in project engineering, and it can come in many forms. From directing a team of individuals and keeping track of a project's status to evaluating economic factors for future jobs, project engineers have a hand in many aspects of development and post-production support.

By the editors of gecc

Project engineers are responsible for overseeing the various stages of development for a variety of products and projects. It is their responsibility to make sure that the various parts are progressing, and that the project works as a whole. Project engineers are generally involved at every level of development—from concept to production and everything in between. This often requires them to know about a broad range of subjects, from economics to materials.

The variety of tasks and greater level of responsibility require organization, patience and the ability to deal with people well. At times, it can even involve asking people to do you favors. For example, project engineer Kathy Hugle often has no more than two months' notice on some of her projects. Says Hugle, "Most of our projects are long-term and mine tend to be very short-term, so as a general rule when I walk up to someone [with an analysis to review] I'm asking them to interrupt their schedule."

Scheduling for engineers like Hugle and Scott Vigal of Data Transmission Network is often made difficult by the sheer number of projects they are overseeing simultaneously. Says Vigal, "I can have 15 open projects on my board at any one time, and one of the hard things is managing the work flow," because each project is in a different phase.

NAME: Kristin Van Reesema

Title: Senior Project Engineer
Company: CMS Energy, Dearborn, Mich.
Education: B.S., Mechanical Engineering, Michigan State University

Job Description: "I'm involved with the initial contact for potential development or buying projects. I evaluate what we're looking for, asking whether the project fits with the company's strategy and existing assets. It also involves looking at what types of contracts are involved in the acquisition and how they impact the economics of the project.

"The job involves looking at a project from a physical and paper standpoint. On a more general level, it's understanding the industry, reading industry magazines and knowing what's going on in the business."

Current Projects: "Recently we did an acquisition of a pipeline called Panhandle. Parts of what I did involved evaluating the economics, the revenues, the expenses, and what we could do with the project and determining if there were other projects that could be added to make it more economical. [After that,] we went in to their management, negotiated a deal and signed the purchase order and sale agreement. Right now I'm working to move it through the Federal Antitrust Commission. We just completed the due diligence stage which is where we review operations and ask: is the pipe good, does it need repairs, what will the repairs cost, how many people work there, can we run it cheaper, etc."

Biggest Surprise About Working: "Making sure that the people who have expertise are part of the team. Quality people are important. When there's a missing link it hurts the project more than you think."

How She Knew This Was the Field for Her: "I started with the details and design. I moved away from that because I wanted a broader view of how the project was impacting the company, a sense of what there was for the company to do and how it made money. I went from design to project managing because it offered a better understanding of the whole operation."

Advice to Future Project Engineers: "Getting a design base is important. Starting in design or operations is a good thing because it gives you exposure to the operations of the facility. Then, when you move into project management you understand what's required to get the details done."

NAME: Jim Quinn

Title: Project Engineer
Company: Imperial Schrade Corp., Ellenville, N.Y.
Education: B.S., Mechanical Engineering, Florida Institute of Technology

Job Description:

  • Product design
  • Tooling design
  • CNC [computer numerical control] programming for cutting and tooling prototype parts
  • Dealing with outside vendors, mold-makers and toolmakers
  • Coordinating outside work and the print work necessary to get the parts in house

Current Projects: "Currently I have a design project. We're a cutlery manufacturer and I'm working on a new knife. I took it from a marketing sketch to CAM/CAD renderings to a prototype which was approved by the marketing department. Then I coordinated the necessary engineering drawings, jobbed out the molding aspects to the mold-maker, and dealt with an outside supplier for rivets and fasteners. And finally I implemented it on the production floor. It's about a six-month process from a sketch to production."

Why He Accepted His Current Job: "There were a variety of job responsibilities, not just one particular thing. I am involved in everything: machine maintenance, plant maintenance and design. It's a small company with a large array of things to do, and the job's not the same day after day."

Biggest Surprise About Working: "Paperwork. I was really surprised at the amount of paperwork involved in a project."

Biggest Problems Encountered: "Primarily I debug the programming and repair malfunctioning machines."

Advice to Future Project Engineers: "Hands-on skills are very important, for example, being able to create prototypes on your own without relying on the toolroom personnel. Also, it's important to be patient and have the ability to deal with people well."

NAME: Kathy Hugle

Title: Project Engineer
Company: Vogt-Nem, Inc., Louisville, Ky.
Education: B.S. and M. Eng., Mechanical Engineering, University of Louisville

Job Description: "We supply industrial-size steam boilers and I specialize in the after-market aspects and deal with some of our licensees overseas. As a general rule part of my day is spent with my ongoing after-market repair or replacement projects, overseeing the engineering, reviewing the drawings, coordinating the activities with drafting and other departments, checking on materials and requisitioning materials. The other half of my day is spent in technical support for the field and for our licensees and manufacturing partners overseas. Support can be anything from doing a review to analyzing test data to make sure the units are performing as they are guaranteed, to interfacing with the customer to make sure that everybody's happy with everybody else's performance."

Current Projects: "One of my ongoing projects is with a licensee in Turkey. It's an emerging market and there are a lot of small units going in over there. We do the thermal design of [the boiler] and give them the information and they finish the mechanical design. With our support they build the unit, install it, get it performance tested and kicked off.

"I also have the after-market in the United States. We are replacing about two-thirds of the pressure parts in one of the boilers that had a water quality problem. We are installing an economizer section, basically a water heat transfer section, in the back end of a boiler that was built in the mid '80s by one of our competitors."

Why She Accepted Her Current Position: "I like the fact that I need to be an expert in a few things but I also need to know a little bit about a lot of things. What I like about this job is it's always a learning opportunity. Especially in my position supporting our licensees, I get a lot of questions all the way across the board, from boiler water quality to structural engineering. I've even learned a little bit about seismic codes the world over and it's pretty much the main reason that I took this job as a project engineer. I get into a little bit of everything."

Biggest Surprise About Working: "Probably getting used to how information flows in a company and the fact that you're working with personalities instead of problems in a book. There are people who don't want to hear 'Hello, how are you? Have you had a nice day?' when you walk into their office. They prefer that you state the problem so they can give you an answer and everyone can get on with their lives. You do, of course, have to work with the fact that in an office some people get along with each other better than others.

"Sometimes on an engineering team, stating things one way instead of another in a meeting can prevent a long drawn out argument between two of your team members. You have a tendency to think that all engineers will be practical and there will be no personality issues and I haven't run into any extremes, but it is something that you have to learn to take into account, especially when you start dealing with people outside the company."

Non-Technical Skills Needed to Succeed: "A good command of the language. People are not careful how they phrase things. For example, you get a request and you can't tell what it's really asking for. It could be a yes or no answer or it could be something where you have to do 12 hours worth of work. I've learned to be careful how I state things, and to keep it short and sweet. Engineering is a technical profession and you have got to get down on paper in simple terms exactly what you're doing, or what you want."

NAME: Scott Vigal

Title: Special Projects Manager
Company: Data Transmission Network, Omaha, Neb.
Education: Associate's Degree, Computer Science, Community College of the Air Force; B.S., Computer Science, University of Nebraska at Omaha

Job Description: "As the engineering project manager, I manage a team of programmers that develop applications. Right now my team is focused on stock market applications and processing stock market feeds to support the Data Transmission Network products. I review the status of our current projects, checking on the progress. The work involves project requirements, planning, coding, testing, design reviews, things like that. We serve quite a few industries, including automotive, electrical equipment, freight industries, agricultural, financial, energy, weather, aviation, government, turf management and construction. The engineering department is basically a corporate resource to Data Transmission Network and the different product groups."

Current Projects: "We just finished up a project in which the Nasdaq-Amex stock market had some requirements that they needed their vendors to display in their feed. That involved changing a number of applications and when we went through the project requirements I matched up the work to be done with the right engineer. Then we let them come up with what had to be done, write the requirements and then actually do the work. After that we all did the system testing together."

Biggest Problems Encountered: "There are always going to be things that come up that you don't expect. For example, one of our data vendors will have a problem and we have to react very quickly to protect our system or implement changes for our customers. Several months ago there was a meteor shower that presented some technical problems for us in which we had to make contingency plans in case our satellites were hit by meteors. That's something that you don't expect every day."

Non-Technical Skills Needed to Succeed: "I think communication and writing skills, aside from the programming skills, are the things that can really help somebody. That's what we all try to work on, writing good documents, good specs, keeping our systems documented well so that if we were to lose somebody we know what that person was working on. With project management you want to have very well documented systems and system designs. At DTN we look at our people as true engineers and we expect them to come up with the design and that points to the need for good writing skills because we have to write out component designs.

"Also general communication skills are important. We're working with other teams in other departments within the company, and we don't expect the product areas to be the experts in the technical field, that's our job. We have to really pin down what the project requirements are. It almost requires interviewing skills."

How He Knew This Was the Field for Him: "Computers always interested me and I started doing computer programming and determined that's what I wanted to get my degree in. I did that and right after school I fell into a job with a small company here in town. Working for that company got me introduced at DTN and I started as a programmer here. As the company grew, the projects started getting much more complicated and numerous. We had to build this project engineering functionality into our engineering department and as one of the more senior people, those duties passed to me so I kind of fell into it."

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