Resources > Feature Articles

Process Engineering

By Valerie Anderson

"A process engineer is an engineer who helps a plant to run as it should, whether working at an operational level or from mathematical modeling principles."

"It's critical that you keep your skills up to date... Keep networked into the community; go to trade shows."

To a great extent, process engineering is like a view of the Grand Canyon—what you see depends on where you stand. The job of an engineer in this field hinges largely on the employer and the project, but some aspects are common. Most process engineers, for example, have a degree in chemical engineering, and a great deal of process engineering involves some aspect of how a chemical or manufacturing plant works—the speed with which chemicals are produced, the design of chemical processing equipment such as a chemical reactor or a distillation column in a refinery, and issues such as safety, quality control and environmental impact.

A process engineer could create new processes to meet the specific needs of a given product or supervise plant construction, start-up or day-to-day operations, or modify existing systems to make them safer, more efficient or more environmentally friendly. "A process engineer," says Viswanathan Visweswaran, senior engineer at Mobil Technology Co. in Paulsboro, N.J., "is an engineer who helps a plant to run as it should, whether working at an operational level or from mathematical modeling principles. This work involves all the skills of chemical engineering-thermodynamics, engineering design and computer skills."

"I'm more involved with the business side of it," says Conor McDonald, research engineer at DuPont in Wilmington, Del. "You want to align your manufacturing operations with your business objectives, which basically means trying to run your manufacturing units to generate as much profit as possible. How you run your plants across the globe has a major impact on inventory levels, which affect cash flow. For example, if you have hundreds of spinning machines all over the world that are making nylon or Lycra, then deciding when and how much of a particular product to make to satisfy customer demand is a critical business decision. One of the reasons I was hired into this group is that DuPont wanted somebody who understands process engineering and who can apply optimization to align the manufacturing side to the business side." Almost anything that's manufactured could be part of a process engineer's job. The Society for the Advancement of Material and Process Engineering lists a few such products, including: adhesives, ballistic material, ceramics, protective coatings, sporting goods, medical products and materials for the reconstruction and conservation of museum artifacts.


Title: Research Engineer
Company: E. I. DuPont de Nemours & Co., Wilmington, Del.
Education: Bachelor of Engineering, University College, Dublin, Ireland; Ph.D., chemical engineering, Princeton University

Job Description: Works with the supply chain to best utilize the market by control of manufacturing and inventory processes.

Current Projects: "A multibillion-dollar business unit came to us and said, 'Given what we think the global demand is for our products, what should we be doing over the next 18 months?' We are developing a sales and operation planning process for them, using sophisticated mathematical modeling to help them allocate their resources and production targets over the next 18 months or two years.

"Another business unit wanted to know the optimal amount of inventory they should have in their warehouses across North America. Given the complications of business, this is not easy, because management always wants to reduce inventory and plants always want to increase it because in each case it makes their job easier."

Biggest Problem Encountered: "Any technical problem is always very large, just because of the size of DuPont."

Non-Technical Skills Needed to Succeed: "Communications is the most needed skill, making yourself understood by a large segment of people. I work in a small team, typically two people, but I have to talk to everyone-supply chain managers, manufacturing personnel, finance people. I'm working to solve problems with a broad set of constituents. I also have to understand what others are saying, because often they are describing what they think is the problem, when the problem may reside elsewhere. It was one of the biggest shocks I had coming out of grad school, because I always thought, 'If you do your job well, it's enough.' But it's really not enough at all. You also have to be able to communicate, and we're not trained for that in school at all."

Advice to Future Process Engineers: "It's critical that you keep your skills up to date. People graduating now have an advantage over the current work force in terms of computer skills and so on. Keep networked into the community; go to trade shows. And be aware of opportunities outside the engineering community; don't bury yourself in a plant somewhere. Of course, if you're going for a master's or a Ph.D. degree, you're automatically networked."


Title: Senior Engineer
Company: Mobil Technology Co., Paulsboro, N.J.(technology division of Mobil Oil)
Education: B. Tech., chemical engineering, Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay; Ph.D., chemical engineering, Princeton University

Job Description/Current Projects: "As part of the Modeling and Advanced Control Group, I have responsibility for developing and implementing detailed models for the lubricant processing operations, to predict how crude oil gets processed. To do this, I first conduct experiments which are bench-scale portions of the refinery processes, and use data from the experiments to build and validate models. Then I help the refineries use these models to improve their operations and optimize performance."

How He Knew This Was the Field for Him: "I have a fairly mathematical bent of mind, and I also like working with computers. That's a lot of what process engineering is about today. And it gives me a chance to work out at the refineries and plants."

Why He Took the Job: "First of all, Mobil is a highly regarded technical organization. Secondly, being in a big company, you get the chance to work on research and development applications. And Mobil is an international company, and I like to travel and see new places, to broaden my horizons."

Biggest Problems Encountered: "The biggest challenge is making sense of data. We get data from plants and from laboratories, and both kinds have a lot of fluctuations—quite often the instruments that are used to measure different things are not reliable or not calibrated properly. You spend a lot of time just determining what data is reliable and what's not."

Biggest Job Surprise: "I was surprised at how little technical work is actually used in the plants. A lot of what they do is very basic; they don't really utilize advances in technology, even from the last ten or 15 years.

"Also, I expected Mobil to have a very different atmosphere from a university. The people here have all been out of school for five or ten years or more, but I think the only thing they have that you don't when you enter the company is the practical perspective. You typically come in from academia with a more theoretical perspective. But once you start work, especially in a big company doing research, it's not very different from a university."

Non-Technical Skills Needed to Succeed: "The biggest non-technical skill you need is good interpersonal skills. I don't work alone at all; I work on projects all the time, with people of different backgrounds and very strong opinions. I have to be able to work with a team. And you also have to be able to communicate with people. You may be the best technical person in your field, but you have to be able to convince others that what you are doing is worthwhile. You have to have good communication skills, including presentation skills and the ability to listen properly, which is something people don't think about very often while they're in graduate school."

Advice to Future Process Engineers: "First of all, do not ignore the fundamentals. The things you learn in the first few courses in engineering are what you use often. You also have to be up to speed on computer-related skills. And keep an open mind about where process engineering is being used. It's not just for oil companies any more; it's for companies like Intel and Motorola."

process engineeringcareer profiles

Resources > Feature Articles