- Course: MEng Chemical Engineering (Industrial)
- Nationality: British
- Job title: Student process engineer
- Company: INVISTA
What is the name of the company you work for and what do they do?
I am currently employed by a company entitled INVISTA, a large US based engineering licensing organisation, and one of the world's largest integrated producers of polymers and fibres; primarily nylon, spandex and polyester. INVISTA is an independently managed wholly owned subsidiary of Koch Industries, Inc. which is one of the largest privately owned companies in the world, with revenues of approximately $115 billion per annum. It manufactures polymers and fibres with operations in about 20 countries principally serving; the apparel, surfaces and engineering plastics market sectors. The business I am most engaged with is called Invista Performance Technology. This business was spawned from the earlier ICI Polyester and Nylon business which subsequently were acquired by DuPont before finally becoming integrated into Koch Industries. It licenses process technology to leading growth markets predominantly across Asia, principally focusing on sale of technologies for manufacture of Terephthalic acid, Butanediol, Tetrahydrofuran and Poly-tetra-methylene-ether-glycol (PTMEG). Licensing involves agreeing plant specification with clients, detailed design of new plants, client support through plant construction, operator training, and commissioning support when the plants are brought on-line.
What is your role within the company?
I am employed as a student process engineer, with similar roles to a graduate chemical engineer joining the company for the first time. This role includes process engineering and design work consistent with the expectations of my supervisors, for which there are many. I currently have two specific development projects that I am involved with, which both emphasise the improvement of the process cost basis for a manufacturing plant. I am carrying out studies into both heat recovery (by reusing steam raised from a hot process duty) and performing heat integration studies using pinch analysis. The aim of this is to provide a design basis for the incorporation of retrofits into existing plant designs, whilst in addition providing a future platform regarding new plant designs. I am also conducting research to assist the development of a new filtration system, with the aim of increasing plant operation time: the latter is at a point now where it needs to be demonstrated on a full-scale plant in the USA. I provided the sizing basis for the preliminary design and economic assessment based on the experimental procedures I completed in the laboratory.
Typically I have to assimilate into a perspective of a project which has been designed many years ago, many current plants were established in the sixties thus with current restrictions and regulations regarding emissions, pollution and climate control they must subsequently be updated to function in the contemporary high efficiency energy market. With so much of my work consisting of developing retrofits for long standing plants, or developing an alternative piece of apparatus which is more dynamically practicable, I have had gross opportunities to get involved with preliminary design of many chemical plant components, including a filter in the Butyne-1, 4-diol reactor. By re-evaluating flow sheets and reviewing data sheets, I not only assist in developing the future of these processes but simultaneously get to study the history development of the technology. I have given presentations to a multi-national board of business leaders, commissioned and operated my own experiments in the commercial lab, reviewed data sheets, re-designed process flow sheets and utilized a number of engineering software packages including; Aspen One, HTRI and K-G Tower (by Koch-Glitsch), all have which have aided my development as an engineer.
Can you please give me an insight into a typical day?
I usually start the day around 08:30am: living in Middlesbrough makes the commute only a 20 minute drive, straight down the A66 and onto the Wilton site where the offices are located. Once at work I check my calendar, the majority of people utilize outlook so it is easier to monitor and organise events, instant updates can be sent to everyone involved with the standard meeting or teleconference. Typically I have emails pertaining to certain projects I am involved with, tasks to complete provided courtesy of my supervisor or perhaps another colleague: in addition I often have review meetings to discuss my projects. It is a surprise to me how often I am contributing important information to take the project forward - particularly given my employee title and relative inexperience.
When not in, or preparing for feedback meetings, I progress the development work for which I am responsible. This can include; manipulating a design basis or economics spreadsheets, assessing steam balances, calculating filter flux rates or materials tests. When I have lab tests to conduct, I go down to the Technical Development Area (TDA) where I help to generate design basis data. Ultimately this is to characterise the filtration process from which I am aiming to establish a full scale design basis for scale up. I cannot guarantee what a typical day may entail, but one thing I certainly can guarantee however is that it will be busy!
All opportunities have provided excellent involvement for me to develop ideas further and gain knowledge and insight from other members of the team. Initially I was apprehensive at projecting my ideas in a public forum; these meeting rooms can seem quite intimidating! It excites me that my work has led to an opportunity to modify an operating plant in the USA and will set the basis for potentially licensing the same technology to proposed clients across Asia.
At the Wilton site there are many other companies including Sabic Chemicals, Absolute Antibody and CPI all of which have their own students. Thus there are ample opportunities to network and socialise with other people your own age whilst attending various events organised by the IChemE to meet process engineers in the area and share industrial anecdotes.
What are you enjoying the most and are you involved in any interesting projects?
I usually enjoy the lab tests and analysis the most, I appreciate the time away from my desk to go to the TDA, put on my personal protective equipment and get some fresh air. I imagine this is due to this aspect of the day being a complete contrast to university and school, where for the majority of time you are typically sat at a desk studying. Whilst in the lab I engage with the operators and lab staff, who are all very supportive, if I have any questions or concerns they are more than willing to take time out of their hectic schedules to show me their protocols, which of course is very much appreciated. Also I have had a very practical approach with my project, usually involving a wrench, screws and other types of tools where I have had to physically move a vessel and secure it, adding spargers and agitators depending on the process application, everything is custom made and so this adds an interesting creative element away from the traditional University curriculum.
Why did you want to undertake a year in industry?
A year in industry for me has been an unrivalled experience in terms of satisfaction. The opportunity to apply accumulated knowledge from a long academic history, so far almost entirely theoretical and apply it to a real life context has been utterly gratifying. It gave me the opportunity to gain real industrial experience of life as a Chemical Engineer before graduating, which is invaluable when you come to apply for a graduate scheme, considering relatively few people have this sort of experience at this preliminary stage. In addition it simultaneously assisted my financial situation, permitting me to take driving lessons and purchase a car: overall it has been instrumental in assisting my future personal development. This is the first time I have lived away from home and the student community at Leeds, completely on my own without the comfort of University with real bills to pay, a job to get to and errands to run, it has been profound and enabled me to prove to myself that no matter how dysfunctional I was all those years ago before leaving home, now I can live and work quite adequately on my own. Ultimately being paid to obtain experience and having something extra to compete with post university are all tremendously positive benefits of a year industry: I think you would struggle to find any significant negatives.
What are you hoping to get out of this experience?
I hope to further develop and elevate the level of my core technical- skills in a real engineering context, the interpersonal or soft skills could also benefit from some refinement. At University there is just so much emphasis on the theoretical side of Chemical Engineering, I personally do not feel I do myself justice in exams and there must be a better way to showcase all you have to offer. What I have come to realise is that even though exams may seem like a priority for you now and you are inevitably distraught when you do not do as well as you hoped, ultimately it is small in consequence.
Life is not one big exam, it is not all revision and coursework but it is taking knowledge you have developed and using it to share your ideas with other people, explain, develop and interact, work unilaterally. You must think outside the box, pardon the cliché, away from the curriculum, fortunately there are many experienced and talented engineers around you to assist with your development. How well you get on with fellow co- workers and develop your ideas pertaining to your plant mass balance is undeniably much more important than your exam technique. If you really want to impress employers by demonstrating your technical and soft skills they will undoubtedly find your performance on an industrial placement much more compelling that what you got in your second year fluid dynamics test, ultimately that is why I am on placement. Having now completed nearly 8 months of my industrial year I am beginning to reflect on the experience, I cannot think of any reason not to suggest that anyone reading this should also consider applying for an industrial year.
Do you have any tips and advice to current students thinking of undertaking a year in industry?
Definitely grab the opportunity with both hands, the University of Leeds is especially good with regards to aiding your search for an industrial placement vacancy, with so many exclusive to University of Leeds students and a committed team in the employability office, you are already a step closer than most. My personal tutor Dr. K Hughes came to visit me at the Wilton centre and was suitably impressed, I am in constant communication with Emily, Jenny and Abi in the Engineering Employability suite, you are never on your own entirely should you have a problem, assistance is easy to find. It will be one of the most profound experiences you undergo and will assist your early career in many ways for many years, whether it helps you decide on your career path or just for refinement of your technical skills. You may even realise that you perform better in industry than in academia (or vice versa in which case you might want to consider a career in research). Whatever option you take, a placement is an excellent way to get experience, money and invaluable industrial connections all at the same time and before you have even graduated: What on earth are you waiting for, do it now!