Welcome to the fourth in a series of AIChE blog posts profiling process engineers, a diverse group of professionals spanning multiple industries and regions. In this series, we aim to profile process engineers who work in various fields including petrochemicals, pharma, bulk chemicals, food, or any process-intensive industry.
Are you a member and process engineer interested in being profiled? We'd love to hear from you via this volunteer opportunity. Also, we hope to build an online discussion group specifically for process engineers. You can find out about both of these initiatives and join our efforts by visiting aiche.org/processengineering.
For our fourth profile, we meet process engineer Monica Wilson. She talks about her work at Union Carbide Corp in West Virginia, where she started her career, and about her time at AkzoNobel, where she became a polymer technology manager. She also discusses what sparked her interest in process engineering, as well as the challenges she has faced throughout her career.
Tell us a bit about your work as a process engineer.
I started my career at Union Carbide Corp in Charleston, West Virginia, where I worked in the large-scale pilot plant. The reactors ranged from 500-1,000 gallons and I was one of three process engineers responsible for scale-up of chemicals from the laboratory into manufacturing. I was responsible for creating the processes for making the product in a reactor that was previously made in a laboratory glass 500L flask.
Next I moved on to the former ICI Paints, acquired by AkzoNobel, as a process engineer in the process technology group. I was responsible for scaling up polymer resin from the laboratory into 1,500 – 7,000 gallon reactors in our manufacturing plants located in Huron, OH; Reading, PA; Columbus, GA; and San Francisco, CA. Making polymer resin was quite different from making chemicals because there was not a sharp start and stop. Polymer can be made under a range of different process conditions including temperatures, mixing, and heat transfer. The process conditions contribute to end product character and outcome depending on how the engineer controls the variables.
Throughout my participation in DPCEP, I learned that I could do mathematics and engineering which is something that never occurred to me before becoming a part of the program.
Later on, I became responsible for the pilot plant as well as the team. This is when I started transferring products from production locations globally. For example, I began transferring products developed in Brazil to Shanghai, China. I also began traveling and implementing products in Ohio, Brazil, China, Taiwan, France, and England. This led to the implementation of new equipment, processes, and products into our plants all over the world.
I currently work in a manufacturing technology group responsible for implementing new technology to globally improve plant efficiency.
Why did you become a process engineer?
In high school, a friend told me about a program in Detroit (my hometown) called the Detroit Pre-College Engineering Program, DPCEP. This program was created to introduce underrepresented groups to science, physics, and engineering—what is now called STEM. It was a Saturday morning program taught at universities to introduce students—specifically women and minorities—to science.
Throughout my participation in DPCEP, I learned that I could do mathematics and engineering, which is something that never occurred to me before becoming a part of the program.
What are some of the biggest challenges you face in your role as a process engineer?
The biggest challenge is communicating effectively with people all over the globe. The differences in language, culture, and distance can be a challenge when gaining all the necessary information and communication to make the project work. The technical challenges come from fitting new technology into old equipment and retrofitting the equipment to make what is required.
How is your work as a process engineer critical to your particular job assignment or industry?
Process engineering is critical to the success of a new product launch, in that all aspects of the production of that product must be considered. Safety, mixing, heat transfer, raw material addition, filtration, to name a few, are necessary considerations for a successful launch. Without such consideration, the probability for success becomes zero.
What are the most important skills a process engineer should have?
In the process engineering field, an extremely important skill is knowing how to safely and efficiently make new products that meet specifications.