Meet Process Engineer Alexander Herbert

8/10   in the series Meet the Process Engineers

Welcome to the eighth 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 fields as diverse as petrochemicals, pharma, bulk chemicals, food, and 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 https://www.aiche.org/processengineering

For our eighth profile, we meet process engineer Alexander Herbert. He talks about his work as a process engineer with a focus on lyophilization process development. He also discusses the transition to his new role as a safety engineer in addition to overcoming challenges throughout his career, and the importance of his work. 

Tell us a bit about your work as a process engineer.

I recently transitioned from a ten-year career in the pharmaceutical industry. I began my work as a bench chemist and transitioned into a role as a process engineer. 

As a process engineer, I quickly developed a singular focus on lyophilization (freeze drying) process development.

My main duty was to develop lyophilization processes for sterile injectable drug products. 

Projects would start with evaluation of the developmental formulation, progress through development of the process in a pilot plant laboratory, and "end" with scaling up the process and transferring it to the manufacturing facility. 

No project ever truly ends, and I continued to support products with troubleshooting, manufacturing deviation investigations, and process improvements throughout their lifecycles.

My interest in lyophilization led me beyond these duties, and I enjoyed opportunities to study a wide range of applications for the process beyond pharmaceuticals. This included veterinary products, foodstuffs, bulk chemicals, document restoration, and the preparation of biological specimens. I also took on a personal study of the history of lyophilization, collecting publications and primary source materials from the 9th century to present day.

Why did you become a process engineer?

I come from a family of engineers. I first sought a career in wet chemistry, but my interests in complex systems and hands-on work drew me into engineering in their footsteps. I also found that I greatly enjoyed working within strict quality requirements.

Serving as a process engineer, particularly in the pharmaceutical industry, I learned early on that one must also have a clear picture of what is right and what is wrong.  It's a philosophy, and a responsibility, that has since directed me towards a new career in quality and safety engineering.

I've recently transitioned into a new role as a safety engineer, but I continue to consult in process engineering in my spare time.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face in your role as a process engineer?

My biggest challenge was balancing the needs of production and the greater business against the unimpeachable requirements of quality and safety. 

Sometimes, a challenge was also balancing the needs of the greater business against the physical limitations of the process itself. 

Manufacturing has an understandable need for speed and efficiency. This must be kept in check with reality to prevent danger to the process,  the final product, the operator, or the consumer.

How is your work as a process engineer critical to your particular job assignment or industry?

Lyophilization is a niche technique in many key industries. 

Much work has been done in recent decades to "lift the veil" and develop a scientific approach to lyophilization process development, but in many ways it remains just as much of an art. 

A dedicated expert or team of experts in support of manufacturing operations is essential to ensuring consistent and high-quality product.

What do you think is most important about what you do as a process engineer?

First and foremost, a process engineer must be an advocate for the process. Every process has limits, and the safety and quality of that process cannot be compromised — especially when concerning products for human use.

How have your skills as a process engineer helped you in your new role as a safety engineer?

Process engineering required several important skills, whether brought into the role or learned on the job. 

Lyophilization itself involves many technical aptitudes — heating and cooling systems, vacuum systems, programmable logic and control software, sterilization and cleaning, and so on. 

Technical expertise has given me a solid foundation for quality and safety engineering, as I can better understand the systems that I now work within. The same critical thinking skills that I applied to tackle difficult development issues or to troubleshoot manufacturing problems lend themselves to just about any role.

When working in a niche field, communication becomes even more important. I found that many concepts were complex and somewhat esoteric to those unfamiliar with the technique. It was important to convey them in plain language, and to a variety of audiences — technical, non-technical, and at times even to those outside the industry altogether. 

These communication skills have allowed me to adapt quickly to cross-functional teams and a wide variety of projects.

Finally, perhaps the most important skill has been an ethical mindset. As a scientist in general, development often boils down to simple determinations of good and bad; what works and what doesn't work. 

Serving as a process engineer, particularly in the pharmaceutical industry, I learned early on that one must also have a clear picture of what is right and what is wrong.  It's a philosophy, and a responsibility, that has since directed me towards a new career in quality and safety engineering.

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