The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of GSK or any of its officers.
Welcome to the seventh 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 seventh profile, we meet process engineer Yangmu Liu. She talks about her work in R&D process engineering at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), overcoming challenges throughout her career, and the importance of her work.
Tell us a bit about your work as a process engineer.
I am part of a team that is tasked with developing a continuous manufacturing process for a small-molecule active pharmaceutical ingredient (API). As a heavily regulated industry, pharmaceutical companies have mostly relied on batch manufacturing processes. However, continuous processes offer several advantages, such as process intensification, reduced manufacturing footprint, and shortened scale-up/tech transfer timelines, just to name a few.
The project I'm working on is one of GSK's pilot projects for continuous manufacturing technology. I am responsible for developing, optimizing several stages of a continuous process in the lab, and scaling up and transferring it to a commercial scale facility.
Besides the hands-on experimental components, I am also responsible for leading the development of a process model for the entire continuous process based on first principle understanding of each of the unit operations.
The process model provides us with great insights into the criticality of process parameters and enables accelerated delivery of a robust manufacturing process that produces quality API.
In order to work effectively across disciplines and cultural boundaries, it is essential for the team members to speak and understand each other's languages and develop a mutual appreciation for each other's perspective.
Why did you become a process engineer?
My dad was the biggest influence on me becoming an engineer. He is a retired mechanical engineer in China, and he encouraged me to think about the causes behind everyday phenomena from a very young age (without me realizing it at the time).
I remember very clearly how evident this was. For example, one day in the third grade, I got up late and I was rushing to finish my breakfast. Because I was in such a rush, I kept getting burned by the scalding hot oatmeal I was eating. So, my dad told me to spread the oatmeal out on the plate to speed up the cooling process by "increasing the surface area" and to start at the perimeter because the cooling rate was the highest there.
He also told me many stories from his experience troubleshooting in the factory, and I can tell how proud he was to be an engineer. He loved being able to use his training to make a direct impact on the quality of the product, the safety of the process and cost of operation, all of which sounded really cool to me.
So, I can say I've always been drawn to a career as an engineer. However, compared to mechanics, I was more interested in chemistry and biology, which is why I became a chemical engineer!
What are some of the biggest challenges you face in your role as a process engineer?
One of the biggest challenges is to work effectively as part of a matrix team made up of people with very diverse academic backgrounds.
Our core project team is made up of expertise ranging from synthetic chemistry, chemical engineering, and analytical chemistry, to formulation sciences.
In order to work effectively across disciplines and cultural boundaries, it is essential for the team members to speak and understand each other's languages and develop a mutual appreciation for each other's perspective. This is especially crucial when it comes to implementing new technology.
I am very fortunate to be a part of a high-functioning team where I am able to learn a lot from experts in various fields.
How is your work as a process engineer critical to your particular job assignment or industry?
Chemical engineers bring tremendous value to process development/scale-up efforts because we connect what happens on a molecular level with what happens at an industrial scale.
Chemistry provides the essential knowledge of how certain conditions affect how molecules interact with each other and how that impacts the performance of a certain reaction, but that is only half the picture.
Process engineering knowledge is also needed to understand how to design and select equipment to ensure that the optimal conditions for the reaction are met, and hazardous conditions are avoided.
This is especially true when implementing continuous processes, where the pharma industry is still building an understanding on new types of continuous equipment.
What do you think is most important about what you do as a process engineer?
At the core of my job is the quality of the product and safety of the process. Nothing makes me prouder than when the pilot plant tells us that our process runs very smoothly at scale, and our product consistently meets quality specifications.