Billy B. Bardin, the Dow Chemical Company: The Future of Chemical Engineering

As part of AIChE's 110th Year Celebration, this series provides perspectives on the future of chemical engineering from dozens of leaders in industry, academia, and at national laboratories.

We continue with Dr. Billy Bardin who is the global operations technology director for Dow and serves on the AIChE Board of Directors.

During AIChE’s centennial year of 2008, AIChE interviewed chemical engineers to learn their perspectives on the profession’s future. In today’s blog post, Dr. Bardin presents his visions for chemical engineering post-2018.

Looking 25 years into the future, how do you expect your industry/research area to evolve?

The increasing economic power and the rise of the middle class in what are today developing countries will drive demand for more materials, energy, products, and access to technology. This means that new, more efficient methods of materials production will be required to meet the increased demand, with the resources available worldwide. Process intensification, energy intensity improvements, and zero emissions technologies will become more widespread.

Sustainability and carbon-cycle management will continue to be focus areas in the next 25 years as consumers, society, and regulatory bodies demand better carbon efficiency and reduced overall emissions to the environment.

Access to water will continue to drive technology advancements for purification, desalination, and recycle capabilities.

Chemical engineers have a unique background that allows them to apply fundamental principles and problem solving to many different areas of need. Those areas of need may come and go, and will certainly change more quickly than in the last 25 years, but chemical engineers will be ready. 

The demand for lighter-weight, more durable materials that are fully and easily recyclable will increase as vehicle and transportation requirements change, as the need for more sustainable food packaging grows, and as the drive for improved energy consumption per unit of activity continues (i.e., production, kilometer travel, shipment).

 Renewal of civic infrastructure — bridges, roads, electric grids, water systems, and others — will require more cost-effective and innovational designs in which chemistry and materials will be key.

 Digitalization and advances in computational power, data sciences, analytics, and sensors will continue to raise the visibility of engineers’ contributions in operations and R&D performance, allowing better use of the data generated for rapid, real-time decision making. Enterprise-wide and global visibility of operations will be commonplace along with fully connected supply chains. Mobile devices will enable replacement of the traditional control room.

 The proliferation of low-cost sensors, combined with existing process data and analytics for predictive maintenance, will help simplify process design.

 The most recent innovations in high-throughput R&D will be combined with greater computational power for advanced modeling and prediction in experimental programs. 

 The need for operators and engineers to work in potentially hazardous environments will be eliminated and no longer accepted as general practice. For example, confined space entries (CSE) into vessels and equipment will be obsolete due to the capabilities of robotic tools for inspection and maintenance work as well as in situ sensor technology.  Dow is a leader in the application of robotics in the process industries and has goals in place to eliminate CSEs.  Process equipment design will need to evolve in order to accommodate robotics work more easily.

 One item that will not and should not change in 25 years: The process industries’ focus on the safety of its employees, communities, and other stakeholders

Traditional core areas of ChE expertise are being augmented by new expertise in science and engineering at molecular and nanometer scales, in biosystems, in sustainability, and in cybertools. Over the next 25 years, how will these changes affect your industry/research area? 

 The core expertise and fundamentals that make a chemical engineer a chemical engineer — e.g., unit operations analysis, transport processes, and the approach to problem solving — will still be foundational for chemical engineering in 25 years.  

 Chemical engineers of the future will need to augment their core skills with better data- and analytics-skills, greater knowledge of automation and modeling, and increased comfort working with simulations. One can expect that the board operators of the future will train on unplanned event scenarios in a simulator, much like airline pilots do today.

 The chemical engineers 25 years into the future will be more cognizant of cyber-security threats in the manufacturing environment.

Due to its cross-disciplinary nature encompassing biology, chemistry, materials, physics, advanced mathematics, and all the wide-ranging research areas observed today, the chemical engineering profession will be positioned to address and harness technological and societal opportunities yet to be conceived.  

 In the next 25 years, there will be a wholesale shift in demographics of the workforce. This means that those who had a hand in building the foundation of the materials and chemicals industries with pneumatic controls, hand calculations, and process modeling without advanced computational power will give way to those who were educated with greater access to data and computing capabilities. The real question is whether the new generation of workforce will understand all their processes as well as previous generations, since much will be handled with enhanced automation.

Instantaneous, real-time, and on-demand learning will be a primary educational avenue.  Social media and peer group connectivity will ensure rapid dissemination of new findings and research. The historical model of journal publications may struggle to transform itself to adopt to the next generation’s demands.

What new industries/research areas do you foresee? 

 Energy initiatives and research on reduced total emissions is sure to be increasing over the next two decades. 

 In 25 years, new industries will form around the reuse and recycling of existing landfill materials as humanity continues to struggle with its previous and current waste generation.

 Application of enhanced farming and food generation methods using non-traditional farming techniques, new bio-based active agents, and data sciences will be required to meet the ever-increasing demand for food.

 At the intersection of health care and materials, the development of biologically active synthetic materials will grow.

 Interfacial science and hybridized materials chemistry (such as the non-traditional combinations of inorganics and polyolefins) will bring new physical property potentials.

 Advanced process automation will move from the industrial environment into the consumer market, taking advantage of consumers’ desire to spend their discretionary time on enjoyable activities rather than chores.

 Application of chemical engineering expertise in optimization technologies will improve the industrial supply chain — from order creation to product delivery.

Taking into account the ongoing evolution of the professions — including the need for new modes of education; high standards of performance and conduct; effective technical, business, and public communication; and desires for a more sustainable future — what do you think the chemical engineering profession will look like 25 years from now?

The future is full of potential and opportunity for chemical engineers. The chemical engineering profession will continue to impact multiple fields within science, technology, business, finance, engineering, and others. Chemical engineers have a unique background that allows them to apply fundamental principles and problem solving to many different areas of need. Those areas of need may come and go, and will certainly change more quickly than in the last 25 years, but chemical engineers will be ready. 

The profession will be connected globally with more rapid proliferation of knowledge.  The increased efforts on diversity and inclusion within the profession in the last decade, and those in the years ahead, will show measurable impacts 25 years from now.  

Due to its cross-disciplinary nature encompassing biology, chemistry, materials, physics, advanced mathematics, and all the wide-ranging research areas observed today, the chemical engineering profession will be positioned to address and harness technological and societal opportunities yet to be conceived.  

AIChE's 110 Year Celebration

Celebrate AIChE's 110-year anniversary. Attend this Annual Meeting session, focusing on the future of chemical engineering through the eyes of thought leaders from industry, academia, and national laboratories.

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