Concepción “Conchita” Jiménez-Gonzalez, GlaxoSmithKline: 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 Concepción “Conchita” Jiménez-Gonzalez of GlaxoSmithKline. Conchita is the Director and Program Lead for Global Manufacturing and Supply at GlaxoSmithKline, lead author of the textbook “Green Chemistry and Engineering: A Practical Design Approach,” and has served as Vice-President of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers and co-chair of the Pharmaceutical Roundtable of the American Chemical Society Green Chemistry Institute.

Looking into the next 25 years, how do you expect your industry/research area to evolve due to market and technological opportunities?

I envision that the pharmaceutical industry will be driven by the growth of biopharmaceutical products and by leveraging automation and data analytics. 

I expect that the pharmaceutical industry will incorporate even more automated processes that rely more on automated algorithms for control and supply-chain decisions. R&D will rely increasingly on in silico modeling for product and process development, shortening the development times. I expect co-botting (human-robot co-work in a shared workspace) and process intensification as normal experiences in manufacturing. Highly automated processes and controls will produce a level of data output and connectivity not seen before in the industry, potentially connecting directly to consumers, and perhaps moving more towards personalized medicines. Extensive use of data will bring challenges on analytics, visualization, and cybersecurity as part of that change.

I expect that the pharmaceutical industry will incorporate even more automated processes that rely more on automated algorithms for control and supply-chain decisions.

I expect that the next 25 years will bring sustainability assessments that are intrinsically embedded in process and product development. Sustainability considerations will drive decisions in supply chain, products, and processes. Renewable energy use and alternative fuels will necessarily increase, given energy demands and population increases. I expect the routine evaluation of alternative assessments for potential substitutions of chemicals of concern, particularly on consumer products. I expect the development of new materials also to substitute for scarce ones (e.g., metals). Data will be key to assess impacts of materials across the value chain to avoid regrettable substitutions, where “the remedy is worse than the illness.” As data will continue to be scarce, particularly with new materials, predictive algorithms will be needed to increase the accuracy of evaluations.

Traditional core areas of ChE expertise like applied chemistry, transport processes, process analysis and design, and business/communication skills are being augmented and changed by new expertise in science and engineering at molecular and nanometer scales, in biosystems, in sustainability, and in cyber-tools.  Over the next 25 years, how will these changes affect your industry/research area?

In general, I see the effects of these changes as tremendously exciting, with the potential to address some of the global challenges facing humanity. The enhancement of the chemical engineer skillset could bring the opportunities:

  • To harness the power of biomimetization and other biologically derived processes and materials,
  • To address energy requirements in a sustainable manner,
  • To solve the health and sanitation challenges around the world,
  • To develop smart manufacturing plants that minimize their environmental footprint,
  • To address climate change, and
  • To harness the power of data and digitization to make smarter decisions faster.
  • The chemical engineering profession has the potential to drive us to our next development stage in a sustainable manner.

What new industries/research areas do you foresee, appearing as wholly new or between existing ones?

Digitization and connectivity are megatrends that will drive the development of businesses in the next 25 years. I see perhaps a coming of age of process systems engineering, given the trend towards computer aided design, molecular design, sustainability assessments, supply chain management. Automation, data science, artificial intelligence, predictive and prescriptive analytics, connected processes, smart manufacturing, miniaturization, process intensification, and additive manufacturing are areas that will blossom to support the digitization trends. I expect that the pharmaceutical industry will incorporate even more automated processes that rely more on automated algorithms for control and supply-chain decisions.

Other important megatrends include energy and the environment, health and well-being, and increased urbanization. Thus, sustainability will continue to be an area of interest, particularly in regard to addressing climate change, renewable energy, water and sanitation, alternative assessments, novel materials, bio-mimetics, and bio-processes. Likewise, the development of novel therapeutic approaches, and increasingly biopharmaceuticals, will be aided by in silico development.

These are important aspects that make up the future chemical engineering profession. So are the needs for advancing initial and continuing education; high standards of performance and conduct; effective technical, business, and public communication; and desires for a better and more sustainable future, individually and collectively. Considering all these factors, what do you think the chemical engineering profession will be like 25 years from now?

I expect the core of chemical engineering to remain, as it is related to mass and energy transformations, scale-up, and optimizations of processes that are sustainable and economical. The changes will be related to the type of process that will dominate industry and research.

The chemical engineers of the future should be capable of designing, running, and improving sustainable processes that are highly automated, connected, biologically derived, and intensified. Thus, these future chemical engineers will rely increasingly on process system engineering and other computational tools. Computational tools will require the chemical engineers to develop and master skills including molecular design, mathematical modeling, artificial intelligence, simulations, smart manufacturing, automated technology, data science, computer security, virtual and augmented reality, and predictive and prescriptive analytics. The chemical engineers of the future will be able to work on biological processes and will integrate sustainability considerations seamlessly in their work.

For future chemical engineers, systems thinking will continue to be an ever-important asset, given the convergence of disciplines. Cross-functional and multidisciplinary work will become more important for them.

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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