Meet Process Engineer Varun Harikumar

15/18   in the series Meet the Process Engineers

Welcome to the latest in a series of 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 just launched 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.

This month, we introduce you to Varun Harikumar, a process engineer at Honeywell UOP. He discusses his various roles within the refining and petrochemical industry, problems encountered by process engineers, and the importance of understanding the needs of the customer. 

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

I've been in the refining and petrochemical industry for over six years now, and I've been fortunate enough to take on many varying roles.

I started out as a field trainee at Reliance Industries Limited, one of the world's largest CCR platforming units, in Jamnagar. My main objective as an operational personnel was to keep the plant running while meeting the daily targets.

As a process engineer, we can engineer solutions which can help meet the refinery's needs. Being part of the technical sales team helps me better understand what the customer is looking for.

After my time at Reliance Industries Limited, I moved on to work in the Aromatics Technical Services Division in Mumbai. My duties included analyzing plant operations, looking for what could be improved and then implementing the necessary solutions.

I was fortunate to be a part of PX4 Aromatics Complex Commissioning and various Parex adsorbent and Isomar catalyst replacement projects.

For the last two years, I've been working with Honeywell UOP Catalysts, Adsorbents and the Specialties Team, growing the sales of reforming and isomerization catalysts.

Why did you become a process engineer?

I was always interested in physics and mathematics, so naturally, my thought processes were very analytical and logical. This eventually led me to choose a profession in engineering.

Joining the specific profession of chemical engineering came about by chance.

In India, we have a common exam to join the Indian Institute of Technology. My performance in the exam led me to choose chemical engineering.

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

As a process engineer, we have solutions to most of the problems, provided we find out the exact problem.

Operating units are complex. Its not always easy to pinpoint the issue, as there may be different factors affecting a single variable. In addition, we often don't end up getting the most accurate measurements/results.

Trial and error methods may, sometimes, prove costly. I feel process simulations with sound engineering judgement are the way forward.

Another challenge process engineers face is that most refiners have their own economic scheduler groups. These groups decide the crudes and daily/annual production targets.

There should be good dialogue between these two groups to maximize the refiners' revenue. The sales aspect is another beast altogether. Economics is not what always sells. The main task lies in the different entities involved in the decision making and how to sell to each of them.

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

We all know that gasoline demand is increasing, and it will continue to rise at least for the next decade. 

As a process engineer at UOP, my goal is to provide the best solution that ultimately benefits the refinery. The best solution could be to maximize product or produce premium products. It might even be meeting the new standards (IMO etc).

As a process engineer, we can engineer solutions which can help meet refinery needs. Being part of the technical sales team helps me better understand what the customer is looking for.

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

The most important thing would be providing the right solution for the customer.

Earlier in my career, I used to think that the higher the revenue or lower the payback of a solution, the greater the customer's interest. Now, I can better understand the customer's needs.

I can work to create a better solution for the customer and not just target the most economical solution.

Lastly, I'm lucky to have managers who encourage my out-of-the-box ideas and solutions.

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