Meet Process Engineer Sundara Viswanathan

14/20   in the series Meet the Process Engineers

Welcome to the latest 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 diverse fields such as petrochemicals, pharma, bulk chemicals, food, and various other process-intensive industries.

Are you a member and process engineer interested in being profiled? We'd love to hear from you via this volunteer opportunity. Also, we have built 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 Sundara Viswanathan. He is a principal process engineer at Fluor Corporation. Below, he talks about beginning his career in the pharmaceutical industry, the challenging aspects of his role, and the importance of process engineers as the go-to people in any project.

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

I started my career as a process engineer in training at a pharmaceutical manufacturing facility in India.

In this role, I monitored daily operational KPIs and maintained product quality at optimum levels. I was also involved in a de-bottleneck project to expand the overall capacity of the plant.

This experience channeled me to the design field of chemical engineering and gave me the opportunity to work with EPC (engineering, procurement and construction) companies.

After graduating with a master’s degree in 2008, I joined Fluor Corporation in Houston, TX, as a process engineer. I worked in the energy and chemical divisions, focusing on the oil and gas industry.

As a process technologist, I work on the design of several process units, including utilities and offsites for offshore platforms, refineries, and petrochemical complexes. I help construct state-of-the-art facilities by developing drawings/specifications at various stages of project development. I also work closely with clients to develop the scope of work according to contract requirements, define the basis, and perform studies, including economic evaluation.

Process engineers are the front runners at any given phase of a project. That’s why I enjoy being a process engineer, the go-to person in projects.

In addition, I develop steady-state and dynamic process simulation models that are used for the design, development, analysis and optimization of technical processes. Other responsibilities include proposing and developing cost-effective solutions to ensure that clients receive a safe and operable facility in which to produce quality products.

At Fluor, I get to work on projects from all sectors of oil and gas clients, such as offshore platforms, upstream gas gathering facilities, LNG, pipelines, refineries, petrochemicals, specialty chemicals, storage and transportation.

Fluor culture provides the opportunity to their engineers to see the full project cycle from early design phase through construction, commissioning, and start-up.

I consider myself fortunate to have been able to participate not only in design engineering, but also in pre-commissioning, commissioning and/or start-up of some of the facilities that I designed on paper.

Occasionally, I travel to client facilities, often overseas, to troubleshoot plant performance. This consists of analyzing operating data trends and making recommendations regarding solutions to problems with varying complexity in accordance with project objectives and guidelines.

Why did you become a process engineer?

I was interested in computer science and chemistry in my high school days. In fact, I spent a semester studying chemistry at a science college. In the middle of my first semester, my college arranged a plant tour to a pharmaceutical ingredient manufacturing facility.

I was amazed by the enormous scale of production, excited to learn about the importance of chemical engineering in industries and its vital key personnel called process engineers. I enjoyed the manufacturing environment, design, equipment operations /troubleshooting and learnt the role of process engineers at every corner of the plant. Chemical engineering seemed very promising and ripe with opportunity.

I switched from science to engineering in the following semester to pursue chemical. The industrial park in my hometown helped me network with engineers who were working at manufacturing industries. This drove me to learn the integration of practical aspects in chemical core concepts such as unit operations, mass/heat transfer, or reaction/catalysts engineering.

While working at the pharmaceutical facility, I handled the reactor’s operations. This experience evoked my curiosity in the catalysts and sparked my desire to pursue a master’s degree in chemical engineering, specializing in particles and matter. Ironically, this specialization required me to study the basis of quantum physics to understand the behavior of particles and design concepts.

The scope of process engineers extends across various fields like cooking, medicine, space, semiconductors, nuclear, oil and gas, metals/mining and so on.

In addition to a wide array of principles, it could lead an individual to a new field in STEM. Process engineers are the front runners at any given phase of a project. That’s why I enjoy being a process engineer, the go-to person in projects.

Sundara likes to spend time volunteering. This is a recent photograph taken at the #HoustonFoodBank facility, the largest in the nation.

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

EPC industry has unique challenges. For instance, in one project I get to be involved in a grassroots facility, while on the next, I get to work on brown field modifications either for assets integration, capital project executions, sustainable and/or growth projects.

Though the approach is the same, critical thinking/analysis of every solution to design problems is unique. Recent crude oil prices and other global market trends have created more challenges to our clients on capital investment and expenditures.

On every project, Fluor strives to provide the most cost-effective and competitive solution by understanding the client's needs. The process engineers play a major role in achieving the company’s goal by providing the most economical design and performance of process units for the current global trend.

The other challenge could be late decisions or design changes at the tail end of the project phase. This could potentially increase the investment cost or sometimes delay the start-up of a facility.

I must be adaptable to the situation and minimize the effect of late changes by providing acceptable/value improvement solutions.

Early incorporation of real-time plant operation problems or off-design parameters in the design along with having the right personnel in the review cycle helps to minimize late design changes.

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

Fluor is one of the leading integrated solution providers for engineering, procurement, fabrication, construction and maintenance, all in one service. 

This approach provides greater capital efficiency with improved cost and schedule certainty to our clients.

Process engineers play a major role on several of these integrated solutions. For instance, in my recent project, I worked closely with the other engineering disciplines, project controls, procurement and cost estimate team to come up with the most cost- and schedule-effective design alternatives.

Many times, these effective design alternatives support our clients on making decisions and they provide construction-driven execution strategy. I participate in safety review meetings such as process hazard analysis (PHA), hazard and operability (HAZOP) study and management of changes (MOC).

Process engineers must not only be proficient in design techniques, they should also be practiced in different process technologies and routes needed to perform project requirements.

These reviews add so much value to safety in design, and help to deliver a safe operating facility to our clients and to the environment. Recently, I spent time learning the data centric execution techniques for applying design data collected from over the years.

These techniques are also helpful for analyzing the real plant data collected from the PI trend for understanding the equipment behavior and providing a design solution.

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

The global demand for energy and chemicals will be constantly increasing at a certain rate. In order to meet the demand, new technologies and/or facilities are being developed. Process units or routes to a chemical production are also being modified for the regional requirement.

For example, with the advent of the shale gas revolution in the United States, steam cracking has become more focused on lighter feedstocks, thus reducing propylene byproduct production. This is the conventional route to propylene production.

Process engineers must not only be proficient in design techniques, they should also be practiced in different process technologies and routes needed to perform project requirements.

Similarly, I work on projects that help our clients to adapt to any business changes required to meet new international and local regulations.

To illustrate, at the start of January 2020, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) will enforce a new 0.5% global sulfur cap on bunker fuel content. I was involved in a project last year where I worked with the licensor and equipment vendor for reducing SO2 concentration to a very low ppm level before venting to the atmosphere.

Fluor is experienced in licensing commercially proven sulfur technologies for cost-effective solutions to meet the environmental requirements of our clients.

At Fluor, I’ve had the privilege of working with some of the most talented process industry leaders. I've been awarded the opportunity to help design and construct multi-billion dollar petrochemical and refinery complexes.

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