Careers in Quality Management for Chemical Engineers

The word “quality” means many different things to many different people. A quality meal may mean a gourmet dinner at a fancy restaurant with white tablecloths and the best wine to accompany the food. To another person, a quality meal might mean using up leftovers effectively to serve a balanced and nutritious dinner to her family.

Admitting to being a terrible cook, a quality meal to me is one that is not burned and is generally edible! defines quality as “an essential or distinctive characteristic, property, or attribute” and “high grade; superiority; excellence.”

As chemical engineers, we strive for quality in the work we do, the products we produce, and in the way we conduct ourselves as professionals. It is a natural fit for chemical engineers to pursue careers in quality management.

Tools of quality management

Quality management is concerned with delivering outputs that meet a given set of standards. These standards might be internal to a plant or production facility to ensure consistency among batches.

Other standards are set by regulatory bodies. For example, in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sets quality standards and defines maximum contaminant levels for everyday items like milk, eggs, and aspirin. The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) sets regulatory standards for emissions into the air and water to maintain quality for human living.

Finally, the International Standards Organization (ISO) sets voluntary standards for organizations around the world to maintain quality in their products and operations.

Quality assurance 

Chemical engineers are in involved in two primary activities of quality management: quality assurance (QA) and quality control (QC). In QA, the standards for production and operations are determined. QA is about “doing what you say you are doing.” For instance, if a design engineering firm states that they will use licensed professional engineers (PE) to check all drawings before issue, the role of QA is to ensure there is a process in place to have a licensed PE check all drawings before issuing to the client.

Chemical engineers are well-suited to jobs in QA because of the broad scope of training and education we receive and because we are tuned into detailed work. We are also familiar with processes and integrations between operations. Quality management often comes into play between process steps when hand-offs can introduce errors, mistakes, or contamination into the system.

Quality control 

While QA determines appropriate standards and boundaries for a quality process, QC is about measuring the outputs to validate quality standards. QC involves inspection, testing, and analysis. Again, chemical engineers are tailored to work in quality management and quality control because we are deeply trained in analytical thinking and problem-solving. Many analysis methods require advanced math and statistics in which engineering training delivers excellent preparation for work in QC.

Additionally, another element of engineering is essential to effective QC. Much of the evaluation and analysis to validate quality requires destructive testing. This means that the finished product is consumed just to measure quality parameters. Chemical engineers can help to minimize the cost and economic impact of such testing by improving the quality of processes upstream. By minimizing byproducts in the process design, can we use help to improve product quality downstream.  

Where you might work in quality management

Chemical engineers working in quality management might work in several different environments. As we discussed in an earlier post (part one of this series), chemical engineers often work in plants serving to support quality management as process support or R&D engineers. In these roles, chemical engineers design quality standards and parameters (QA), monitor operations and production outputs for quality control, and help the facility maintain compliance with regulatory and guiding bodies (such as ISO).

Quality management is also a key piece of design work. Chemical engineers working at EPC (engineering, procurement, and construction) firms may be involved in quality assurance roles. Additionally, during construction and start-up phases of a project, chemical engineers may be on the ground supporting excellence in the implementation of plans developed previously. Analytics and testing ensure proper materials of construction are used, for example, and are monitored through quality management teams.

Next, outside auditors use chemical engineers for compliance and quality verification. The ISO 9000 system requires that company procedures are followed as written. With training and certification, chemical engineers can become quality auditors, serving an external perspective for operating plants. An ability to understand the process is crucial to an accurate and effective audit by an outside party.

Finally, chemical engineers may apply quality management principles to projects. In a prior post (part three of this series), we discuss key elements of a project (scope, schedule, and budget). In a future article, we will discuss the role chemical engineers play in product development. What is common among project management, quality management, and product development are business processes.

Again, chemical engineers excel at processes, integration of steps, and transformation so these are natural jobs to progress through in a career. Some quality management systems and processes that a chemical engineer might encounter include lean manufacturing and Six Sigma. You can learn more about quality management at and with AIChE.

Chemical engineers and quality management

Chemical engineers are trained to recognize details. We are also skilled at data analysis, trouble-shooting, and problem-solving. All of these skills are deployed extensively in the field of quality management. Chemical engineers drive quality improvements through work in plant-specific roles, design and construction, and external auditing. Being able to look for details and opportunities are skills that support chemical engineers’ ability to excel in quality management roles.

In the next article in this series, we will discuss one of my favorite jobs (and my own career pathway) for chemical engineers: new product development.