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Chemical engineer working in the field of bulk chemicals for e.g. plastics and energy, specifically energy efficiency and renewables.

Monday, 27 June 2011

A comment on managing an engineering lab

For the past number of years I have been working in a laboratory involved with energy research (before that I worked in another laboratory). Primarily the goal of my part of the laboratory is to test inventions that are made to see how well they perform especially after one year of continuous use. To that end I use a lot of different types of equipment and invariably end up both on a lab scale and on a pilot scale (demo scale is performed off site). Invariable troubleshooting of equipment due to it breaking down is a part of the weekly if not daily routine. Essentially it is an engineering or experimental laboratory where complex interactions between multiple pieces of equipment exist. Unfortunately my boss is not an engineer but a material scientist. Many items like equipment maintenance and lifetime have been overlooked in the past.

Troubleshooting equipment is essentially wasted time or time lost. Consider my job; I am trying to ascertain when the inventions fail, under what conditions do they fail and how suitable they are for a particular application. If I cannot test, time pressure can start to play a part and potentially (you can only do so much with what you have), gaps in the analysis appear. Nothing or less than what might be is learned. Typically the type of gaps that appear relates to the lifetime. If an equipment failure occurs then the invention must be stopped. However this additional stress may cause it to deteriorate and fail when restarted. Also if an experiment is stopped prematurely, then a failure that was due to happen next week may not be caught until the experiment is expanded to a larger scale*.

Ultimately it is up to the people on the lab to attempt to solve these issues. However more importantly, once the issue is solved and closed, there should be information there for future improvement of the equipment to reduce or even prevent the failure from occurring. This requires on the job assessment and multi-tasking. It is quite difficult to achieve. The outcome should be a memo or concept design which lists the options for improvement and this should be include in the equipment file. 

This file should also be sent to the equipment manager and the project leader. A discussion should be held and the merits and demerits discussed. What is now crucial is that a the people involved have a good technical understanding of the equipment involved and are also willing to discuss the equipment and its problems. In other words they should have used the equipment before and thus can appreciate how costly and frustrating downtime can be. Without this one key point, a good decision on whether or not the improvement is necessary is impossible. Often failures can just become part of the routine of using the equipment and the worker may not appreciate this. Thus a manager sometimes (though rarely) needs to be more aware than the users.

Consider manager that has arrived new to the laboratory. While familiar with certain aspects of laboratory operations, new items will undoubtedly exist with which the manager has no experience. If said manager is called to decide on the equipment, he will either have to rely on other peoples expertise of to ignore the problem and just make to part of the routine. Both avoid the manage having to develop a knowledge and rapport with the processes involved. 

*There is always a risk when scaling up a process due to test duration. It is rare that a pilot will test for the full time required for use in industry as this is very expensive. However realistic time scales should be set before the experiment. So if an invention has to perform for 10 years, your test in the lab should be six months to a year. What I allude to here is when this 10% scale is cut short due to equipment issues.

The problem then arises when the manager has to assign tasks or to acquire work. Not knowing the limitations of the equipment will lead to unrealistic demands being placed on the workers and the equipment. Indeed the toll on the equipment that the new work will introduced will not be known either and thus not accounted or budgeted for. Not only that but safety issues can then creep in and if the operators are not clued in, sever consequences can occur. 

To manage equipment effectively the manager responsible needs to have an understanding of the equipment and its limitations. Without this, the situation can only be saved by the operator. That system I am afraid is rife with potential issues.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

The Gestapo prison, Cologne.

Last month I had the opportunity to visit Cologne in the west of Germany. Cologne is Germany’s fourth largest city. Amongst many other things it is home to what I consider to be one of the most impressive cathedrals in the world as well as many museums (one of which shows the excavation of a Praetorian palace) and beer halls. All of this is done in a friendly atmosphere which exudes a very relaxed and pleasant atmosphere. Cologne is definitely a jewel on the Rhine and is recommended. 

However this is not a post about the beauty of Cologne.  During my visit to the NS  Dokumentationszentrum or the Gestapo museum, I certainly had moments to be unnerved and for profound pause. In many respects it is a terrifying reminder to the Nazi domination. For me it is a sorrowful reminder of the desperate reaches that humanity can occupy, something with which I am familiar. 

The museum housed the Nazi Gestapo prison which was active before and during the war. Here people were held for no reason other than to advance the Nazi belief. It blissfully survived the bombings and obliteration of Cologne by the bombs of the Allies. The museum is made up of multiple floors (four I think). The basement was by far the most moving part and it is here that you get a sense of the depravity involved. The other floors depict the rise of the Nazi party and the effects of the war mostly in Cologne. It was in the basement where my memories were aroused.

About eleven years ago I took part in an aid working project in India that lasted a month. For the most part we worked in relatively good conditions teaching in a free school. However the first three days were an introduction to Kolkata. There things are seen that are not even fit for nightmares. Visiting slums reveals a world that seems impossible, implausible and incomprehensible to a person of the first world. The conditions are horrifying and I am reminded of these when I read Dante’s inferno. That experience is not something you can forget or abjure. To survive I had to make the experiences a part of my life and my character. That took a long time and is a project that will never be truly finished. I will always have a sense of discontent somewhere in the background.

In the Gestapo prison, people were tortured with over 30 people crammed into a room not fit for a dog. They had a bucket with which to relieve themselves and precious little opportunity to wash themselves. Writings were scrawled into the plaster on the walls of the prisoners and when this is coupled with their story (where available) of these people… . 

The difference between my experiences in India and what must have occurred here, I can only guess upon. In India I have a small but solid shore of comfort. The problems here are ultimately caused by poor planning and people looking for an opportunity to earn money. The massive influx leads finally to squalor where the street is ankle high in excrement and where the water supply sprouts from a hill covered in (and I suspect made from) the same.

The feeling from the prison is that the Nazi’s not only carried out the depravity but reveled in its glory. Their deluded sense of madness brought about actions of tyrannical monsters and in that role, they sacrificed whatever dignity they or their victims had. The actions that would make one unnerved were carried out with rancor towards the prisoners and with revelment towards those very actions and what they represented. The prisoners became the embodiment of the Gestapo’s actions. Possibly in the minds of the Gestapo, a warped justification for carrying out those actions came from this embodiment.

I can only imagine what emotions those prisoners must have enduring to attain that tranquility that is found in the arms of sorrow.
“Sorrow is tranquility remembered in emotion.” Dorothy Parker
That is if any were to be found at all.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

What is an engineering skeptic anyway?

On the back of recent and dramatic failures, I have been forced not only to consider why these failures have occurred but also the situation around my own position. For the last 3 years I have been working in energy research and before that, I did a Masters in the same area. I have been involved in the good, the bad and the incompetent. But one thing has been a constant. I am sometimes described as negative. I do not agree with this point. Indeed I think that this attitude is why those failures are happening. 

My job is to take the inventions of others and apply them in the real, dirty world. That is I work with the processes and perform the tests that are necessary. I therefore do not have to imagine what the performance could look like and am very aware of the pitfalls of the technologies involved. Indeed a large part of my job is trouble shooting equipment as well as the inventions themselves.
On that point I have no emotional attachment to the invention that I may test. It can be nice, it can be pretty but I do not fall in love. In many ways I compare it to my fascination with the expression of English literature in poetry. For example Evan Boland wrote
The rest is tortoiseshell and has the reticent clear patience
of its element.
I think that this describes the heartless nature of war in juxtaposition to its gross physicality. I can certainly appreciate those lines and study them but it does not mean that I love English literature.

This is where my skeptic label comes about. The inventors tend get attached to their inventions and the processes inside which they work and reside. The shortcomings can be glossed over and often the abilities of the invention are pushed too far. An example is of cellulosic  ethanol whereby companies have being promising $1-2 gas for years. However the reality is that the EPA has had to keep pushing back the date for when it expects this product to arrive on the market. Most of this comes about from having an un-realistic view of the technology and the difficulties in producing cellulosic ethanol

The best way to introduce a technology is to treat it with a short view. Essentially you want the produce to succeed but you do not believe it will until proven otherwise. It is the guilty until proven innocent principle. If you have an emotional attachment, it will be very difficult to take this approach. I consider this to be a realistic view and not a skeptic view as many of my colleagues consider. So what is the basis of this approach.

  1. ·         Everything is only a potential breakthrough until it actually has broken into the market. The sucess of an invention is based on how much it breaks into the market.
  2. ·         Pilot, pilot, pilot. If the concept is not proven on a pilot scale, then I do not consider it a potential breakthrough. Pilot scale is operating in and around 1-10% of full scale production. For example for an invention that has a lifetime of 10 years, that means continuous testing at the process conditions for 1 year is a pilot test.
  3. ·         Repeatability and reproducibility. The invention must be reproduced multiple time by different people and different equipment. Each incarnation must be shown that have similar performance (within 10%) in the same process.
  4. ·         Predictions of how the invention will perform should be taken as ‘indications only’ until pilot scale has been proven.
So what kind of success rates can you expect for the chemical industry (e.g. a new catalyst) from lab scale to full scale implementation? Approximately 1% and certainly no higher than 10%. Typically the 10% figure relates more to the concept or overall guiding idea and the 1% represents the change or each incarnation of said idea. Why such pessimism? At lab scale the feedstock is typically clean. Heavy tars and sulphur compounds for example are often missing from the feed stream. As scale up proceeds, equipment and feedstock become more complex allowing for a more complete picture to develop. The outlook changes. It is often that few ppm of poison that can ruin your catalyst and you find out the real effects at pilot scale of said poison.

Modeling the process on the computer or by hand often makes use of assumptions and ideality. Corrosion, a common problem in refinery operations it not easy (well almost impossible) to model accurately. Even after pilot, failure can occur because long term effects are hard to predict and improvements in existing and competing technologies can render the invention less favorable. 

In short, take the short view of a new claim and invention. Dig around for more data and demand that people prove their claims. You are not skeptical; just realistic. In that way failures and unrealistic assertions can be avoided.