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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.

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