Process Engineers are responsible for designing, implementing and optimizing chemical and biochemical processes, especially continuous ones within the chemical, petrochemical, agriculture, mineral processing, food, pharmaceutical, and biotechnological industries.
A process engineer is responsible for the equipment, system and methods used in a manufacturing facility to transform raw ingredients to their final product form. This position is responsible for the smooth operation of production facilities, plants and factories, and often requires a mix of scientific and administrative skills.
Process Engineers work in Process or Continuous Manufacturing – takes a formulation or recipe of ingredients and blends them together using a chemical reaction, heat, cold, fermentation, etc continuously or in a batch into a final product which is usually a liquid, powder, gas or solid. (Think turning milk into baby formula, oil refining, gasoline, plastic, shampoo, washing powder, toothpaste, casein, cheese, butter, beer, wine, whiskey, paint, drug or vaccine manufacturing, etc)
In a process manufacturing factory, you typically find, piping, pumps, tanks, flow valves, steam valves, temperature gauges, boilers, vessels, reactor vessels, crackers, distillation columns, heat exchangers, boilers, steam pipes, autoclaves, clarifiers, decanters, fluidised dryers, Program Logic Controllers (PLCs), PID (Proportional Integral Derivative) Controllers, etc.
For some people, Process Engineers and Chemical Engineers are synonymous. For others and depending on the country you are in, a Process Engineer is a KIND of chemical engineer that designs manufacturing plants, which can do everything from recycling plastics to making jam. Here the emphasis is not on doing new chemistry. Instead, they focus on applying known chemical reactions to designing, maintaining, and improving manufacturing plants. There is more emphasis on mathematics and physics (specifically fluid mechanics) than chemistry, so they work more with mechanical engineers.
A Process Engineer’s job can be extremely varied.
In larger companies, Process Engineers may specialize in a niche area but in smaller facilities, a Process Engineer can be responsible for a huge variety of tasks.
These tasks can include:
- Design and development of a continuous manufacturing process along with the layout and equipment for a new factory. This includes creating and setting specifications, developing, implementing and monitoring this equipment as part of the manufacturing system.
- Commissioning and qualification of that new factory
- Modify and optimize equipment and processes that are already in place
- Use of simulation software in the development of new processes
- Completion of documentation to show and ensure compliance with both internal and external regulations and protocols
- Oversight of processes and working to maintain optimization of the continuous manufacturing process
- Monitoring of equipment – including regular testing and ensuring maintenance tasks are carried out
- Assisting Process Technicians in troubleshooting in the event of a problem
- Data collection, interpretation and report writing
- Planning and installation of new equipment
- Risk assessments of the equipment and processes being used. Of course, this refers to staff safety and safety within the plant, but this can also extend outwards to include things such as the environmental impact
- Continual evaluation of equipment and processes to ensure both efficiency and quality remain high
- Budget responsibilities
The ideal skill set for someone moving into process engineering includes:
- Interpret technical drawings – especially piping and instrumentation diagrams (P&IDs) and pipe skids
- Project management – have to ability to manage people, budgets and complex projects and bring them to completion on time and on budget
- Spatial reasoning – the ability to see a two or three-dimensional object and then mentally manipulate it
- Critical/logical thinking – have to locate problems, and then think of those problems from a variety of perspectives to assess the best solution
- Excellent communication skills – working with people across the manufacturing process, they have to be able to manage people well and communicate new ideas effectively
- Calm under pressure – must be able to troubleshoot at an advanced level. If a problem is delaying manufacturing, they must be able to come up with effective working solutions quickly
- Commercial awareness – usually working within strict time and budgetary constraints
- Excellent computer skills – IT is an essential part of this role, uses include simulation software, design software and reporting
- Analytical skills – responsible for analysis and interpretation of data into charts, diagrams, and reports
- Negotiation skills – vital if charged with budgetary or schedule management
- Creative thinking and excellent problem-solving skills – have to be able to solve problems in a new way, seeing past what is established and create a new way of doing things
Process engineers should have a bachelor’s degree in chemical, manufacturing or industrial engineering. Concentrations in chemistry, mathematics and management are helpful as well. Some employers ask for advanced or master’s degrees for specialized or senior process engineer positions.
Much of a process engineer’s training will take place in the classroom when they learn different aspects of the job, such as organic chemistry, fluid mechanics, thermodynamics, process design and physics. During internships, students have the opportunity to train with equipment specific to their potential roles.
Once a process engineer obtains a position with a company, they will receive on-the-job training. As each factory or plant will manufacture a different product, the details of the workings of each one will also vary. Engineers may also have to familiarize themselves with different equipment in the workplace.
Process engineers will benefit from the acquisition of certificates that demonstrate their expertise and mastery of aspects of their job. Some of these are :
- Certified Manufacturing Engineers Certification (CMfgE)
To qualify for the Certified Manufacturing Engineers certification from the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, applicants need a minimum of eight combined years of manufacturing-related education and work experience and must pass an examination. Holders of this certificate must re-certify every three years.
- Center for Chemical Process Safety Professional Certification (CCPSC)
A CCPSC demonstrates a process engineer’s ability to follow best safety practices in the workplace. Applicants must pass an exam and submit three professional references. To maintain certification, holders must complete a certain number of professional development hours, which vary based on how long they possess the certification.
- Six Sigma
Created by an engineer to minimize or eliminate defects and errors in processes and products, Six Sigma is a quality management certification offered in different levels — yellow, green, black and master black belt. Lean Six Sigma is a version in which a team works together to remove waste and reduce variation. Process engineers can earn a belt from numerous organizations, including the American Society of Quality and the International Association for Six Sigma Certification. To earn Six Sigma, you must undergo approved training and pass an exam or complete a live project.
Several skills can be useful in a process engineer role :
Process engineers must have excellent mathematical abilities as they will spend large amounts of time gathering data and calculating optimal output. They will use their math skills to make small adjustments that can result in large changes.
Process engineers constantly review and revise processes in the system to ensure optimization. This involves analyzing each step of the process and examining it for flaws.
- Familiarity with machinery
Process engineers use or oversee the use of large and complex equipment daily. As they are responsible for their safety and output, they will need to be familiar with all aspects of the machinery.
- Familiarity with software
Knowing how to use programs like AutoCAD (design and drafting software), MATLAB (mathematical software that analyzes data, develops algorithms and creates models and applications) and SOLIDWORKS (computer-aided engineering program) can be helpful to predict outcomes of proposed changes.
Process engineers interact with technicians, other engineers, management and clients, so they need excellent communication skills. They must be able to offer information in an easy-to-understand manner to listeners who are not in the engineering field.
Because they often find and present new processes to others, a process engineer will need to be able to work well in a team and inspire confidence in others to implement change.