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Process engineers design, modify, and troubleshoot equipment used in manufacturing and chemical processes. They design new process units or retrofit old equipment for industrial customers such as oil refineries and chemical manufacturing plants. They are often responsible for designs or modifications to increase efficiency or satisfy constraints such as emissions guidelines. Process engineers play a key role in designing alternative methods for production and manufacturing that lessen the impact industry has on the environment.
At a glanceImagine you are driving past an enormous oil refinery with six large distillation towers and several massive storage tanks holding more than half a million barrels of oil. You are a process engineer and you know this refinery inside and out. Two years ago, your engineering consulting company won a multimillion dollar contract to upgrade the refinery in preparation for new federal legislation. The legislation is designed to reduce sulphur emissions by reducing the amount of sulphur in diesel fuel. You and your team of process engineers have been hired to design a process unit that will lower the amount of sulphur in the diesel fuel produced by the refinery. As a process engineer, you have extensive knowledge of the chemistry, mechanics, and thermodynamics that go into building large refineries like this one. But that's not to say building this process unit will be easy. You start by creating a schematic diagram that details what is supposed to happen at each step in the process as the unit removes excess sulphur from diesel fuel. You use the schematic to create a conceptual layout of the unit that includes details of each piece of equipment used, for example pumps, compressors, and reactors. A computer drafting technician will use the conceptual layout to generate a three-dimensional image so you can evaluate the unit and identify any conflicts that could affect its performance. Next, you create a computer simulation of the unit and add the process conditions that will be required, for example the temperature, pressure, and flow rate. You will use the computer model to run simulations to check measurements and determine if the desulphurizing chemical reaction will occur under the specified conditions. When the computer has verified your calculations, you take the unit to the mechanical engineers who will design the thermal systems and the electrical engineers who will design the instrumentation and control systems. Once all support systems are in place, you can begin construction of the refinery's desulphurizing unit.
Job dutiesDuties vary significantly from job to job, but the following list includes typical job duties one might encounter as a process engineer:
- Troubleshoot operating and related process equipment and recommend solutions.
- Evaluate design proposals and implementation.
- Develop analytical programs to monitor and support operations.
- Assist in the preparation of budgets for construction, capital, and operating expenditures.
- Maintain process documentation.
- Compile and evaluate test data to determine appropriate limits and variables for process and material specifications.
- Develop conceptual plans, define project scope and schedules, and determine required engineering input.
- Develop economic feasibility studies and evaluate engineering designs and procedures.
Work environmentProcess engineers work in a variety of locations, including: In the office:
- Doing paperwork, analyzing data, and preparing reports
- Drafting plans and designs
- Preparing and administering construction contracts
- Communicating on the phone and in meetings with clients, stakeholders, and government departments, and presenting assessment findings and designs to clients
- Researching new technology and advancements in process engineering, and consulting with other engineers and professionals
- Touring and inspecting sites during construction and operation
- Reviewing installations
- Supervising operation of pilot systems
- Ensuring compliance with appropriate regulations
- Assisting in process optimization
Where to workThere are a number of places process engineers can find employment. They include:
- Engineering and environmental consulting firms
- Federal, provincial/territorial, and municipal government departments
- Firms in other industries, for example oil and gas, mining, biotechnology, and manufacturing
- Industrial contractors
- Colleges, universities, and research institutes
Education & requirementsIf you are a high school student considering a career as a process engineer, you should have strong marks or an interest in:
- Chemical Engineering
- Mechanical Engineering
- Environmental Engineering
- Civil Engineering