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In Case You Missed It: Practical Principles of Plant Design

By: , Posted on: December 7, 2015

plant design

I am a highly experienced practical professional process engineer who has designed, commissioned and undertaken troubleshooting of many process plants, and mentored and trained many other professional engineers in how to do these things.

The early part of my own career and frequent interactions with early career engineers have highlighted to me the disconnect between what is taught in universities, and what engineers need to be able to do.

It is not just that what is taught in our universities is out of date and irrelevant to practice, though much of it is. The entire basis of what is taught, and the background of the vast majority of those who teach it is incorrect. Engineering is not applied science and mathematics. Engineering is a conservative, practical commercially minded business, based in the collective experience of engineers. Its driving concerns are rarely scientific.

Academia presently relies upon industry to teach their “engineering graduates” engineering, but we no longer have monolithic chemical engineering companies with the time and resources to spend unproductive years teaching graduates the basics of engineering. Many graduates consequently  nowadays have to muddle along, learning what engineering is really about only by osmosis from more experienced engineers.

In “An Applied Guide…” I assume the role of the experienced engineer, who takes lucky graduate chemical engineers by the hand in their first job or two and shows them what engineering is really about. Many are not so lucky as to have expert guidance.

The foundation of this book is practice, not theory. Throughout the text I however offer quotations from others, links to books and even, on occasion, primary literature. These should not be misunderstood as the basis of my opinions. In the case of quotations, I simply quote the people who agree with me.

Process plant design is the pinnacle of chemical engineering design. Chemical engineering was developed based on the insight by Davis that all process industries used similar unit operations, which could be understood using sector independent analytical tools.

This book is about Process Plant Design in the widest sense, and whilst examples may be drawn from my personal experience in the water and environmental sectors, it is intended to reflect consensus practice across the broad discipline.

Process and Plant Design in Academia

Educational Shortcoming in Chemical Engineering

The Re-Education of Chemical Engineering

Truth and Empiricism in Chemical Engineering

Professional Practice

The very essence of process plant design, the thing people employ chemical engineers to do, is system level design. It is integrative, in the sense of integration of the needs of all engineering design disciplines, and those who are to build and operate the plant.

It has a broad ranging vision- a good process plant design considers all the elements of design given in this book, in order to produce an appropriately detailed set of documentation to allow decision making in early stages, and construction in the last stage.

It is multidisciplinary, involving usually as a minimum civil and electrical engineers, as well as to a lesser degree construction stage staff, management, clients and plant operators.

It is multidimensional, taking into consideration as an absolute minimum the cost, safety and robustness implications of every decision.

It is iterative- a design evolves through successively better incarnations.

Lastly, the thing which makes it truly system level design is that process plant designers see in their minds eye a complex system working as a whole. It is about being able to imagine a completely integrated system which none can fully understand, but that the designer understands well enough to make it do what they want it to do in the way they say it is going to do it.

So how do we do this?

The Essence of Process Plant Design

Simplicity and Sophistication in Plant Design

Mass and Energy Balances in Plant Design

Hydraulic Calculations and Fluid Mechanics

Low Level Design

Enough background – exactly how do you design like a pro? Some of this section of the book is the professional version of the subjects which are taught in university, and some will be completely new or may even contradict what is taught in academia.

Increasing Levels of System Organization in Plant Design

Plant Design of Unit Operations

Cost Estimation in Chemical Engineering

High Level Design

The previous section was a description of how to design the components and subsystems of a process plant, but the ability to do this is not why process plant designers get the big bucks. We are paid to produce a design integrated at a higher level than this, so that all the subsections work together well.

I have identified three areas where a whole-plant understanding is most important- process control, layout and safety. This understanding has to feed back to the subsystem design covered in the last section, but these three areas have to be addressed primarily at the whole-system level.

Process Control in Plant Design

Process and Plant Design Layout

Health Safety and Environmental Features in Plant Design

Advanced Design

Design optimization proceeds iteratively by stages in professional practice, with an increasing degree of multidisciplinarity, checking, attention to detail, and quality control. This process is quite distinct from academic process integration or optimization techniques.

Professional Engineering in an Academic Setting

Beginner’s Mistake in Chemical Engineering Education

Process Optimization in Chemical Engineering

Creative Design in Chemical Engineering

Explore Sean’s Full Archive of Articles on SciTech Connect


applied guide to process and plant designAn Applied Guide to Process and Plant Design is available for purchase on the Elsevier Store.

Use discount code “STC215” at checkout and save up to 30% on your very own copy!

About the Author

sean moranProfessor Moran is a Chartered Chemical Engineer with over twenty years’ experience in process design, commissioning and troubleshooting. He started his career with international process engineering contractors and worked worldwide on water treatment projects before setting up his own consultancy in 1996, specializing in process and hydraulic design, commissioning and troubleshooting of industrial effluent and water treatment plants.

Connect with Sean on LinkedIn here, check out his Facebook page here and stay up-to-date on his thoughts, research and practice at his personal blog here.

Chemical Engineering

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