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Creative Design in Chemical Engineering

By: , Posted on: September 28, 2015

Design is a creative human activity, as I spell out in chapter 1 of my book. I return to this theme in my last chapter, where I talk about developing your own design style.

“There is a great deal more to engineering than the stuff they teach you in university, but I’m not talking about the ethics and embedded humanities modules which sometimes get shoehorned into curricula. There are even a few useful books on the subject.

Engineering design is not applied science. It is an art, learned and refined through practice. Engineers use all that they are in the practice of their profession. Intelligence and knowledge which are neither scientific nor mathematical are of crucial importance.

When I teach design to mature postgraduate students, it can seem as if they are more creative than the undergraduates, as they come up with a lot more ideas than the students with no industrial experience (but higher entry qualifications). I do not think that this is pure creativity. I think it is that they have more life experience to be creative with.

Judgment, intuition, and the knowledge and experience which teach us what doesn’t work and enables us to reason by analogy all take time to develop.

Back when I was learning to teach I wrote a blog reflecting on my experiences, from which an excerpt follows:

“I went to see a client today. He had a problem, and had changed five things which might have caused it, as well as several others which might not (though he didn’t understand that). I knew which two were the causes in ten minutes.

I think to myself: 1. Engineering is easy (for engineers). 2. How did I learn how to do that? How can I teach others to do it? I could try this example as a case study, and see how hard it is to people earlier in their training. It seems to me at present that more so than amassing factual knowledge, it’s to do with acquiring the engineer’s perspective. Whilst it may have its limitations, on its home turf, it can cut through confusion, obfuscation, and misunderstanding in a flash.

There is, however, no substitute for having a firm grasp of practical math and physical science. Theory underpins practice, and is available for verification of intuitive understandings. An experienced professional is not necessarily doing math and science in their heads when troubleshooting a problem. It is more like pattern-matching ‘Oh, yes, this reminds me of that time when…’ and not necessarily even the words, just seeing into the problem, pruning the tree of possibilities. This involves people, and discourse (though engineers do not call it that).

I spent far more time talking to the maintenance technician yesterday than I did looking at the machinery. In talking to him, I have to get him to talk freely, so that he tells me what he thinks has been happening. I have to assume that he will see what he expects to see, and make sure I trust nothing of what he says which I have not verified personally. I look for areas where what he says is self-contradictory, and explore those areas with him in a way which does not make him feel I am trying to trap him into admitting he screwed up, or rubbish his pet theory.

I am, however, quite ruthless in making sure that I get to the bottom of what is happening to my own satisfaction. I’m going to find out what is wrong, and I’m going to fix it. How much I tell his boss is, however, negotiable. He knows how I work, since we have been interacting for a year or so, and we conduct an unspoken negotiation between us.

I am commercially interested in extending and upgrading the plant, but am constrained by professionalism not to milk the client. He is paid to maintain the plant, but would like it to be as automated and reliable as possible to make his job as easy as possible. He is, however, also paid to minimize costs, consistent with meeting the required effluent quality.

Between us we come up with a plan which makes us both look good, him cost conscious to his boss, and the client actively addressing the effluent failures from the point of view of the authorities. It also has a bit of what both he and I want, which is to pay me to make the plant better from the point of view of the maintenance staff as well as the other parties.

I’ll also put some nice things in my report to his boss about the build quality of the modifications he has made and underplay their contribution to the problems. He in return will not mistreat the plant in between visits and blame it on my design. All of this is unspoken, but I know it is going on, and I think he does too.

Away from science and engineering, they might think chemical engineering is all about numbers and chemicals, but it seems likely to me that professional practice has less of this than academia. Working with other people’s fears and desires, their wishful thinking and self-deception, strengths and shortcomings (as well as our own) is a crucial part of the job-but that doesn’t mean a psychologist could do it.”

So professional engineering practice is a human activity, a lot more to do with people than it is to do with calculus or calcium. Perhaps this is why so many engineering academics lacking in social skills hide away from the real thing in their university offices playing with their optimization programs.

Read more from Sean on SciTech Connect

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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.

In his role as Associate Professor at the University of Nottingham, he co-ordinates the design teaching program for chemical engineering students. Professor Moran’s university work focuses on increasing industrial relevance in teaching, with a particular emphasis on process design, safety and employability.

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.

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