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Minority Report

By: , Posted on: August 13, 2018

An important part of the writing process, for me, is gathering reviewer comments. As soon as I have completed the first draft of my manuscript, I send extracts to practicing engineers and ask them for comments. Elsevier is an international publisher, so my books have to be relevant in the global engineering marketplace. My aim in seeking review comments is to identify the consensus view – in this way I can ensure that what I have written is correct and current for the majority of cases in the majority of industries across the world.

I am very grateful to the large numbers of professional engineers who volunteer their time to help make the content of my books as accurate and reflective of consensus practice as possible. Usually, it’s possible to see where the boundaries of the consensus lie from the range of responses I receive. However, the review comments I receive always seem to include several ‘outliers’: minority views which are often very strongly expressed and from a very narrow viewpoint.

Usually I decide either to leave out these narrow views entirely, or include them with the caveat that they are only true for a specific subset of industries or situations. I thought, however, it might be interesting to set out some of them here, partly because I am often accused of being narrow minded myself and partly because, although they are only snapshots from individuals – and so purely anecdotal – they do suggest some interesting cultural differences between engineers in different parts of the world.

“This would never happen at MY university!”

A significant minority of my reviewers are uncomfortable with the idea that engineering education might be lacking in practicality. Many of these personalise this idea to the extent that they respond to my generalised claim that engineering education worldwide overemphasises research interests with a counter claim that their particular alma mater provided an excellent education. The issues which really seems to inflame these particular reviewers are anything which might be perceived as a slight on the institution they personally studied at.

“You need a procedure!”

International reviewers often take objection to some of the advice relating to ethics and safety in my books. Amusingly, there appears to be a belief amongst some international practitioners that western safety and ethical practices are entirely beyond reproach.

Some have been incredulous that we might actually carry out risk benefit analyses on safety, whilst others felt deeply uncomfortable with situations in which they might be required to make a professional personal judgment call without management sanction.

One reviewer suggested that there should be a written procedure to follow in all scenarios, even those resulting from people not following the written procedures for an extended period of time. His solution to an ethical dilemma I described in a book chapter was therefore to follow the procedure for ethical dilemmas. This was an extreme case of an attitude I saw from quite a few reviewers, suggestive of highly hierarchical work environments in some parts of the world.

“Oil & Gas = CPI = Chemical Engineering”

I have also noticed a tendency among some engineers to conflate Oil and Gas industry practice with that of CPI and with that of the whole of chemical engineering.

Taking this a step further, a very significant minority of reviewers from the oil and gas industry insisted that theirs is the only proper terminology, methodology and understanding of process engineering. This first became obvious to me when I was writing my plant layout book. One interesting thing about these strongly expressed opinions is that

  1. I only seemed to get them from O+G guys
  2. they were not consistent with each other.

These reviewers all agree that there is only one true path, but they do not entirely agree with each other about what that path is.

Operators vs Designers

When reviewing my books, staff from operations companies often appear to believe that their operational support activities are process plant design. They therefore reject any idea that process plant design is ill specified, that information is lacking, that it differs from modelling and simulation, pilot plant work, troubleshooting and debottlenecking etc.

Most process engineers working in an operational support role are clear that they are only involved in framing problems and offering a broad specification of plant and equipment actually designed by others.

On the other hand, designers can be a bit dismissive of the priorities of operations companies and frustrated by their staff’s attitude to novelty. This last issue mostly takes the form of frustration at an insistence on using an outdated technology because of the cost of retraining staff to use a better new one. There are however also cases where a client wants a plant based on an unproven new technology which we designers are personally rather uncertain about.

Safety Specialists vs Design Engineers

I have had some very strong comments from safety specialists who are essentially of the opinion that safety must be absolute, and there must be no cost benefit analysis of safety issues. These reviewers consider that the “as far as is reasonably practicable” (AFAIRP) standard doesn’t go anything like far enough, which rather implies that the minimum standard should be “further than is reasonably practicable”, a standard which is clearly unreasonable, impractical or both.

Other safety specialists such as Harvey Dearden are the best sources of critiques of this approach, a minority view, even amongst specialists. In Dearden’s taxonomy of engineers, he would classify them as part of the “Cover My Ass Brigade”, which he defines as follows:

“these guys avoid making judgement calls. They will always adopt the most conservative option, regardless of profit implications and will call in a consultant at the drop of a hat (which is not necessarily a bad thing providing the consultant is efficient in execution of the assignment and delivers on a brief that is well aligned with the business objectives. If he borrows your watch to tell you the time, you will only have generated apparent profit)”

Design engineers, on the other hand, balance cost, safety and robustness whilst designing. Some of us in some countries might be guilty of deprioritising safety, though this will often be traceable to management pressure (see manager engineer tensions) in the next article in this series.

Read more articles from Sean Moran, The Voice of Chemical Engineering

Professor Sean Moran is a Chartered Engineer with over twenty years’ experience in process design, commissioning and troubleshooting and is regarded as the ‘voice of chemical engineering’. 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.

Whilst Associate Professor at the University of Nottingham, he coordinated the design teaching program for chemical engineering students. Professor Moran’s university work focused 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.

The book is available, having published on June 5th 2018. An Applied Guide to Water and Effluent Treatment Plant Design brings together the design of process, wastewater, clean water, industrial effluent and sludge treatment plants, looking at the different treatment objectives within each sub-sector, selection and design of physical, chemical and biological treatment processes, and the professional hydraulic design methodologies.

Key Features:

  • Explains how to design water and effluent treatment plants that really work
  • Accessible introduction to, and overview of, the area that is written from a process engineering perspective
  • Covers new treatment technologies and the whole process, from treatment plant design, to commissioning

Sean’s latest books are also available to order on the Elsevier Store. Use discount code STC317 at checkout and save up to 30% on your very own copy!


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