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By Jeff Danner Jeff has worked in both the chemical and biotech industries and is the veteran of thousands of science debates at cocktail parties and holiday dinners across the nation. In his Common Science blog, Jeff aims to make technological and scientific concepts accessible to all.

Want to Grow the Local Economy? Hire More Engineers.

By Jeff Danner Posted April 21, 2013 at 8:54 pm

The foundation of value creation in the economy is the conversion of raw materials into finished goods. Therefore, in order for North Carolina to have a strong and sustainable economy, we need to rebuild and revamp our manufacturing base. One of the best ways make progress on this front would be to convince/encourage/incentivize our local manufactures to hire more engineers.

Engineers create value for their employers by analyzing the fundamental characteristics of a production process, such as chemical reactions, rates of heat transfer, and physical properties, which provides them with the information required to design and operate an economically optimal manufacturing facility. This approach is applicable to both the start up of new process and, more commonly, to the optimization of existing ones. Having worked for several manufacturing companies, I can assure you that there is a lot of optimization out there to be done.

Most companies when launching a new product, having already spent money on research and facilities, place a high value generating positive cash flow as soon as possible. This dynamic almost guarantees that the manufacturing process will not have been optimized prior to start-up, with the most likely deficiencies being low output per unit of time, lower than optimal product yield, high process variability resulting in the generation off-spec material, and excess energy consumption. Unless the company hires an engineer to optimize the process, these inefficiencies often continue indefinitely.

Investment in salary for engineer(s) often provides a very high return on investment, frequently from improvements which, once identified, seem mundane. Let me provide you with an example from early in my career to illustrate this point. I was assigned to help optimize a chemical plant which produced propylene oxide, a key raw material for making foam cushions. As part of the purification process it was necessary to remove some acidic impurities from the propylene oxide by washing it with a basic solution, sodium hydroxide in this case. The washing process was carried out in a large tank in which the contents resided for 15 minutes. While the sodium hydroxide did a great job of removing the acids, it also destroyed some of the propylene oxide. This large wash tank had been in place for several decades, chewing up valuable product day after day, year after year.

The solution to the problem was clear to me the moment I looked at it. I knew from my engineering education that removal of acids with a strong base like sodium hydroxide was nearly instantaneous, while the degradation of the propylene oxide was likely to be much slower. Therefore, the root cause of the propylene oxide yield loss was the overly long 15 minute residence time. After collecting the appropriate data in small-scale tests, I had the mixing vessel at the plant replaced with a simple static mixer – basically a pipe with some internal baffles – which had a residence time of only 5 seconds. The acids were still completely removed during this short time while the degradation of the product was nearly eliminated, saving the company millions of dollars in lost product with a simple static mixer which cost only a couple hundred dollars.

If you are running a manufacturing plant, I can almost guarantee you that you have similar inefficiencies in your processes, inefficiencies that an engineer could fix for you. And you don’t need to look very far to find one; NC State, North Carolina A&T and Elon are educating engineers right here in the middle of the state. I believe that there are two key impediments to hiring more engineers. First, companies tend to maintain their current organizational structure. Therefore, if they don’t already have a position called “process engineer”, it may not occur to them to create one. Secondly, given that the starting salaries for B.S. engineers coming out of college are in the range of $60,000 per year, smaller companies may be reticent to commit to this expense.

My suggestion would be for the state to create a fund to subsidize the first two years of salary for engineers educated in North Carolina who are hired by a North Carolina manufacturing company. While I am not hopeful that our current administration in Raleigh would support such an initiative, the benefits would accrue to our universities, to the companies which hired the engineers, to the engineers themselves, to the stores and shops where these engineers spend their salaries, and to the economy in general. While a program like this would not generate splashy news headlines, the cumulative improvements would come to us day after day, year after year.

Have a comment or question? Use the interface below or send me an email to commonscience@chapelboro.com.

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