Being a Doer and The Blues Brothers.

Loyal followers of this blog already know some of my background and likes. Now, you get to learn that I’m a big fan of John Belushi and The Blues Brothers. I link this to my years spent living in Chicago and my Master’s Degree earned from the School of Engineering at Washington University (Wash U) in St. Louis. How are these related?

Lawyer Cash Nickerson, Wash U alumni, and author of Listening as a Martial Art, recently posted on LinkedIn about “doers, reporters, amplifiers and listening skills” in the workplace. The workplace for us could be technical sales, project engineering, process development, etc.

In the case of Belushi’s Jake in The Blues Brothers, his workplace was “getting the band back together.”

Cash talks about a “reporter” as someone who tells you what is happening: the client is unhappy, the project is delayed, the specifications are wrong, etc. Basically, telling the story of “how we got here.” The “amplifier” reports but also repeats the story, even louder. They are the ones who after hearing of a crisis, scream even louder. With email, text, and social media, it’s easy to become a reporter/amplifier.

Leadership Advice
Photo credit: miuenski via RemodelBlog / CC BY-NC-SA

Meanwhile, a “doer” doesn’t just bring a problem; they also present a solution or a suggested solution. The best actually solve the problem or attempt to do so before even coming to you. The “doer” doesn’t announce the problem widely (amplifying it) but rather sets up a meeting (I call these an “adjustment meeting”), organizes a conference call with the client, writes a change order, etc. The doer tries to resolve the issue and only comes to the boss if the problem remains unresolved.

John Belushi is a doer. In one of my favorite scenes in the movie Jake lies in mud in an underground tunnel with a mysterious woman shooting at him. All Jake can do to solve his problem is try to talk his way out: “Honest… I ran out of gas. I… I had a flat tire. I didn’t have enough money for cab fare. My tux didn’t come back from the cleaners. An old friend came in from out of town. Someone stole my car. There was an earthquake. A terrible flood. Locusts! IT WASN’T MY FAULT!”

I think that we’ve all been in the mud at one time in our careers. Yet, I would not suggest that this is a good approach in for solving problems in the workplace. What you want to do is stop and think first. Am I going to be a reporter, or worse yet an amplifier? Take the time to first rehearse your approach in your head. See if you can find a way, instead, to be a doer. So much more will get done, and you’re more likely to get ahead too.

We all deal with problems in the mud every day in our jobs, let me know some ideas and examples that we can share for problem-solving strategies. Or if you just want to share a favorite scene from The Blues Brothers, I’ll be happy to hear that too!

Process Engineering Choices

 

solid liquid filtration
Photo credit: Internet Archive Book Images via Foter.com

Have you ever heard of “analysis paralysis?” It’s a state process engineers might know well. Being confronted with so many different approaches and varied equipment available, we can be left stuck wondering what to do next.

 

The recent BHS newsletter looked at just this indecision from the perspective of a process engineer facing the challenges of acidic slurries and vacuum filtration.  We began by sharing the perspective of Garrett Bergquist, the BHS Process & Application Engineer, who is presenting at the AICHE annual meeting in San Francisco this month.

 

Garrett’s article discusses belt filter technologies, materials of construction and proper vacuum belt selection.  His focus in particular is on alternate materials available in vacuum belt filter construction. He furthered his insights with a case study addressing chemical compatibility to process 2,200 kg/h dry solids precipitated from a sulfuric acid solution.

Noting stainless and carbon steels are often incompatible with most sulfuric and hydrochloric acid concentrations, he concluded, “when it comes to dealing with hazardous slurries such as those containing sulfuric or hydrochloric acid the options should be carefully considered.”

 

 

Also in the latest A&SoF newsletter, we announce our Vacuum Belt Filter skid. This mobile skid (see the wheels?) is 0.3m2, including liquid ring vacuum pump, separator, transfer pump, instrumentation and PLC controls. Plus, its fully-wired for quick electrical hook-up.

 

Finally, we offered a presentation of BHS’s laboratory filtration testing capabilities. Filtration Laboratory Manager Ron Baltz’s overview of the new Charlotte facility covers all of the bases. But, if you still have questions, let me know.

 

Surfs Up to Innovation!

Innovation is all around us. We encounter its results regularly in our jobs as engineers. But, thinking about the concept more broadly for this blog, I was struck by an example from a Business Week article on Kelly Slater.

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Image source: BusinessWeek

Now, I’m not a surfer. I swim, bike and run (sometimes all together in mini-triathlons) but even I’d heard of Slater, whom the magazine described as “the world’s best and best-known surfer.” So I had to wonder what he was doing in a magazine devoted to business, entrepreneurship and innovation.

Well, it turns out Slater accomplished the ultimate goal of the surfing community. His quest to innovate led him to make the “near perfect man-made wave.” You can see video of him surfing this feat of modern ingenuity on the BusinessWeek site.

What struck me in the article was the familiarity of his process. It started with the concept to make a perfect wave, 7 – 8 feet, with a much coveted “right break” (why this is so special is unclear from the article, and a cursory Internet search for the answer didn’t help me differentiate why the right break is better than any other kind).

From concept, Slater and his team endured a long phase of expensive and speculative engineering involving prototypes and yes, research labs, to get it right.

Then, he finally experienced the excitement of getting it right — and promptly put it on Instagram.

At every step of the way we could relate to the struggle for him and his team. Even down to the elation and social media sharing of the success — I’ve seen many of my customers’  videos of their products “getting it right.” Although, they’re typically wearing more than swimsuits!

With the case of the man-made wave innovation, as usual, you have the supporters and the nay-sayers. The nay-sayers believe that mechanical waves take away from the exotic nature of surfing. Supporters believe this could open up the sport to resorts, competition in the Olympic games, and expand the sport to places in the world where oceans don’t exist.

All in all, this is not so different than developing a new chemical application. Having pursued his goal through creation, evolution, and refining, Slater has now found an investor to fund and grow the technology. It’s exciting to see innovative minds succeed — whether it’s chemicals or “cowabunga dude” success changing the face of surfing.

 

 

Informal Entrepreneurs & Innovation Everywhere

 

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I recently read a book called The Misfit Economy. The non-fiction book, by Alexa Clay and Kyra Maya Phillips, published by Simon & Schuster, looks at innovation from businesses on the fringes of society.  I encountered this book on the way back from traveling to Dubai and London and was drawn immediately to its theme of innovation.  Although the authors look at “out-of-the-box” innovators in the world’s black market and informal economies, it was a perfect read for me when I was feeling displaced by travel.

Clay and Phillips examine the commonalities among Amish camel milk traders, computer hackers, inner city gangsters and more under appreciated innovators and consider what they each have in common with the disrupters at GE or creative minds in Silicon Valley.  You’d be surprised by what they discover, even though there is no LinkedIn network for the underground economy.

One example from the book follows an elite group of people connected with an underground collective called UX (urban experiment).  The group comprises French men and women who have “above ground” duties of work and family that also work to restore the forgotten artifacts of French civilization.  In one audacious move, they worked for over a year restoring a 19th century clock in the basement of the Pantheon — secretively.  They smuggled tools, internet connections, and food through tunnel excavations — for over a year — all without being detected.  For the book’s authors this example showed how informal networks and information sharing can accomplish innovative goals and objectives.

A “legal” example the authors share comes from innovative Amish camel milk traders who used relationship building across networks to address a Food & Drug Administration (FDA) restriction on the camel’s milk.  Working collaboratively the Amish developed a network of associations to bring camel milk to California’s health-conscious consumers and have now successfully placed pasteurized camel milk on the shelves in 40 Whole Food stores.

What is exhilarating about this book is realizing that there are interesting problem-solvers and innovators in all walks of life. The more you look around, the more you will see “misfit innovation” and “informal entrepreneurs” everywhere.

7 Key Steps in PetChem Safety

industrial disaster
The Union Carbide factory now lies abandoned in Bhopal. Image source.

Attending the PetChem Technology Forum in Houston I learned from engineering, operating company, supplier and consultant industry experts. I was fortunate enough to be presenting on Filtration Technology for Removing Solid Contaminant Fines from Water Scrubbing, Clarifier Effluent and Grey Water. I discussed technologies, applications, case histories and troubleshooting.

Another of the presentations addressed safety and conducting safety audits. We all think we know about safety. Sometimes we’re overconfident — as when I told my 88 year-old father how to safely climb a ladder, and he proceeded not to talk with me for a day (but that’s another story).

In Houston I was learning from Robert J. Weber, the President/CEO and founder of PSRG, a global provider of process safety, risk management, process plant reliability, and comprehensive HSSE services for the hydrocarbon and chemical process industries.

Robert first covered lessons learned from industry incidents such as:

  • a cyclohexane release and explosion that killed 28 in Flixborough, UK
  • a loss of containment in a local Mexico City sewer system that led to over 650 fatalities
  • the “world’s worst industrial disaster” in Bhopal, India when a Union Carbide methyl isocyanate tank ruptured.

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    Industrial accident in 1976 Italy

He then related these to elements of process safety (as seen in this presentation slide):

process safety

Robert discussed what each company can do to improve safety including establishing a culture of safety (leadership and competency). He suggested clearly defined expectations and accountability along with Key Performance Indicators. Finally, he stressed continuous improvement and community outreach.

7 Key Steps

Over the course of the presentation and panel questions seven key steps in safety management were identified:

  1. Assign personnel for accountability
  2. Adopt a personalized company philosophy
  3. Learn about process safety
  4. Incorporate process safety into the business drivers
  5. Set achievable goals
  6. Track performance
  7. Revisit and improve on a continuous basis

This presentation was a great reminder of how essential it is to always be thinking about safety. As Sargent Phil Esterhaus of Hill Street Blues would say:

Safety in Engineering

Importance of Good Professional Sense

Chemical Process Industry engineers don’t encounter ethical situations every day, fortunately. Yet, when we do, the decision-making is heavily weighted by our awareness of the importance of the potential safety, environmental and quality-control hazards associated with what we do.

engineers making tough choicesPhoto credit: CameliaTWU via Decorators Guru / CC BY-NC-ND

Chemical Engineering tackled the topic of Engineering Ethics IQ in a special discussion last year. They also sought the opinions and comments of readers regarding specific hypothetical cases in a survey aiming at discussing ethically charged situations.

The survey:

  • Questioned the ethics of using a miniscule amount of a poisonous additive to a product.
  • Considered whether or not to continue testing with a critical gasket potentially leaking.
  • Addressed proper reporting and handling of waste.
  • Covered insider information and vendor incentives.
  • Examined acknowledging responsibility.

I’ll be interested to see the magazine’s survey results. In the meantime, I was inspired to look back at the NSPE Code of Ethics that notes, “Engineering has a direct and vital impact on the quality of life for all people. Accordingly, the services provided by engineers require honesty, impartiality, fairness, and equity, and must be dedicated to the protection of the public health, safety, and welfare.” The AIChE, too, strives to uphold and advance ethical thinking, reminding its members to use “their knowledge and skill for the enhancement of human welfare.”

My thinking on this important topic was jogged on the golf course, as I mentioned previously, when I was thinking of the honesty of Brian Davis on the PGA Tour. Revisiting the coverage of that event for this blog, I came across an insightful New York Times opinion piece pointing out that Davis’s behavior highlighted “the refreshing contrast between golf and other sports.”

The columnist observed, “In other sports, players unabashedly claim to have (take your pick) made the catch, avoided the tag, cleanly blocked the shot, had both feet inbounds, etc., only to be overruled by officials or replay cameras.” Whereas, in 1925 golfer Bobby Jones shrugged off praise of his calling a similar penalty on himself by saying, “You may as well praise a man for not robbing a bank.”

This is how we, as chemical process engineers, ought to think as well. That ethical action is not a choice, but the only way to respond. Pressures at work — be they related to time, profitability, or reputation — cannot diminish the fact that ethical decision-making is always good professional sense.

Ethical Engineers are Prepared

On the golf course recently, I was reminded of Brian Davis. Do you remember? In 2010, he called a two-stroke penalty on himself in tournament play. His violation, nudging a reed aside on the 18th, cost him $411,000 as he ultimately finished second to Jim Furyk.

process engineer problem solving
Photo credit: Tord Sollie via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Now, I haven’t come close to winning a major tournament — although I did earn “closest to the hole” in a Gas Processors Tournament in Madrid, Spain. Nevertheless, when I hit the links I assiduously keep track of my strokes — all of them — because it’s the right thing to do. Somehow this got me thinking of how doing the right thing in chemical process engineering can, in fact, prove as costly as Davis’s honorable action. Yet choosing the other, less-ethical path could cost human lives from say bacterial contamination or ignored safety procedures.

Karl Stephan, writing in Chemical Engineering, acknowledged sound ethics in our field demands “a large dose of technical know-how” as well as a sound ethical foundation when confronting “ethically charged questions.”

Texas State University’s Stephan may have been a Boy Scout as his suggestion for engineers is to “be prepared” to identify ethical problems with seven steps to better navigate the situation. I paraphrase here:

  1. Know what you believe. Ask yourself in advance what kind of situations you would be willing to risk your reputation or your job for.
  2. Recognize ethical problems. Take stock of your individual role and what could go wrong, go unreported, or cause harm to better understand the scope of your responsibility.
  3. Identify stakeholders. Having identified possible ethical problems, consider everyone who might be affected (whether if something is done or if a problem is ignored).
  4. Analyze interests. Take the time to anticipate each of those stakeholders interest in the various outcomes of an ethical decision.
  5. Examine alternatives. Weigh the possibilities such as doing nothing, doing nothing at least for a time, or acting immediately to determine reasonable courses of action.
  6. Execute decision. With all the thinking you’ve been doing, you should be in a position to implement a decision – even a difficult one.
  7. Document everything. Try and collect a paper trail of the entire process as soon as you are aware of an ethical issue. You will be better able to recall details if called upon if you have the complete, accurate information.

What I appreciate about Stephan’s approach is that he takes the abstraction of ethics and turns it into a process. That’s what I call knowing your audience. Ethics is anathema to engineers in a way. Not because we want to do whatever we want, without caring a whit for the consequences, but because it is not a hard science. Many of us enjoy the one right answer that engineering often represents, whereas ethics is all about ambiguity.

Ultimately, though, there can be no ambiguity in handling ethical situations in chemical process engineering. We must implement clear rules about what is ethical and actively seek to do the right thing — as Davis did. This is the only foundation upon which I will stand for generating revenue and building my and my company’s reputations.

Pertaining to Particle Size Analysis

 

Particle analysis
Photo credit: NASA Johnson via Remodel / CC BY-NC

 

When I say “Particle Size,” you say “Analysis.”

When I say “Particle Size,” you say _________.

Who says we can’t have fun with particle size analysis? I know BHS-Sonthofen’s latest A&SoF newsletter has some interesting reads on the topic. Focusing on particle size and shape and their impacts on solid-liquid separation, we share some current industry insights on the topic.

Drawing on resources from Mettler-Toledo and Micromeritics, we hope to prompt your thinking on different ways of approaching particle analysis. The permutations are endless of course as process engineers must address off-line and in-processes and how the particle size and shape impacts the filtration system designed to handle the specific solids.

Mettler-Toledo examines scientists combining offline particle size analyzers with in-process particle characterization instruments to optimize and improve processes.  Their white paper illustrates how this can help:

  • Obtain detailed process understanding by directly measuring changes to particle size and count as process parameters vary
  • Determine operating conditions required to deliver fit-for-purpose particles on a consistent basis
  • Monitor and correct process deviations during continuous or batch production
  • Avoid time delays and errors associated with sampling, preparation and offline analysis

Micromeritics, meanwhile, reminds us of the challenges of equivalent particle analysis with irregularly shaped particles and different measurement techniques. They note:

“Understanding what each particle size technique actually measures, how it performs the measurement, and how it transforms the quantity measured into equivalent spherical diameters are crucial when selecting the most appropriate particle sizing technique for your sample or application.”
Of course, I can’t help but mention my own discussion of this in chapter 6 of my Guide to Solid-Liquid Filtration. In keeping with my Sherlock Holmes-ian bent, I illustrate how the systems approach to process filtration and “not jumping to conclusions” should be the guiding principles when we troubleshoot issues of particle size distribution (PSD) changing from pilot to production scale and even during the production operation.

Want to learn more about how the Charlotte office of BHS sleuths out particle size solutions? Reach out and let me know. But when I holler, “particle size,” expect me to be waiting for you to come right back with “analysis!”

 

Cookies are yummy, but avoid cookie-cutters.

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Photo credit: Amy Loves Yah / Source / CC BY

We can all agree that cookies are yummy. Cookie monster is not the only creature out there who loves to chow down on a tasty chocolate chip or oatmeal raisin (my favorite are Thin Mints).

What is not so good, though, is using a cookie-cutter approach to problem solving.

In filtration testing and scaling-up to commercial size, it’s important to not “jump to conclusions” that the familiar approach is going to work best.

Laboratory/bench top filtration testing is critical in the problem analysis, technology selection, and pilot and demonstration scale-up stages.

As I’ve blogged about, and discuss at length in my Practical Guide to Solid-Liquid Filtration, we can learn a lot from sleuths Holmes and Watson. They would argue it’s important to train yourself to be a better decision maker. Your best bet is to use checklists, formulas, and structured processes.

It’s also essential to train yourself to stop and repeat. Don’t succumb to certainty. Discuss your options with technology suppliers that can provide different filtration solutions. Partnering with suppliers with a proven track record in similar applications will shorten your technology scale-up cycle.

Ultimately, what matters are your premises (process definition, requirements and testing objectives) how the testing unwinds the crucial from the incidental (what is the critical process parameter) and ending up with a logical conclusion (optimum process filtration solution). With caution and clear thinking you can better manage the stress of a scale-up.

This blog marks the one year anniversary of “Perlmutter Unfiltered.”  I would like to thank everyone for their feedback and responses.  Let me know your ideas and thoughts; guest bloggers are always welcomed.

Build Your Library with Basics

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With the advent of e-books and our ability to access archives of trade magazines online, it’s become easier for engineers to have ready access to a rich, professional library.  This is especially good if you had to complete some work during March Madness; hope you picked the winner in your brackets.  Let me know how you did.

Nevertheless, it’s a great idea to build a reference library all of your own. Dirk Willard, in a Chemical Processing article, suggests several key titles for a good start to a reference library. He includes:

  • Schweitzer’s Handbook of Separation Techniques for Chemical Engineers
  • Sinnott and Towler’s Coulson and Richardson’s Chemical Engineering Design
  • Walas’ Chemical Process Equipment: Selection and Design
  • Kister’s series of books on distillation
  • Lieberman’s A Working Guide to Process Engineering
  • Kletz’s series of books on process safety

He has several other suggestions as well and proposes scanning useful information from equipment brochures into pdf format to access them on the move.

But, do you know what’s missing? An essential guide to Solid-Liquid Filtration. It’s something that has long been absent from the offerings to engineers. That’s why I recently published a Practical Guide covering the basic principles and mechanisms of filtration to help engineers make the right filtration choices.

Solid-Liquid Filtration considers filtration testing including filter aids and filter media, types of filtration systems, selection of filtration systems and typical operating and troubleshooting approaches. This guide is intended as a framework for process engineers analyzing filtration for an operating bottleneck issue or a new process development problem.

For those who want to experience it, rather than read the book, I’d encourage you to sign up for one of our BHS Filtration workshops.

What are some essential titles you’d suggest I put in my own library? Tell me in the comments below.