Friday, 17 April 2015

What's New in Chemical Engineering?

I have finished my first couple of passes at Mecklenburgh's Process Plant Layout, and I have had to be strict with myself with respect to my inclination to leave in original text and offer comment on it in certain areas where there has been extensive change over the last thirty years, and others where there has been none. People will however not be buying the book for a history lesson, they just want to know how to lay plant out, so I will get this off my chest here.

I noted in my last post how much more significant HSE legislation had been as a driver of change in professional design practice that advances in computing, but now that I have the whole book straight in my head, I can see a bigger picture.

The most notable thing is the lack of change. Mecklenburgh was a bit of a futurist, and I have had to cut out a lot of his speculation about how things were going to change, mostly because his expected changes have not taken place. I still however commonly hear my academic colleagues telling me that these very same changes are just on the horizon, as they were in 1985.

Mecklenburgh's focus on plant layout seems to have been instrumental in him not imagining the largest change which did happen, which might be thought catastrophic from his point of view. He taught an entire module on Plant Layout at Nottingham, and this was common practice for years afterwards. I am not however aware of any UK university which now teaches a plant layout module. Research into and teaching of Plant Layout has not just changed over the last thirty years. It has more or less entirely disappeared, even though it is just as essential to practising engineers as ever.

Technology other that microelectronics has changed relatively little. Vacuum drum filters with filter aid don't see a lot of new installations nowadays, and the membrane filters which he does not mention at all are a lot more common, but almost all of the kit in the book is still the bread and butter of process plant design. We still design and lay it out in the same way.

It is amazing to me that the desktop computers of Mecklenburgh's time which must have had 6 Bit Intel 80286 processors could do all of the things which the latest 64 Bit 80663 processor can. The modern chip is just faster and has a larger memory - it's no smarter. None of the things which Mecklenburgh forecast computers would be able to do in future in the field of layout have happened, and the things they can do are are constrained by data entry requirements as ever.

Microelectronics have however done two things which Mecklenburgh did not see coming- broadly networking and PLC control, and the implications of these things.

There is no mention in the book of a software engineering discipline in 1985. Starters and controllers were field mounted, and the instrumentation and electrical "departments" were responsible for designing and programming control loops. Control panels were dumb monitoring stations.

A number of things have changed in the professional world since then (though many of these are not reflected in academic syllabuses) Motor control centres now contain smart starters and instruments, each having far more computing power than Mecklenburgh's desktop 286 PC, or even his room-filling "mainframe". These smart starters are controlled by even smarter industrial computers called PLCs.

There are very few design offices in client companies any more, for the reasons I will cover in the next section, let alone sub-departments with process, electrical and instrument design capability.

Far more profound has been the impact of networking in general, and the internet in particular. The most immediate impact has been that we can have a design office in India if we like, which we can contact as readily as one on the other side of the site, and pay staff Indian wages. Drawings can be sent back and forth, shared in multiple copies, edited and marked up in electronic format.

The second order effect of this networking has been a reduction of the cost of entering markets  which has meant that the only monolithic vertically and horizontally integrated companies nowadays are those trading in network goods. Ford doesn't make its own steel any more, and BP does not design its own plants, but Google and Facebook are huge. There are no departments any more, as there were in Mecklenburgh's day. Engineering companies specialize in their core business nowadays.

So structural changes in where engineering happens which originate in technology away from the discipline itself have been far more significant to professional design practice than any new technology within the discipline.

Though they love to try, academics are generally terrible at forecasting the future, as they are specialists. They can be relied upon to forecast that their narrow specialism will become the basis of the future of the discipline, if not the whole of human society. They never seem to imagine that their specialism will become irrelevant to practice or extinct in academia.

Academia is a sideline for me, so I'm not going to forecast how things will change. I have however noticed that engineering has changed far less than expected, and where it has, in ways which were not envisaged in Mecklenburgh's book.

The changes which have happened were driven by wider social forces, and this is how it should be. Engineers serve society - we don't tell society what to want as much as we make its dreams come true.

Similarly, it is the job of an engineering education to teach students how engineering is done. Academics will need to get a lot better at forecasting the future before they are in a position to teach what engineering is to become. As it has changed so little for the last thirty years, (and for many decades before that) our first approximation must be that the practice of the future will be in essence very like today's.

What is particularly sad is that so many in Chemical Engineering education are still claiming that the near future will match the predictions of Mecklenburgh's time, with computers doing engineers' jobs rather than just helping.

It is also commonplace in academia to ignore the changes which have happened since then, (as they do when they pretend that there is still no such thing as a software engineer, so chemical engineers will need to write their own control algorithms).

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