A baffling issue?

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By Mark Rosenzweig

Jim Repetti always enjoyed going to the Chem Show. After all, it gave him a chance to see some state-of-the-art hardware and software, and to evaluate offerings from vendors that he wasn't now using. And, by coming prepared with some tough questions, he felt that he could get a good sense of the technical depth and capabilities of some potential suppliers -- as well as, hopefully, some useful insights that he could quickly put to use at the plant.

But reconnoitering in the exhibit hall was only part of the value of the trip to Jim. He also found the show a great vehicle for linking up with other people from operating and engineering companies. Jim arranged a pretty full schedule of breakfasts, lunches and dinners, at which he could discuss the state of the industry, grapple with common problems, trade war stories and network.

One person he always tried to get-together with during the show was Eric Salmsone.

Jim and Eric had worked together at Behemoth Industries in Houston in the early 1990s. Jim had liked his job there but envisioned better career prospects at a smaller company. So, he left after a few years to join niche adhesives maker Tacky Technologies in Cleveland.

Eric, meanwhile, stayed at Behemoth until 2000. That was when management of the company decided that bigger wasn't necessarily better 
-- at least as far as engineering staffing. Since then, he has been working as a contract engineer in Houston. The work isn't bad, he told Jim, and is far more than just a paycheck. Eric noted that he has been involved in some interesting engineering work and has gained experience with a variety of equipment and types of plants.

For instance, one recent project at an agricultural chemicals plant involved a problem related to powder being fed into a continuously stirred tank reactor. Working with staff engineers there, he developed a clever and unusual modification of the shape and arrangement of some of the tank's baffles that solved the problem.

That problem, thought Jim, was remarkably similar to the trouble he was having in such a reactor for an adhesive intermediate.

So, Eric went into more details, and it seemed clear that the two problems concerned the same basic issues and that his solution probably would work for the adhesive intermediate. He described the modification. It was indeed clever -- and not something that Jim or many other engineers would have thought of in a million years. Jim thanked Eric profusely. This pleasant dinner alone had made his whole trip to the Chem Show worthwhile.

After Jim got back to Cleveland, however, he became less sure about modifying the baffling on the adhesive intermediate's reactor. It's not that he had second thoughts about the potential value of the changes. Rather, he was troubled by whether it would be right for him to use them. He called Eric to ask if the modifications were considered trade secrets or otherwise protected under the work contract. Eric wasn't sure and admitted he wouldn't feel comfortable contacting people at the agricultural chemicals plant to find out. Jim felt baffled as to what to do next.

Mark Rosenzweig is editor in chief of Chemical Processing magazine. E-mail him at mrosenzweig@putman.net.

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